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 …
For weeks, we told ourselves that this could be the year. That this game, in particular, could be different. That Manchester United had the attacking firepower to convince Jose Mourinho to roll out an expansive gameplan for a big match. That Mourinho might just deviate from a long track record of turning spectacles into snoozers.
Oh, how foolish we were.
How foolish we were to expect anything other than what Mourinho gave us Saturday at Anfield. United strode into the storied stadium, curled up into a ball for 90 minutes, and left with a 0-0 draw. The result was identical to one United ground out 362 days ago on the same pitch; the performance was strikingly similar too.
Both fell in line with Mourinho’s reputation. Both were Classic Mourinho, you might say. But this one wasn’t full-on Classic Mourinho … because it wasn’t any good. It wasn’t just unadventurous; it was ineffective. It didn’t merit a point, and only offered United one chance over the entire 90 minutes to nab three.
This wasn’t so much Classic Mourinho as it was Bad Mourinho. And there are a few reasons why it was so underwhelming.
1. What United did, and where it (almost) went wrong
Make no mistake: United was extremely conservative. It occasionally put some pseudo-pressure on Liverpool high up the field, but it mostly sat in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-1-4-1, and rarely got tight to the ball outside of its own half.
United’s big challenge was coping with Liverpool’s midfield three. The three often became a four when Philippe Coutinho, playing on the left, dropped into the half-space near the halfway line. The Red Devils were prepared for this, and throughout the first half, they tracked Coutinho well. Ander Herrera was particularly cognizant of Coutinho’s movement, and sped out to the Brazilian whenever he came deep:
Liverpool’s overloads eventually pinned United’s midfield back, with Herrera, Nemanja Matic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan marking Coutinho, Georginho Wijnaldum and Emre Can. They conceded space to Jordan Henderson near the midfield stripe, and closed off passing lanes pretty well.
But they weren’t perfect. They encountered problems when Wijnaldum and Can stretched them vertically. If Wijnaldum was able to occupy Herrera, Coutinho had space to pick up the ball and drive at United’s defense:
If Herrera stayed glued to Coutinho, and if both Wijnaldum and Can pushed into advanced positions, they could stretch Matic, and find space for a pass between the lines from a center back:
United was also just a bit lax after halftime. Mkhitaryan, who was eventually subbed off after an hour, didn’t quite maintain the same levels of concentration and discipline he displayed in the first half. Liverpool, on multiple occasions, didn’t even need to do anything intricate to play around United and go to goal:
United was extremely negative, and escaped with a draw. But the story very easily could have been different. The visitors were bailed out by the left foot of David De Gea, and by Liverpool’s end product, which was ever so slightly off-kilter.
2. What United didn’t do
The Red Devils had little interest in getting forward. It’s that simple. Back in August, we examined how deadly United can be on the counter. But when United won the ball Saturday, it cowered in fear at Liverpool’s rabid counterpress. Its most common first pass in transition was backwards, and the most common result of the possession was a long ball.
It’s difficult to know whether Mourinho would have liked his midfielders to take more attacking risks. But they didn’t have much opportunity to do so anyway. Their defensive responsibilities were restrictive. They were so compact that when the ball changed hands – er, feet – United had few, if any, outlets:
In that 15th-minute clip above, look how terrible United’s spacing is when Herrera receives the ball from Matic:
A team’s spacing is rarely going to be great immediately when it wins possession. But United’s was especially poor because Mourinho’s side was so concentrated on the defensive side of the game.
Of course, playing directly to Lukaku is far from the worst strategy in the world. But the Belgian rarely had support, and lost one-on-one, or more often one-on-two battles against Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip. United managed just one shot on target, roughly 0.3 Expected Goals, and a fortunate point, but an uninspiring overall performance.
3. Can United continue to do this?
It’s one thing to be frustrated with Mourinho for robbing fans of excitement – to say his conservativeness in big matches is bad for the sport. It’s another to say his conservativeness in big games is bad for him – to say it harms United’s title challenge. The popular take is that it does.
And you know what? The popular take is the correct one. In a league with a bonafide top six – when 10 of 38 matches are “big” – and with at least one or two of those six guaranteed to be better than average in intra-elite matchups, repeated draws in those matchups likely won’t be enough to top the table.
