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 …
Through five weeks of DARTS, we’ve focused primarily on the A – the analysis. We’ve focused on tactics. On the how and the why. To open the sixth edition, we’ll adopt a slightly different tone.
Because through six weeks of the season, the Premier League’s top five is, well, its top five. Its best five. Manchester City. Manchester United. Chelsea. Tottenham. Liverpool. You could quibble with the order (I wouldn’t). You can’t really quibble with the identity of the five.
And the reason those five are here, at the top of the table, has little to do with tactics, and a lot to do with personnel. For as much credence as we lend to the idea that strategic decisions influence games, those games are often decided by individuals – their brilliance, their blunders, and the battles between them.
That was largely the story of two Saturday clashes, each featuring one of the five aforementioned clubs. United went to Southampton. Chelsea went to Stoke. And on the balance of play, both matches were relatively even. Both home sides took more shots. Southampton had 61 percent of the ball. Neither United nor Chelsea was at its best.
xG map for Southampton – Manchester United. Looks like a first really meh game for United this year? pic.twitter.com/MfHdZqTbGr
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) September 25, 2017
But soccer games, of course, are not decided on the balance of play …
1. United, Chelsea, and the isolated moments that won three points
The Premier League’s big boys, and really any good soccer team, separate themselves from their subordinates in two distinct ways. First, the quality of their players allows them to do more tactically; their superior technical and physical skills make a wider range of systems viable and effective. For example, Manchester City couldn’t press and boss possession like it does with Crystal Palace’s squad.
Second, good teams are good because their players are more likely to win matches in isolated moments, and less likely to lose them in those moments. Saturday might as well have been Exhibit 1A.
Stoke was arguably the better side over the first 45 minutes at the Bet365 Stadium. But in the second minute, Glenn Johnson, a natural fullback thrown into a decimated back three, got his positioning all wrong:
In the 30th minute, Darren Fletcher got caught in two minds as a ball dropped to him from the sky. Chelsea’s talented forwards punished Stoke for both errors.
Down on the south coast, throughout 90 minutes, United-Southampton was a fairly even contest. The Saints built patiently. The Red Devils played on the break. Only a 20th-minute individual battle ultimately separated them. Romelu Lukaku emphatically won that battle, and won United the game.
Jose Mourinho did not need comprehensive command over the match, because he had Lukaku – has Lukaku. Southampton didn’t, and doesn’t.
Antonio Conte did not need comprehensive command either, because he has Alvaro Morata. Stoke had aging midfielders and defenders playing out of position.
Sometimes the difference in a one-goal game – or indeed a four-goal game – is as simple as that.
2. The league’s two most expensive signings are justifying their price tags
Lukaku’s goal was straight out of a traditional British No. 9’s utopian fantasy. He gives a good old two-handed shove to a center back who dared lay hands on him:
He then uses the space he’s created, explodes into life the second the ball leaves Ashley Young’s right foot, tracks its flight, attacks it despite contact, and persists to pounce on the rebound:
Lukaku has six goals in six Premier League games. So does Morata. The former Real Madrid man’s second of three on Saturday evoked Spanish strikers of yore at Stamford Bridge:
Both have shrugged off the pressure that accompanies an exorbitant transfer fee. Both are off to outstanding starts at their new homes.
3. Slaven Bilic might just be clueless
When West Ham winger Michail Antonio went down with a groin injury midway through the first half against Tottenham on Saturday, manager Slaven Bilic had a decision to make. But the decision really shouldn’t have required much thought. Antonio had been playing on the right side of a front three. Andre Ayew’s most natural position is on the right side of a front three. Ayew, conveniently, was on the bench.
So Bilic, of course, called for Andy Carroll.
As a manager, you send your team into a match with a plan. Your biggest fear is that plan being thrown off course, either by an early goal or an injury. The last thing you do is insert a wrench into the plan yourself – and you especially don’t do that when, for 25 minutes, the plan has worked reasonably well.
Unless, apparently, you’re Slaven Bilic.
Bilic not only replaced an above average winger with an average striker. He rendered his better striker, Javier Hernandez, ineffective by shunting Hernandez to the wing. And with no playmaking winger down the right and a one-dimensional target man up top, Bilic forced his team to change the way it played. On the fly. Against an opponent that punishes the slightest hint of dysfunction.
