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 …
A very brief intro this week, in fact. Because all we need to launch into the weekend’s most compelling discussion are 18 seconds. Eighteen of the most embarrassing and symbolic seconds of the Premier League season.
Eighteen seconds that became the catalyst for wide-ranging critiques and heated debates that tied together everything from tactical nuance to psychology to football ideology.
At the center of them was Antonio Conte, not the only underperforming manager verbally bombarded by fans and pundits after a loss this past weekend, and not the only Premier League title winner bound for an exit door. But his failures are fresh. And the merit of the thinking behind them is more debatable. So we’ll start with him.
1. Conte, and the moral obligation to attack
Conte, to be clear, has no obligation to play a certain style of soccer. That he and other managers do is the falsehood behind the often mistaken, overly simplistic attribution of losses to defensive approaches, and the semi-ridiculous branding of accomplishments obtained via those approaches as undeserved. There is nothing more wholesome about an attack-minded philosophy; nothing easier or cheaper about a 1-0 win. Yes, sport is entertainment, but “entertaining” is a subjective word, and managers needn’t answer to one person’s view of it.
That’s why significant portions of the Conte criticism miss the mark. They’re also heavily influenced by the result. Had Marcos Alonso been in position to clear David Silva’s cross, Chelsea would have been praised for doing what no team had done since August: get a point at the Etihad. And if Conte’s striker-less front three had connected like they had against Barcelona in the Champions League, his decision to leave Alvaro Morata on the bench would be a non-issue. Had they nicked a goal or two, the Italian would have been lauded.
The question with regards to Conte, then, isn’t whether his egregiously cautious gameplan was moral; it’s whether that plan was point-maximizing. The question is whether that plan gave Chelsea the best shot at one point or three.
2. Conte, and the best way to beat City
You won’t arrive at the answer with generalized opinions on the best way to counter Manchester City, nor with comparisons to other opponents that have stifled the Citizens. As we discussed after the Liverpool game, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The optimal approach depends on personnel and drilled-home tendencies. Liverpool could disrupt City with a high press because it had world-class players specifically recruited to do just that, and trained all season to do just that.
The question, therefore, becomes: Does Conte have that?
3. Conte sans Kante
Whether he does or doesn’t have an entire squad of those players, it’s important to point out he didn’t have his most important one on Sunday. N’Golo Kante would have been the first name on the team sheet, and is the player around whom all of Chelsea’s pressing – and really its entire system – is structured. He also likely was the centerpiece of Conte’s gameplan throughout the week.
Then he fainted after training on Friday. As of Saturday night, he was cleared to play, but felt unwell Sunday morning.
Suddenly, Conte was without that centerpiece. He had to scramble to devise a scheme to combat the most prolific attack the Premier League has ever seen. He didn’t have a single minute of training to implement it. And we’re blaming him for not being more aggressive? Doesn’t that seem a bit absurd? How many managers would have been capable of getting a result under those circumstances?
Seriously, how many? I’ll wait.
4. Conte, and the context of his caution
Ah, but it’s deeper than that. Context is necessary. The tiresome line coming from the mouth of the Chelsea boss all season has been that his squad – the third-most expensive in the Premier League – isn’t good enough. His answer to the question at the end of item No. 2 above would be a resounding “no.” He has essentially, indirectly, been telling his players that they are inadequate, and he did so again two days before the trip to the Etihad. “I have great ambition, but I don’t have money to spend [at] Chelsea,” he said at his Friday news conference.
Some fans and club brass alike, however, would argue that Conte’s squad is sufficient. And therein lies the problem.
Conte, it seems, in his awkwardly public battle with Chelsea higher-ups, has almost inadvertently convinced himself that his players are inadequate – that they’re worse than they actually are. It’s difficult to not see that as a source of Conte’s tactical timidity and refusal to confront City on Sunday. Conte can justify the bunkering with, well my players aren’t good enough, and the logic there holds up. But the reasoning doesn’t, because many people don’t agree with his assessment of his players.
5. Conte, and his psychological mismanagement
And you have to think that those assessments – repeated, and public – have had an effect on those players. How could it not wear on them? How could constant belittlement by an authority figure not be aggravating?
The issue with Chelsea’s performance wasn’t so much the approach as it was the response. Those 18 seconds that spawned so much of this were from the 75th minute, with Chelsea down a goal. That’s unconscionable.
The only explanation is that the players were demoralized. That Conte’s “poor me, my club doesn’t spend enough” shtick combined with City’s merciless superiority had sucked the life out of them. That they, too, were frustrated by Conte’s negative gameplan. “I had the feeling that I’d ran, but that I hadn’t played a game of football,” Eden Hazard said after the match. “That’s a pity.” It’s difficult to not read that as a veiled jab at the boss himself.
