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 was billed as the Premier League’s version of a track meet, as a basketball game, as arguably the most enticing fixture of the season, and rightly so. Manchester City vs. Liverpool was supposed to be great, because it has been great. Was great in 2014, and in 2015, and 2016. Should have been great Saturday.
But Manchester City vs. Liverpool wasn’t great Saturday. For 35 minutes, it was relatively pedestrian. On 37 minutes, it was ruined.
The ruins were historic. Five-nil hadn’t happened to Liverpool since 1958, and not in the first division since 1946, because 5-0 doesn’t happen to a club like Liverpool. But it did. It was heavier than what some called the worst Arsenal defeat they had ever seen two weeks ago. It was, on paper, shocking.
It was also fake.
OK, that’s hyperbole. Just keeping you on your toes. Making sure you’re not dozing off on a dreary Monday.
City 5, Liverpool 0 was real. It sent City to the top of the league. But it was not something to put any stock into going forward. Not anything for Liverpool fans to worry about. Not in any way a true reflection of the gap between the teams.
Sadio Mane’s late first-half red card changed the game, and precluded any rational conclusions about City’s dominance or Liverpool’s (in)ability to challenge for a Premier League title. Playing 10-v-11 is difficult; playing 10-v-11 against Pep Guardiola’s City is next to impossible because of how well the Citizens move and keep the ball.
So it’s unwise to dissect the game from either team’s perspective. And certainly not from Liverpool’s.
But there are 37 minutes of 11-v-11 to look back on. And in them, there’s a goal that hinted at the answer to speculative questions coming from the blue half of Manchester.
1. City’s opener, and the value of a strike partnership
The questions had been floating around the Etihad since the start of the campaign, and perhaps since last winter: Can Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus co-exist in a front two?
Both are in their comfort zones leading the line, and neither belongs on the bench. But Guardiola’s inclination throughout his managerial career has been to opt for one true striker up top. He played the two alongside each other on Matchdays 1 and 2 with less than convincing results, then dropped Aguero to the bench for an away trip to Bournemouth. The Spaniard seemingly hasn’t settled on a first-choice 11, probably because even he doesn’t quite know what his optimal 11 is.
But he got a clue Saturday. And no, it wasn’t City’s third goal, when Aguero assisted on Jesus’ second. In fact, it didn’t even require Jesus to touch the ball.
Fernandinho’s win of the aerial ball was savvy. Kevin De Bruyne’s pass was sumptuous. Aguero’s movement was excellent. But watch Liverpool center back Ragnar Klavan. His initial reaction was to track Aguero’s run. For a split second, though, he hesitated, because he was aware of Jesus over his left shoulder.
That’s the value of a strike partnership. It puts pressure on defenders to make more complex decisions. And it’s especially valuable when both the strikers are threats to run in behind, and when multiple midfielders can sneak crisp passes through small slits in a back line. City’s front four – Aguero, Jesus, De Bruyne and David Silva – is scary.
2. Mane’s red was controversial, but not disputable
Aguero’s opener was the game-winner, but Mane’s lunge was the game-ender. And to be clear, it was absolutely the correct decision. It was controversial by definition, because it provoked public disagreement. But controversial and disputable are two different things. This was indisputable.
In fact, it’s as if the rulebook was written specifically to penalize Mane’s challenge with a red. One of the seven categories of offenses for which a player can be sent off is “serious foul play,” which is defined by IFAB as follows:
A tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality must be sanctioned as serious foul play.
Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force or endangers the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play.
It is irrelevant that Mane’s intent was to play the ball. Red card. End of story.
3. Eric Bailly’s mistake, and his otherwise outstanding start
Manchester United’s Eric Bailly has been one of the best center backs in the Premier League through four weeks. It’s admittedly an odd time to make that argument, though, after Bailly was at fault on one of Stoke City’s two goals Saturday:
The goal was actually emblematic of Bailly’s main shortcoming, and the one thing standing between him and elite center back consideration. His awareness is somewhat flaky. His positioning was unnecessarily deep on the initial cross-field ball, and his inability to sense Eric Choupo-Moting’s sprint behind him was costly. Rio Ferdinand called it “terrible defending,” and he was right. It was.
