2017-18 Premier League DARTS, Week 20: Man United, Liverpool splits, calendar years and a Chelsea bromance

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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 …

It is amazing how quickly the anchor has moved. Or, if you prefer another figure of speech, how quickly the frame has shifted. For the first four months of the 2017-18 Premier League season, all analysis of Manchester United was framed by the title race. Suddenly, that analysis is boring.

But United and boring just don’t go together these days – and not just because Jose Mourinho is picking fights and ruing his club’s stinginess after matches. The narrative arc of United’s season has snowballed downhill. The Red Devils aren’t just out of the now-non-existent title race. They’ve entered a new contest. And they might not even be the favorites to win it.

Because while United was still hanging around on the fringes of the sprint to the top, before its results faltered, its performances did. So much so that some stats-based models see United as the sixth-best of the Big Six, and by a wide margin. FiveThirtyEight has the gap between No. 6 United and No. 5 Arsenal wider than the one between Arsenal and No. 2 Liverpool.

Now that results have slipped too, reality has hit hard. As a busy Boxing Day petered out, United found itself just six points above fifth place. And the direction in which it is heading is pretty clear. That’s not an overreaction to one game. It’s the reaction to weeks and months of games that Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Burnley allows us to bright to light.

1. United was fine, but has been just fine, and that’s the problem

OK, if you came here for either a hit piece or schadenfreude, brace yourself … Manchester United wasn’t that bad on Tuesday.

Given that it trailed Burnley for almost 90 minutes, it was surprisingly decent. Expected Goals-wise, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have bettered United’s chance creation against the Clarets this season. On a second viewing, the eye test backs up that conclusion. A misplaced pass here and a loose touch there hindered the Red Devils going forward, but their movement was problematic for the visitors. They played well enough to win the game.

The reason alarm bells are ringing is that United had toyed with results like this for a while. It had flirted with disappointment in 1-0 wins over Brighton and Bournemouth. It had been less than stellar against West Brom, and distressingly vulnerable against Arsenal. When you accumulate mediocre performances, a few are bound to translate to dropped points, even if “played well enough to win” could be applied to every single game.

When you accumulate mediocre performances, you increase the odds that a defensive mistake or world-class free kick could prove costly. That’s exactly what Man Untied did, and exactly what it fell victim to on Tuesday.

Romelu Lukaku (right) an Paul Pogba walk off the Old Trafford field after Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Burnley. (Getty)
Romelu Lukaku (right) an Paul Pogba walk off the Old Trafford field after Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Burnley. (Getty)

2. Romelu Lukaku, and two very different heading techniques

Lukaku is a striker. As one of the biggest players on the pitch, he will always be asked to defend free kicks. But any manager that sticks his striker in his own penalty box runs a very specific, inherent risk: that the striker will revert to his attacking header technique when the situation calls for something very, very different.

That’s what Lukaku appeared to do on Tuesday. Or at least he got caught in between. Attackers are taught to get over the ball and head it down. Defenders, on the other hand, are taught to concentrate on height and distance. Watch where Lukaku directs his:

3. United was unbalanced, but not in a bad way

Take a peek at United’s shot map, and you’ll notice something peculiar: Mourinho’s side took 14 or 15 shots from wide of the left-hand post. It took one, at most, from wide of the right-hand post.

That’s not a problem. It’s merely a function of United’s personnel, and the way certain players interact with one another on the field. Mourinho started a proper winger, Marcus Rashford, on the left, but a faux winger, Juan Mata, on the right. Mata is most effective when he drifts inside, or even all the way across the field to the left, and that’s when United was most effective too. The Spaniard’s ability to find space centrally was the source of several United chances.

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

In fact, the only real problem was that there wasn’t quite enough of this.

4. United, and the fears that have become reality

Back in August and September, with United off to a roaring start, one of the main reasons I and others urged restraint was that United is built to play with a lead; and through two months, that’s almost all it had to do. It had nicked opening goals on set-pieces or worldies, and its defend-and-counter identity had it rolling.

Sure enough, though, once early-goal luck appeared in opponents’ dressing rooms, United began to falter. It is 12-0-0 when it scores the first goal of a match. It is just 1-3-3 when an opponent does.

That’s not necessarily unexpected – Chelsea, a team with a similar identity, boasts a very similar record. But others, like Arsenal and Liverpool, are slightly worse with a lead and better without it. The disparity in United’s records is toward the extreme.

5. Liverpool, and its evolving opponent splits

Five calamitous minutes at the Emirates notwithstanding, Liverpool is on fire right now. It smashed Swansea 5-0 on Tuesday, the latest in a growing line of comprehensive victories against the bottom half of the league.

The Reds have now won nine, drawn five and lost zero against non-Big Six foes. And that’s significant, because non-Big Six foes used to be their kryptonite. Back in 2015-16, they took just 1.64 points per game against the Other 14. Last year, they improved to 2.0 per, but qualified for the Champions League on the back of their excellent form against the Big Six. So far this year, they’ve dropped points against each of their Big Six brethren, but have made up for that with 2.29 points per match against the rest. In their last nine such fixtures, they’ve scored 28 goals and conceded three.

If Liverpool can sustain that form over its remaining 14 games against teams 7-20, it’ll put itself in outstanding shape for a top-four finish.

6. Harry Kane, and calendar year records

This actually isn’t about Harry Kane. It’s about you, the curmudgeon who doesn’t want to acknowledge Kane’s greatness.

With a hat trick on Tuesday, Kane set two goalscoring marks: He broke Alan Shearer’s record for Premier League goals in a calendar year, and eclipsed Lionel Messi for most all-competition goals in 2017. He also ignited a lot of fussing. *Extremely snotty voice* Why do we even track goals in calendar years, people have whined even since Kane tied Shearer’s record on Saturday. These are arbitrary endpoints.

Well, Mr. Scrooge, first of all, I can tell you this: You, the person complaining about people discussing or caring about calendar year records, are far more annoying than the people doing the discussing and caring. And second of all, I’ll answer the question.

The New Year is simply the second-most apt and convenient endpoint for year-long statistics – second to full European seasons. It’s a natural halfway cutoff to measure performance over the second half of one season and the first half of another. It is not biased to the European calendar. And with international matches during club offseasons, the traditional season windows for records are somewhat arbitrary anyway.

Calendar year records are therefore a useful, harmless way to gauge players in relation to one another. Whenever they’re tabulated, they’re the most recent 12-month period we have. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using them to help quantify Harry Kane’s – or anybody else’s – brilliance.

7. The Morata-Azpilicueta on-field bromance

Chelsea’s win over Brighton on Tuesday came via a deep Cesar Azplicueta cross and an Alvaro Morata header. Which, now that you think, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Sure does. Looks familiar, too…

Out of nowhere, Azpilicueta-to-Morata has emerged as the Premier League’s top assist-to-goalscorer combo. The Spanish Connection has accounted for six (or Morata’s 10) goals this season, two more than any other duo.

8. Bournemouth-West Ham, the #funbad game of the year

Bournemouth-West Ham was eventful, and not in a good way.

Or, on second thought, maybe in the best of ways.

In part thanks to driving rain and winds, it was insane. The highlight was Asmir Begovic’s late Christmas gift to Marko Arnautovic:

Another scrappy Arnautovic goal gave West Ham a 3-2 lead. Then things got controversial.

9. Bournemouth-West Ham, the case for VAR

Nathan Ake – er, Callum Wilson? – equalized late with a goal that was initially ruled out for offside. Replays showed the assistant referee correctly raised his flag. But after a discussion between center ref and assistant, the goal was allowed.

Replays also showed the ball flicked in off Wilson’s upper arm. Either way, it’s yet another case that VAR could solve, and yet another excuse to blast the Premier League for being hesitant to install video review. Italy and Germany already have it. Spain is getting it next year. It is expected to arrive in England in 2018 or 2019, but no announcement has made that official.

Fans love to complain about VAR, but the pros far outweigh the cons, many of which are vague and simply based on resisting change. Bournemouth offered a perfect example of its benefits. Referee Bobby Madley was in no position to see whether the ball touched Wilson, and if so, which part of his body it touched. The assistant referee, especially in the nasty weather, was too far away. The two refs had to delay the game for 80 seconds anyway to talk the decision over. And they got it wrong.

VAR is about getting decisions right. In the end, that’s what should matter. It’s not perfect, but undoubtedly improves accuracy. It gives a referee more information to work with, and more time to consider it. West Ham fans and players are fuming about what happened in stoppage time at the Vitality Stadium on Tuesday. Their fury is far more important than the petty complaints of fans watching on TV. VAR is coming, and it’s absurd that the Premier League has been slow to latch on.

Previous DARTS: Week 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 15 | 16 | 18 | 19

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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