6. Manchester Derby comparisons
Still, the Liverpool comparison doesn’t hold up. And the question – did Conte have the personnel to go at City? – doesn’t really have a conclusive answer. But there is one reasonable comparison: the Manchester Derby.
United, if you’ll remember, was similarly chastised for its lack of adventure. That, of course, was the day Park the Bus, Park the Bus, Man United became a hit. But over the final half-hour, the Red Devils came out of their shell and had a real go at the league leaders. Only Ederson’s face kept the score at 2-1. The resultant Expected Goals map looked like this:
xG map for the Manchester Derby. I only saw the second half, but it was fantastic. Easily coulda had a couple more goals. pic.twitter.com/wZ57wxtcKF
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) December 10, 2017
Contrast that with Sunday’s:
xG map for Man City – Chelsea. Play for the draw and come up with a loss. Not a lot in that Chelsea performance. pic.twitter.com/jZkdMP6nWv
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 4, 2018
The margins were similar. But the variance induced by United, and therefore the potential for not just one point but three, was significantly higher. Conte gave his team almost no chance to win, and even at 1-0 seemed content with damage control. That’s not how you qualify for the Champions League. That’s what was so infuriating.
7. Arsene Wenger. Arsenal. Yuck.
Speaking of infuriating … Arsenal. Ugh. It’s not even humorous for neutrals anymore. It’s no longer laughable that Arsene Wenger is still in charge. It’s just tiresome.
Remember when, just last week, we wrote that Wenger “probably should” rest regulars in Premier League games against Man City and Brighton to focus on the Europa League, “but his stubbornness might not let him”? Well, that’s exactly what happened.
Seven of the 11 players who will surely start against AC Milan in the round of 16 on Thursday played 180 minutes in a span of four days, and an eighth player logged 173. Their grueling work yielded zero points. A 2-1 loss to Brighton on Sunday left Arsenal 13 points behind Tottenham in fourth place.
“It is very difficult, nearly impossible now,” to finish in the top four, Wenger admitted afterward. “We are too far behind. We have to be realistic. We need two teams to collapse and I don’t see that happening. We have to give our best for as long as we can and the Europa League becomes important.”
WELL THEN WHY DIDN’T YOU REST PLAYERS FOR THURSDAY, ARSENE? WHY DIDN’T YOU TREAT THE EUROPA LEAGUE WITH THE IMPORTANCE IT MERITS?
Hindsight is 20/20, yeah, I know, blah blah blah. Sure, perhaps it wasn’t “nearly impossible” to nab fourth place before the Brighton defeat. But it was pretty darn close.
This, in so many ways, is classic Wenger, only now seeing what most rationale beings saw weeks ago. His downfall has been defined by an inability to recognize his own faults and those of his team. Perhaps it will be fitting, then, if fatigued Gunners lay an egg in Milan, and if one last futile run at that Champions League qualification “trophy” ends in part due to such predictable and exasperating mismanagement.
Joining Conte and Wenger in search of new jobs just might be Sam Allardyce. He was showered with explicit abuse and “sacked in the morning” chants during a 2-1 loss at Burnley. He’s taken seven points from his last nine Premier League games at Everton, nine from his last 11, and is probably fortunate the haul hasn’t been worse.
His Toffees rank last or near-last in the league in all chance-creation metrics since his appointment, and only a few fluky results are keeping the 10th-most expensive team in the world out of the relegation zone.
This isn’t Big Sam’s fault. It’s the fault of those who engineered a disastrous summer transfer window that left a jumbled, overpaid squad for the 63-year-old to work with. But that doesn’t mean Everton shouldn’t part ways with Allardyce at season’s end. It has lucked into safety. June and July will be the time to start anew, begin to rectify last summer’s mistakes, and build something coherent.
9. Handicapping the Golden Boot race
We’d be remiss if we concluded this week’s column without mentioning Mo Salah. Frankly, we haven’t written about him anywhere near enough. He drew level with Harry Kane on 24 Premier League goals in a 2-0 victory over Newcastle. So what do you way we handicap the Golden Boot race?
Sergio Aguero is three back on 21. Since he’s more likely to be rested over the next two months, we’ll give him a 9.9 percent chance. We’ll give the field – excluding Kane and Salah – a 0.1 percent chance. As for the two frontrunners, there’s really no separating them. Both are undroppable. Their remaining fixture lists are comparable. Bookies give Kane the slight edge, and we will too, because Liverpool seems more likely to 1. clinch a top-four place with time to spare, and 2. make a deep run in Europe. But on the field, the two continue to match each other’s excellence.
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