But it was also an early season exception to Bailly’s self-enforced rule. More often than not, he makes up for blips in concentration or know-how with sheer pace and freakish athleticism. That’s exactly what he did after a mistimed attempt to play Choupo-Moting offside less than a minute in.
The Ivorian is also comfortable advancing and distributing the ball. This pass to Marcus Rashford might as well have come from a world-class deep-lying playmaker:
Center backs with Bailly’s combination of physical prowess and ball-playing ability are incredibly rare. He turns fifty-fifty balls into seventy-thirties and wins so many individual duels. He was culpable as United dropped its first points of the season, but over 360 minutes this season, his play has been very promising.
4. Ronald Koeman and Everton look lost
Any Everton take must be prefaced with a note about the club’s early season fixture list: vs. Stoke, at Manchester City, at Chelsea, vs. Tottenham.
But any Everton take also may be prefaced with this: The Toffees had a confounding and worrying offseason. They spent like a teenager who had just received his first paycheck, without regard for a coherent on-field plan. And, well …
Four weeks in, they do not appear to have a coherent on-field plan.
Ronald Koeman trotted out a square-pegs-in-round-holes 3-4-1-2 prior to the international break. He returned from it in a 4-2-3-1 on Saturday. His front four in the 4-2-3-1 were all summer signings. They cost a collective £75 million. And they were a tweener forward, and three players who not only prefer the same position, but more or less chose to occupy the same position against Spurs.
It was, as expected, a mess. Everton was booed off at halftime. Spurs coasted to a 3-0 victory.
That front four – Sandro Ramirez up top, Wayne Rooney right, Davy Klaassen central, Gylfi Sigurdsson left – offered nothing in behind Tottenham’s back three, and no width. They therefore compressed and crowded the very area of the field they wanted to play in. Their lack of movement and spacing made building from the back difficult:
To make matters worse, Rooney offered nothing defensively. Ben Davies’ attacking threat from left wing back pulled Idrissa Gueye over to help on Rooney’s flank. When Gueye was busy with other responsibilities, Spurs found a ton of attacking joy down the left.
Koeman pulled Klaassen and Sandro at halftime, but a rejigged 4-3-1-2 was similarly ineffective. Which takes us back to the transfer dealings. The club spent loads of money on players who can’t play together, and now Koeman has no idea what to do with the personnel at his disposal. He’s lost. And those players seem to be getting frustrated …
5. That Rooney tackle
… Or at least one of them is. This is awful from Rooney:
Both he and Dele Alli are lucky contact was minimal. Rooney should have been sent off. And he will get sent off if Everton keeps struggling, and if he fails to control his resultant anger – not exactly his strong suit. I’ll set the over/under on Rooney red cards this season at 1.5.
6. Arsenal won, but …
A fan in Columbus, Ohio wasn’t watching. Instead, he or she made history by becoming the first person to call for a Premier League manager’s firing on an ESPN college football pregame show:
7. Chelsea won, but …
Its fans have a disgusting song for star striker Alvaro Morata. It’s explicit, anti-Semitic and offensive. It’s not original – it’s the same tune as many other player-specific chants. It needs to stop. The club has told supporters to cut it out. Hopefully they will.
8. Crystal Palace lost, and …
9. Fixture congestion begins
The calendars of the Premier League’s top seven are about to get crowded, and that means squad depth will be put to the test. The Champions League and Europa League group stages begin this week. There are League Cup ties the following week. There is another international break in early October.
All told, some players – Everton and Wales center back Ashley Williams, for example – could play 14 games in roughly 50 days between the weekend of Sept. 2 and the weekend of Oct. 21. That’s one game every 3.57 days. It’s two per week. Travel in between matches will be plentiful as well. Some clubs are well equipped to deal with it. Others will soon be exposed.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.