Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
Brighton. Bournemouth. Liverpool. Watford. Crystal Palace. Chelsea. Stoke. Burnley. West Brom. Arsenal. Leicester. Huddersfield. Southampton. West Ham. And now Manchester United.
The list of Manchester City’s victims keeps growing. And so does its lead atop the Premier League.
You have surely heard the stats, but here they are again. City has won 14 games on the trot, a single-season English top-flight record. It has equaled Arsenal’s mark across multiple seasons, and can break it with victory at lowly Swansea City on Wednesday.
Three points in Wales would leave only Tottenham, Everton and Newcastle unharmed by City’s brilliance. They would extend the best start to an English top-flight season to 49 points out of a possible 51. They would continue to stretch the limits of belief.
But the pressing question need not wait. It does not require a win over Swansea. All it needed was City’s 2-1 win over United on Sunday to reach the tips of tongues around the world – and to become the lead for Premier League DARTS, week 16 …
1. Is the title race over?
FiveThirtyEight now gives Manchester City a 91 percent chance to win the 2017-18 Premier League title, a number that could hardly be any higher on Dec. 11. Not only has City’s success been unparalleled; all five potential challengers have gnawed away at one another. Each has won at least one intra-top-six matchup. Each has dropped at least four points in those matchups, and as many as nine. That’s how the 11-point lead has developed.
The reason the 91 percent isn’t higher is the perceived strength of those challengers. Bayern Munich and PSG are 98-percent favorites in their respective leagues despite slimmer point margins. Any City doubt stems from the possibility of a second-half run like Tottenham’s a year ago. The problem is that none of the challengers appear ready to put one together.
2. Only two of the top six won this weekend …
We can debate the merits of the five teams, and the likelihood that each puts together a prolonged, City-esque winning streak. But beyond United, at this point, the discussion is futile. FiveThirtyEight projects City to finish with 96 points. Let’s say City misses that mark, and only gets to 90 – only pulls 2.0 points per game the rest of the season. For third-place Chelsea to win the league in that scenario, it would have to take at least 2.64 points per game – also known as at least 19 wins, 2 draws and a loss from its final 22 games.
If City hits its 96-point projection, Chelsea would have to win out. So, uh, yeah … not happening.
Oh, and by the way, City might exceed that target. It’s pretty darn good.
3. City’s midfield interchanges and overloads
It’s both easy and natural to criticize Jose Mourinho and Manchester United for 45 minutes of football at Old Trafford with 25 percent possession. It’s simple to say they parked the bus in Sunday’s first half. And to an extent, it’s fair. But on the other hand, what else were they supposed to do?
They did attempt to play on the break every now and then. They weren’t completely pinned back. The real issue, especially over the latter two thirds of the first half, was the space which City’s midfielders had available to them. That was one of the more surprising aspects of the half. And it was most certainly Guardiola’s doing.
City’s front five were even more fluid than usual. Leroy Sane spent much of the afternoon attacking from the right touchline, but Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne popped up in different areas and alignments. Here are just a few:
The interchanges between Sterling and Jesus were particularly intriguing. Sterling spent much of the first half as a central winger, with Jesus sometimes drifting wide left. Sterling’s movement and presence haunted United. It gave City a 4-v-3 in the center of the park – Fernandinho, De Bruyne, Silva and Sterling vs. Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera. United’s center backs were hesitant to step, wary of getting pulled out of position, but that allowed Sterling to tug on the two defensive midfielders and City to find relatively simple routes around them.
In the GIF below, watch how Herrera sticks to Sterling. Then watch how, right when Marcus Rashford passes off De Bruyne to Matic on the United left, Silva becomes free. And how that provokes a rotation, leaving Herrera and Matic outnumbered:
One of the many reasons the Citizens won’t be caught at the top of the table is their flexibility. Guardiola has seemingly settled on a first-choice 11, but those 11 can throw so many different looks at opponents. And they’re so talented as individuals. They’re therefore going to be very difficult to beat.
4. Big Six problems: Chelsea and Cesc
Back in August and September, we dedicated multiple chunks of early DARTS columns to Cesc Fabregas, and to his utility against the bottom half of the league. Saturday’s game at West Ham, in that sense, should have been tailor-made for him. And in a way, it was. It was begging for a deep-lying playmaker to dictate play and pick progressive passes. But it didn’t have one – despite Fabregas being on the pitch.
Fabregas played in a midfield three with N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, but, strangely, not as the pivot. Until Antonio Conte went to a 3-4-3 after halftime, Kante sat in the hole with Fabregas and Bakayoko in front of him. Kante’s holding role is likely a counterattack-prevention mechanism, but with Chelsea behind inside six minutes, Conte was far too slow to adjust. He spent 40 minutes with Kante on the ball instead of Fabregas. The Blues eventually manufactured enough so-so chances to deserve a point, but they didn’t get it. And with City the pace-setter, a point wouldn’t have been all that useful anyway.
