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 …
There is no better anthem in British football. And on Monday night, it rang out around the Liberty Stadium like it rarely has this season.
It was the soundtrack to a special Swansea victory. Not exactly a special performance. But a massive result, the kind that can ultimately swing a relegation battle. Not many of the bottom 11 will take a point off Liverpool this season. Going into Monday, only three had. And none had beaten the Reds. Swansea became the first non-top-six side to do just that.
And in doing so, it sent the Premier League into its brief FA Cup break with one of the most busy, hypnotizing relegation pictures it has seen in years.
Eleven teams – ELEVEN – lie within six points of one another. You could realistically argue that not a single one of the 11 has a greater than 50 percent chance of going down; but that all 11 have at least a 10 percent chance. FiveThirtyEight would dispute both those claims, but only barely.
Every matchweek, therefore, until further notice, will feature at least one relegation six-pointer. The next round of fixtures features three. The following offers up four.
The top-four race will still merit and garner the majority of our attention over the next four months, but this week, we turn our attention to the league’s ever so messy basement.
Mostly. Not entirely.
Because we’ve got moody, capricious Liverpool to discuss first.
1. Virgil van Dijk’s series of unfortunate events
Liverpool should have beaten Swansea. Frankly, it played well enough to beat Swansea. But the game turned on one late-first-half sequence that featured not one, not two, not three, not four, but five mistakes from $100 million man Virgil van Dijk.
OK, “mistake” is a bit harsh. And to be clear, we are in no way blaming van Dijk for the loss, nor suggesting he’ll be a bust. But he had five opportunities to prevent Swansea’s goal, and he passed on all five.
First, he wasn’t tight enough to Jordan Ayew, and allowed Ayew to receive a long-ish ball, control it, and maintain possession for Swansea:
Then he switched off, took a few sulky steps back toward his position, and freed up Ayew to receive another pass. This allowed Swansea to cycle the ball back to its defense, and then across the field.
Half a minute later, Swansea had pinged the ball all over the park. It had made its way to an advancing Martin Olsson on the left. Olsson’s cross was fizzed toward van Dijk, who sliced his clearance behind for a corner.
He then sliced another clearance behind for a corner. And on the second one, he timidly leaned into a defensive header and didn’t get anywhere near proper contact.
Not atrocious, but, uh, not great!
2. The Jurgen Klopp Experience
A loss to the worst team in the league one week after a win over the runaway leaders is some dark, sadistic Jurgen Klopp poetry. But this isn’t just some inexplicable Liverpool hoodoo; there are footballing reasons why the two performances provided such a stark contrast, and why Liverpool’s performance so often fluctuates.
Klopp played the exact same front six as he had eight days earlier, in the exact same shape. But it’s almost as if the two contests were entirely separate sports. Players’ on-field tasks were completely different. The revamped midfield three looked outstanding as a regimented unit with specific, defined jobs against City. That gameplan, though, was unique. Their brilliance in those roles was in no way predictive of performance in a game like Monday’s.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum are the perfect case studies. Fans often wonder why Wijnaldum stars against stronger competition but wilts against lesser foes. The answer is tactical. He and Ox can charge forward to close down an opposing midfielder, or to win a 50-50 ball, or to join a counterattack. But they’re not going to find space between the lines and slice open a defense. That’s just not who they are. Ox flubbed one of his few chances to do so because his brain and feet simply weren’t quick enough:
This is where Coutinho’s absence is most acutely felt. Liverpool’s problem wasn’t, and isn’t going to be, the pass that breaks the lines. Joel Matip can provide that, and did provide plenty of them on Monday. The problem, without Coutinho, is what happens next. It’s beating the final line. It’s executing in tight spaces. That’s where Coutinho was so good, and it’s where Liverpool will miss him.
3. Carlos Carvalhal, managing by Formula One analogy
Credit to Swansea, though, for making those spaces as tight as they were. Very few Liverpool players ever had time on the ball within a few touches of the penalty box.
And credit to manager Carlos Carvalhal for getting his message across to his players with an excellent metaphor. “Liverpool are a top team, but they are a Formula One [car],” he explained. “If you put a Formula One in London traffic at 4 o’clock, the Forumla One will not run very fast.”
4. Southampton into the bottom three
Swansea was extremely unadventurous, especially after going in front. The other team to nick at least one point off a Big Six team provided a stark contrast. Southampton drew Tottenham 1-1, and, especially early in the first half, streamed forward in numbers. It played Spurs evenly. It was impressive. It passed the eye test, like it often does.
And yet the Saints slipped into the relegation zone by way of other results. They’ve somehow won just four games, second-fewest in the league. Underlying numbers back up the eye test, but Southampton hasn’t exactly perfected the art of grinding out results.
Playing decent soccer is good, and will continue to be good; it should see Southampton to safety by April. But attacking fullbacks and balanced xG maps don’t mean [insert four-letter word here] compared to a gritty 1-0. And squeaky-bum time is drawing surprisingly near.
5. “Allardyce: Everton cannot play Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson together”
That was a Guardian headline after Everton’s 1-1 draw with West Brom. One of the two bullet points in the summary deck: “’They are very talented but covering ground is not their strength.’”
Finally! An Everton manager has realized what every rational fan realized six months ago!
[Davy Klaassen pokes his head out from a storage box in an adjacent room] “Hey, what about me, boss?”
6. Watford sacks Silva, blames … Everton?
Back in November, it was difficult to see why anyone would have wanted the Everton job. Perhaps we now see why Marco Silva wanted it. The Portuguese boss, who two months ago was one of the most coveted managers in Europe, was sacked by Watford less than 24 hours after a 2-0 defeat at Leicester. Watford, ironically, blamed his flirtations with Everton for the team’s tailspin.
It was an absurd decision from Watford, and cruel on a man whose recent run – just one win in 11 – was only as poor as his season-opening run had been sparkling. Silva should be employed again soon. As for the Hornets?
7. Power ranking the bottom 11
They should be safe. But who the heck knows? Of the bottom 11, Crystal Palace seems like the only relatively safe bet.
So how, regardless of league position, would we power rank those 11, from 10 through 20? Let’s give it a shot – and to be clear, this is not a table projection; that’s below.
10. Crystal Palace
11. West Ham
14. Stoke City
15. West Brom
8. Another projected table recalibration
Now for our fifth set of modified predictions this season. As always, the number in parentheses is the difference between preseason predictions and the current ones.
1. Manchester City (-)
2. Manchester United (-)
3. Chelsea (+1)
4. Liverpool (+1)
5. Tottenham (-2)
6. Arsenal (-)
7. Leicester City (+5)
8. Everton (-)
9. Burnley (+10)
10. Crystal Palace (-)
11. West Ham (-2)
12. Watford (+4)
13. Southampton (-6)
14. Bournemouth (+1)
15. Stoke City (-4)
16. Newcastle (-3)
17. Brighton (-)
18. West Brom (-4)
19. Huddersfield Town (+1)
20. Swansea City (-2)
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