The other question, though, is whether repeated draws are what Mourinho intends to play for. The important caveat to any takeaways from Saturday’s performance is health: United was without Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Eric Bailly. That’s two of the four central stalwarts in its regular back six, and the top replacement in midfield. Away from home, against arguably the league’s second-best attack, in light of the injuries, it made a lot of sense to park the bus.
If Mourinho sets up similarly at home against Arsenal or Chelsea with a full-strength squad, we can whine about his tactics muting his own team’s championship potential. But let’s wait for a larger sample size before we make any forceful proclamations.
4. Make any proclamation you want about Manchester City, though …
Pep’s Sky Blues are irresistible. Nobody in the Premier League knows what to do with them. The big boys can’t figure them out. The minnows are overwhelmed. The mid-table sides, like Stoke at the weekend, throw their hands up in exasperation. What are you supposed to do against a machine that produces goals like this?
Title favorites – as they have been since June – to say the least.
5. Chelsea is not the machine it was last year …
Because it is already being plagued by adverse circumstances that eluded it last year. Antonio Conte handed over 93 percent of his team’s minutes to 13 players en route to the 2016-17 title. The Blues stayed remarkably healthy, in part because they had no European competition to cope with.
This year, with fixture congestion (and international breaks) already kicking in, Chelsea hasn’t been so lucky. With N’Golo Kante and Alvaro Morata both out, and Victor Moses picking up a hamstring injury in the first half, Chelsea limped to a shocking 2-1 loss at Crystal Palace. And the result was far from fluky; the champions were outplayed.
xG map for Crystal Palace – Chelsea. Yeah, so, Chelsea weren't good today. pic.twitter.com/vKKgaFH7lo
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) October 14, 2017
Chelsea lost five times last year. It was easy to see regression coming, but the regression has hit harder, and earlier, than expected. The Blues find themselves nine points off City’s pace. A repeat, even only eight games in, is looking awfully unlikely.
We buried the lead here … CRYSTAL PALACE SCORED A GOAL. A REAL, ACTUAL PREMIER LEAGUE GOAL. Multiple goals, in fact. Which means the club’s October Goal of the Month competition will be a tad more competitive than September’s …
— Five Year Plan (@FYPFanzine) October 1, 2017
To be clear, the above video is a fan creation and a spoof, but it makes light of a horrid start to the season that was very real. That start is now in the past, and Palace is a couple more wins away from climbing out of the relegation zone. I don’t think they’ll be in it come May.
7. Arsenal problems, Part 1: Nose-picking midfielders
Arsenal lost to Watford and Tom Cleverley, who pounced on a rebound from the top of the box to score a 92nd-minute winner. While he did, Granit Xhaka (top of the box) was preoccupied by other activities:
Upon closer examination …
OK, he might not have actually been picking his nose. But he was doing something that did not involve marking Cleverley. Whatever it was, it’s embarrassing.
8. Arsenal problems, Part 2: No ‘cojones’
“There’s a reason [Arsenal] lost, and it wasn’t because of one penalty,” said Watford striker Troy Deeney, referencing his equalizer from the penalty spot. So what was the reason the Gunners lost, Troy?
“I have to watch what I say on TV, but, having a bit of cojones, I think the word is. Having a bit of nuts.”
9. What happened to Fraser Forster?
Southampton brought Fraser Forster to the Premier League from Celtic for £10 million in 2014. Early in his Saints career, he was outstanding. He was in his prime, and part of one of the best defenses in England. Then he fell off a cliff.
Not literally, of course, but Forster was arguably the worst starting goalkeeper in the league last year. He’s almost certainly reached the bottom of the list through two months of this campaign, and he looked as stiff and as shaky as ever on Sunday against Newcastle:
10. A grieving Anthony Knockaert finally gets his goal
Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert was the Championship player of the year last season. But “what you see on the field doesn’t always tell the story,” as he told the Daily Mail last month.
Knockaert lost his father to cancer last November, and 11 months later, he still grieves. He still cries. He isn’t coping well. He doesn’t sleep well. When he was home over the summer, he visited his father’s grave every day, and fears the anniversary of his death next month.
These details are from Ian Ladyman’s feature in the Mail two weeks ago, and they explain Knockaert’s emotional celebration after his first goal of the season Sunday against Everton:
The Toffees later equalized, but Knockaert’s goal was a great way to cap a busy weekend in England’s top flight.
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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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.