It was arguably the most blatant managerial blunder of the season thus far. It was inexcusable. And it proved costly. Within 10 minutes of his introduction, Carroll was culpable on two Tottenham goals. (The full breakdown of his culpability can be found here). Substitutions don’t get much worse than that.
4. The unlikeliest of Everton saviors
When Roberto Martinez swooped for Oumar Niasse on the final day of the winter transfer window in 2016, nobody could have written this script. The one where Niasse scores his first two Premier League goals 20 months after his arrival to drag Everton out of an onsetting crisis.
Ronald Koeman replaced Martinez at the close of the 2015-16 campaign, and after one preseason friendly bluntly told Niasse to leave the club. The Senegalese winger was not even assigned a jersey number. A transfer never materialized, so Koeman exiled him to the reserves. “I’m in the dressing-room with the under-23s but I don’t have a locker,” Niasse told The Guardian that October. “The other players have where they put their stuff but I don’t. I come with my bag … I put my bag down, I train, and after, I put everything in my car and go home. … It’s really sad. … I don’t deserve this.”
He was eventually sent to Hull on loan in January, almost a year after arriving at Goodison Park. When he returned over the summer, he was given a squad number, but not a spot on Everton’s preseason tours. Koeman again looked to move him, and a deadline deal with Crystal Palace was agreed. Niasse traveled to London. But involved parties could not agree on agent fees, and the transfer fell through.
So Niasse, likely dejected, returned to Merseyside. He was left off Koeman’s Europa League squad. He had not even been fitted for an official club suit along with the rest of the squad, which is why he arrived at Goodison on Saturday in a tracksuit. Hours later, he came off the bench to momentarily lift Everton’s gloom.
Needless to say, a proper club suit is on its way.
5. Pep Guardiola will do anything to speed up his team’s play
That apparently includes making sure the Etihad ball boys are in line with his philosophy:
Guardiola getting a ball boy to pass on tactical instructions to Kyle Walker. pic.twitter.com/xaEfNHmQNY
— Ball Street (@BallStreet) September 23, 2017
“If there was a foul, no one went to take the ball and start to play,” Guardiola said at his postgame news conference. “There was five, ten seconds before someone goes to take the ball and start to play. When this happens everything is slow.
“The ball boys were slow,” he continued. “Everybody was slow.” Unacceptable.
6. Meanwhile … Jose Mourinho
While Pep was trying to speed up City’s match, Mourinho was doing anything he could to interrupt the closing stages of United’s. That including inserting Daley Blind as a sixth defender past the 90-minute mark.
Finally, with Southampton pushing for an equalizer in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Mourinho got himself sent to the stands, and don’t for a second believe his antics weren’t strategic. Craig Pawson ran all the way over to the touchline to give the marching orders, then had to wait as Mourinho shook the hand of every single member of Southampton’s staff and waved to players before descending down the tunnel:
This is why they call him The Special One.
7. Decisions, decisions for Jurgen Klopp
Klopp, for the first time, will have all four of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino available for a Premier League game on Sunday at Newcastle. And he’ll have all four at his disposal going forward. They are all fit and firing. They are arguably Liverpool’s four best players. They are all 25 years old. They all favor one of the three places in Klopp’s forward line.
So how will Klopp use them? Against the bottom half of the league, especially at home, will he play all four? If not, who are the first-choice three?
Those are great questions to have to answer, and they are far from the most pressing at Liverpool, but they are questions nonetheless. We’ll get some clues to the answers soon enough.
8. If you’re wondering why the top five all played on Saturday …
… while only Brighton vs. Newcastle was slated for Sunday, it’s because the Premier League gives its teams maximum rest prior to midweek Champions League fixtures.
But if you’re wondering why the league made Arsenal play West Brom on Monday, just three days before a Europa League trip to Belarus … can’t help you there.
9. Who is the favorite for 7th place?
As I wrote prior to the season, the league is as stratified as ever. There is a massive gulf between the top six and bottom 14. Part of the reason the gulf appears as wide as it does is because nearly every single seventh-place candidate has underwhelmed. Everton looks like a jumbled mess. Southampton has been decent but uninspiring. West Ham has been disjointed. Does anybody want to play in the Europa League next year?
OK, don’t answer that. But think about how wide open the race for seventh is. Everton might still be favored. Southampton should also have a say. But Watford is right there with them, and Stoke could be too. Leicester and Newcastle are dark horses.
Next week’s DARTS will feature another set of revised projections to gauge where we stand after two months.
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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.