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 something uniquely captivating about Harry Kane. Something about watching him run the channels. Something about watching him dance and stagger through tackles in midfield. Frankly, he is awkward. And yet so enthralling.
He is not smooth and sharp like Ronaldo. Not seemingly omnipotent on the ball like Messi. Not flashy like Neymar. But just as lethal. And just as fun.
Because he is, and because he’s at Tottenham Hotspur rather than Manchester United, all anybody wants to talk about is his next step. The cycle is as inevitable as it is tiresome. The Spanish media link Kane to Real Madrid, and Dele Alli to Barcelona, and so on. The British tabloids lap up the possibly unsubstantiated reports. The headlines almost outnumber those about Tottenham’s exploits on the pitch.
And that’s totally understandable. Kane’s future will be a fascinating litmus test for the club in a number of ways.
But consider this intro a plea. I urge you to enjoy this. To live in the moment – as cheesy as that sounds. To forget where Kane may or may not be playing next year. To ignore his potential price. To treasure his all-inclusive prowess, and Alli’s intense, skillful exuberance, and Heung-Min Son’s unrelenting enthusiasm, and Christian Eriksen’s class.
There is something distinctively cool about this group of homegrown stars, second-tier signings, and overlooked British youngsters. Something cool about them coming together to boss the Premier League. Something cool about them doing so while collectively earning its sixth-highest wages. They have been the best team in the league over two-plus seasons, dating back to 2015, and they are showing no signs of slowing down.
So why talk about Real Madrid when we can talk about Tottenham 4, Liverpool 1, in front of a record crowd at Wembley? When we can talk about devastating precision, heavenly counterattacks and a tactical masterclass?
That’s what we’re about to do.
But – full disclosure – to do so, we must also talk about Liverpool.
1. How Spurs romped, Part 1: The Liverpool left
To understand how Tottenham galloped toward goal time and time again, we must first understand its opponent. And specifically, the three players that make up Liverpool’s left side: fullback Alberto Moreno, central midfielder Emre Can, and winger Philippe Coutinho.
Coutinho is the nominal winger, but he often floats. It’s what makes him dangerous with the ball. It’s what allows – and invites – Moreno to bomb down the line, and Can to push forward or wide. If Coutinho plays off the left, these movements are a key feature of Liverpool’s attack.
They’re also one of two main reasons the Reds were carved apart on Sunday.
Liverpool’s problem stemmed from that very configuration. Coutinho’s defensive inactivity perhaps enabled the first goal, but the problem was really evident later. In the 10th minute, he lost the ball 10 feet over the midfield line. Can had charged beyond him, and was nowhere to be found when possession changed hands. Jordan Henderson and James Milner were overwhelmed by white shirts as Eriksen and Son launched a counter:
The second goal, like the first, was more due to an individual mistake than a structural flaw. But it was noteworthy that both Moreno and Can were in the penalty box as Lloris hurled the ball toward Kane:
The problem reared itself again minutes later. In the 16th minute, both Coutinho and Can were left trailing the play by a quick free kick, and Eriksen sprung Son from the right. In the 18th minute, as Coutinho jinked his way through Tottenham’s midfield, and as Can received the ball wide, you could almost see the counter materializing even before Liverpool lost the ball. And sure enough …
Nearly all of Tottenham’s chance creation in the first 25 minutes came from its right side. And even when it didn’t, in general, Coutinho’s drifts and Can’s adventures made it remarkably easy for Spurs to pass through Liverpool’s counterpress.
That’s one of the reasons Jurgen Klopp called for Alex Oxlade-Chaimberlain midway through the half. When the Ox replaced Dejan Lovren, he went wide left, Coutinho moved to the middle, and Can went to right back.
However, Klopp had another problem on his hands that couldn’t be fixed mid-game. It can’t be fixed tomorrow or next week either. It’s that half his lineup isn’t very good.
2. How Spurs romped, Part 2: Liverpool errors
You want the straightforward, too-long-didn’t-read explanation for Tottenham 4, Liverpool 1? Here it is: Joe Gomez didn’t step, Joel Matip put his hand up, Lovren stood still, and Simon Mignolet was late. Lovren misjudged a long ball. Matip misplayed a header, and his teammates were flat-footed. Mignolet flapped at a cross.
There you have it. That’s all. Here’s some video evidence:
Three defenders and a goalkeeper made multiple mistakes, so Spurs scored four goals. If they hadn’t, Spurs might have scored zero goals. It’s that simple. Even though Tottenham was decidedly better – much better – over the 90 minutes, all four goals were preventable.
It’s tough to refute that, and it drives home an oft-belabored point. Liverpool’s inability to bring in a strong starting center back or two during the transfer window was inexcusable. Now the Reds are left to rue inexcusable errors on the field. At this point, what more is there to say?
Some fans might argue the next stage of the inquest should hone in on Klopp. Calls for him to go are premature. But it is fair to start asking questions.
3. Arsenal at its free-flowing best
Spurs won the weekend, but their North London rivals were a close second. And that’s because Arsene Wenger finally got the band back together.