5. Big Six problems: Arsenal and Per
Per Mertesacker’s first 10 minutes at St. Mary’s were very, very hard on the eye. And that’s a shame, because Mertesacker is a great human being, and was, once upon a time, a top international center back. At 33, he no longer is, and the Gunners are a tad fortunate he didn’t cost them more than he did.
He was clearly at fault on Charlie Austin’s goal. As he stumbled to his knees trailing Dusan Tadic, he looked like a man whose footballing brain hadn’t quite come to terms with his physical capabilities.
Two minutes later, he could have been at fault on a second goal. He was caught in no-man’s land, in between stepping to Tadic and tracking Austin’s run. (He should have done the latter; Monreal went with Tadic.)
Mertesacker has been kept out of Arsene Wenger’s back three by Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal and Shkodran Mustafi, and when Mustafi returns from injury, Mertesacker will return to his reserve role. But if injuries reemerge, the German’s performance on Sunday will surely give Wenger something to think about the next time he considers a replacement along his back line.
6. Big Six problems: Liverpool and luck
There’s a silly postgame narrative that’s been forged on Merseyside that Sam Allardyce’s Everton frustrated Liverpool – that the Toffees deserved their point. Frankly, it’s nonsense.
xG map for the Merseyside Derby.
Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is I cut my little finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die." pic.twitter.com/vbYOAsp525
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) December 10, 2017
Also falling into the category of nonsense are any thoughts that this was a correct decision:
Postgame manager rants are often misguided. Jurgen Klopp’s on the penalty was anything but. He’s actually spot on:
Wow! You've got to watch Jurgen Klopp's FURIOUS post match interview from this afternoon!
Safe to say he did NOT think that was a penalty! pic.twitter.com/v2O55bbnQN
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) December 10, 2017
It’s not a foul if a player puts his hands on an opponent’s back. There has to be a pronounced push. And there certainly has to be one in the penalty area. Perhaps we’re all predisposed to lambaste Dejan Lovren, but he is not at fault here. The referee is.
7. Mailbag – on Tottenham
Our mailbag question this week comes from Nicholas Martin (@nicholaslmartin), and it’s a simple one: Do Spurs have it in them to push for a top 4 finish?
Absolutely they do. In fact, I might still consider them the favorites for fourth.
The three-game Premier League winless run that makes this – and not “are Spurs the biggest threat to City?” – the question was heavily influenced by randomness. In picking up two points from three games against West Brom, Leicester and Watford – the latter two are tough fixtures – Tottenham out-created its opponents by an Expected Goals margin of 5.0-1.7 (per Michael Caley). It very easily could have won all three, and, had it done so, would be level on points with Man United right now. The workload concerns are very real, but my advice would be to have faith in Mauricio Pochettino.
8. Jose Mourinho is insufferable
Mourinho spent the buildup to Saturday’s game priming referees by essentially prematurely accusing Man City players of diving. He spent his post-match news conference whining some more, and fashioning invalid complaints. He called a correct refereeing decision a “mistake.” He called goals “disgraceful.” He claimed City were “protected by luck” – after his own side had received a massive helping of it eight days earlier at the Emirates.
Listen, I get it. I understand the mind games. Every manager who laments supposed referee vendettas against his or her team is simply implanting the possibility in a ref’s mind, and hoping a desire to prove there’s no vendetta leads to a favorable call or two the following weekend. But Mourinho and Wenger are particularly insufferable. They’re disrespectful. Which, in Mourinho’s case, is quite ironic …
It would be irresponsible to take a side without full knowledge of what exactly happened, and in what order, outside the visiting locker room at Old Trafford on Sunday evening. But some facts are clear. And they reek of Mourinho behaving like a 7-year-old.
He was reportedly unhappy with City’s particularly jubilant celebrations. But given all Mourinho’s talk, and the history, and passion of the derby, the Citizens had every right to be boisterous. Mourinho and his defeated players had every responsibility to let them have their fun. If the “act like you’ve been there before” line applies to anybody, it applies to the United boss, not City’s players. Whether that merits a milk carton to the head is another story. But Mourinho is almost certainly not blameless. And he’s done nothing over the past few years to deserve the benefit of the doubt.
10. Guardiola, meanwhile, is as lovable as ever
He’s almost like a caricature of a 7-year-old’s father. As if we needed more reason to enjoy him, he gave us this lovely touchline moment with Eliaquim Mangala:
Pep snatching Mangala’s hat as he goes to warm up is amazing pic.twitter.com/WaNff1GBFf
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) December 10, 2017
He then sent the oft-criticized Mangala on for the final 30 minutes. The French defender helped City hold out for three points. And hey, you never know … had the beanie stayed on for warmups, the story of Sunday might have been different – the title race might still be on.
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