Or, rather, he finally has the new, revamped band together. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette started alongside one another for the first time, and they, along with Aaron Ramsey, produced an astounding attacking output: 30 shots, 14 on target, five goals, 3.9 Expected Goals, and the most free-flowing Arsenal performance of the season.
All of it was irrefutable evidence of the value of Sanchez and Ozil. Wenger’s 3-4-3 needs both – or players of their ilk – to be at its offensive best. Ramsey needs both to be at his offensive best. Both love to drop deep to receive the ball from Granit Xhaka or center backs, and when they do, Ramsey loves to run beyond them. The interchanges pulled Everton’s back three and defensive midfielder Idrissa Gana all over the place, and opened up all kinds of holes at the back. Here’s a visual:
And here’s what Arsenal’s movement looked like in practice. Ozil comes deep, Phil Jagielka follows him, Ramsey sees the space Jagielka vacates and explodes into it:
Everton matched up wing-back on wing-back, which meant its three center backs were tasked with sticking to Arsenal’s front three. Jagielka and Michael Keane routinely following Ozil and Sanchez into midfield … and that’s exactly what Arsenal’s interchanges are designed to invite.
With Danny Welbeck or Alex Iwobi on one of the wings, those interchanges don’t come as naturally. With Ozil and Sanchez fit and firing, they do, and the Gunners are difficult to track and contain. The lack of structure can have detrimental effects defensively. But it makes Arsenal one of the most potent attacking teams in the Premier League.
4. Manchester United, on the other hand …
… was static. For just the second time in the league this season, it had to play from behind, and for the second time, it acquitted itself pretty poorly. Sure, Huddersfield’s goals were enabled by individual mistakes, but the telling aspect of the game was United’s (largely unsuccessful) attempts to break down the Terriers’ low block.
Huddersfield sat in a 4-4-1-1, often with little space in between its lines:
It clogged the areas in which United had found periodic joy earlier this season, pushed the ball wide and kept it there. The links between United’s front four were broken. And the visitors, with Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba all absent, simply lacked the quality to break down such a resolute defense.
United’s 2-1 defeat was precisely why it was premature to peg the Red Devils on par with Manchester City. Each has won all five games which it led at halftime. But from the four games where United has gone into halftime deadlocked or behind, it has taken five points. From four similar games of its own, City has taken 10. City can unlock any defense in the league. United’s ability to do so remains in doubt.
5. Worrying signs at Chelsea
Chelsea came back to beat Watford 4-2, but it very easily could have dropped at least two points. It has now allowed seven goals in its last three matches – at Crystal Palace, home to Roma, home to Watford – and looks nothing like the team that conceded just 0.87 per game in the league a year ago. So what’s gone wrong?
Several things have. The main one is N’Golo Kante’s absence. Kante did wonders for Gary Cahill and Caesar Azpilicueta last season. He shrunk the areas they were responsible for, and protected them from many one-on-one situations. Without a vacuum cleaner like Kante in front of the back three, Chelsea’s center backs are getting exposed.
Cahill isn’t the player he was at this time last year. He’ll turn 32 in December. But with Kante out – injured playing for France over the international break – Cahill is still being asked to play like a spry 27-year-old who can fly around the field and win 80 percent of the 50-50 challenges he flings himself into. And David Luiz will play like that until he retires.
But both were a step slow on Saturday, and their reckless darts out of position left Chelsea exposed. Occasionally Luiz will gamble and come up trumps …
But when he misses, he looks foolish …
And when Watford breaks through Kante’s typical domain, and Cahill decides to step in to make amends, things really go awry. Luiz has two Watford attackers to mark in the penalty area, and he chooses incorrectly. Chelsea goes behind 2-1:
Again, the Blues recovered and won. But they legitimately could have been 3-1 or 4-1 down in the 60th minute. They were alarmingly unimpressive.
6. Richarlison assisted on Watford’s second …
But does he also deserve some credit for the finish? Does he think he has the ability to possess Roberto Pereyra’s mind and body? Watch him at the bottom of the frame, then on the right side, and decide for yourself:
I mean, he strikes the imaginary ball at the exact same time Pereyra strikes the real one past Thibaut Courtois. Just saying.
7. Slaven Bilic’s hot seat
Slaven Bilic’s West Ham lost 3-0 to Brighton at home on Friday. It was the Hammers’ fifth defeat in nine league matches.
It also took Bilic’s Premier League managerial record without former playmaker Dimitri Payet to 10 wins, 12 draws and 15 losses. That’s 42 points from 37 matches, or 1.13 points per game. Contrast that with 73 points from 48 games with Payet in the team – 1.52 points per game – and you should have a pretty good idea of why the Croatian manager reportedly has two games to save his job.
8. Skill of the week
Dele Alli’s nutmeg of Emre Can is pure filth:
Dele Alli lo tiene de hijo a Emre Can.
— Fútbol Curioso ™ (@CuriosodeFutbol) October 23, 2017
9. Spill of the week
Brighton’s Friday evening hammering of the Hammers came with only one blemish: Anthony Knockaert’s celebratory knee slide: