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 …
Halfway there. We are officially halfway through the 2017-18 Premier League season. One hundred and ninety games played, 190 to go. In one sense, the season has whizzed by like Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane on a counterattack. In another, there is still so much to play for.
We are halfway to May, just like Liverpool was halfway to victory at the Emirates on Friday. So if the Reds taught us anything, it’s that a lot can happen over the next four-and-a-half months. A lot will happen.
But they also taught us a valuable lesson about themselves. Or rather they reiterated it. They drove it home. The lesson is that the implosion is almost always right around the corner. And it’s a lesson that, 26 months into Jurgen Klopp’s tenure at Anfield, with a compelling top-four battle coming into focus, is worth exploring.
I want to believe in Liverpool. I really do. In fact, I had convinced myself Klopp’s side was destined for a second-straight fourth-place finish. I really had. The last of nine DARTS items this week will be yet another projected table recalibration, and I was very prepared to bump Liverpool into the Champions League places. The Fab Four are that good.
But every time you want to believe, and sing songs of praise, and gush, Klopp’s Liverpool offers up a timely reminder: Those same problems that dissuaded you from belief a few weeks or months ago? Yeah, they’re still present. They’ve never been addressed. And they’re not necessarily systemic problems. Or at least they aren’t exclusively systemic. They’re the exact problems that resurfaced Friday at the Emirates. And they’re oh so painfully familiar.
1. There is no utility in a detailed analysis of Arsenal-Liverpool
It is not helpful to break down passing patterns or defensive structures. Arsenal and Liverpool combined for six goals on Friday, and more than half of them could have been prevented by defensive competence. More than half of them were primarily the result of simple mistakes.
We can lament Arsenal’s vulnerability on the counter, or the general openness of either side. But Liverpool’s second goal doesn’t happen if Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi don’t both vacate the center of the field to step toward a player near the sideline, with his back to the field, 50 yards from goal.
Arsenal’s first doesn’t happen if Joe Gomez is alert at the back post.
Arsenal’s second doesn’t happen if Simon Mignolet acts like a sensible human being and uses two hands to stop a Granit Xhaka cannonball rather than one.
Liverpool’s third doesn’t happen if Koscielny realizes that, as a center back, he might just be responsible for a wide-open striker in the center of the field.
The point here isn’t to be demeaning or condescending. It is impossible for the common fan to comprehend just how difficult it is to play mistake-free football at a Premier League level – especially for 90 minutes in a game like Friday’s. But some players do. They’re employed by clubs like Chelsea, and Tottenham, and Manchester United and City. Liverpool in particular haven’t been able to find any. And that’s why …
2. The stat emblematic of Liverpool’s imbalance
Since Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield on Oct. 8, 2015, Liverpool has thrown away 43 points from winning positions. That’s more than any other team in Europe.
Its meaning is a tad more complex than at first glance. Throwing away points from winning positions, of course, requires a team to snatch a lead in the first place. It requires the attacking firepower to score early and often. But that’s precisely why it applies more to Liverpool than anybody else.
The Reds score a lot and concede a lot. They’ve been largely incapable of tweaking their mentality once they do go in front. That inability has enabled some awe-inspiring blowouts, but also plenty of exasperating disappointments – and some anger-fueled inquests.
Ah, yes, the inquests. There have been way too many of them. And every time they come to the same conclusion. That’s the most maddening aspect. Liverpool’s defenders and goalkeepers just aren’t good enough. It’s clear for all to see. And yet …
3. The source of Liverpool’s imbalance
The defensive frailties of Klopp’s system have been discussed ad nauseam. So let’s take a few paragraphs to settle this once and for all.
Liverpool’s defensive difficulties are products of a system that requires individually talented defenders, and a manager and recruitment staff who haven’t bought players who fit the bill. Fault lies at the feet of players like Mignolet, Gomez, Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and so on, but it trickles back to behind-the-scenes decision-makers as well.
Liverpool’s front three cost the club £100 million. It has turned down offers of over £100 million for its attacking midfielder. At the other end of the field, and the other end of the spectrum, its back four and goalkeeper from Friday’s 3-3 draw cost less than £50 million – less than £10 million per player.
If Klopp’s backroom staff, when the German manager arrived, wasn’t told that his system requires defenders reliable in one-on-one battles, it should have realized by now. Liverpool’s refusal to commit resources to that end of the pitch could ultimately be the difference between second place and fifth.
4. Liverpool and Arsenal undoubtedly have the two worst defenses of the top six. Who’s third-worst?
Could it be … Manchester United?
With Eric Bailly in the team, United conceded four goals in 10 matches. With Bailly out injured, and some combination of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Victor Lindelof at center back, the Red Devils have allowed 16 in 18, and they’ve been fortunate it hasn’t been more.
Lost in the grousing over Mourinho’s defensive tactics is that they haven’t actually worked as of late. Or at least they haven’t worked as well as they usually do. Sure, injuries to Bailly, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba have been detrimental. But United isn’t functioning as it should. This past week, its underwhelming performances finally caught up to it. With Bailly apparently out long-term, the recent underlying numbers are worrying.
5. Who’s to blame for Leicester’s equalizer?
A lot had to go wrong for United to even be in position to concede a 94th-minute equalizer to Harry Maguire and Leicester City. (Looking at you, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford.) But a lot had to go wrong on the specific play as well. That’s what we’re here to discuss.
Let’s begin with Chris Smalling. He shouldn’t have been on the field. It’s inarguable. There’s a foolish case to be made that having 11 players on the field is always better than having 10, regardless of the fitness of the 11th. But Smalling’s injury clearly inhibited him on Maguire’s goal. And it wouldn’t have inhibited another player there in his place.
That’s the key point. Had Smalling exited the match, it’s not as if the space he occupied would have been vacant, despite Mourinho having exhausted his three subs. Smalling’s presence gave teammates around him a false sense of security. It held onto responsibility that otherwise would have been theirs. Perhaps Pogba or Nemanja Matic would have filled in for him. Perhaps Ashley Young would have tucked in rather than faded away. Perhaps David De Gea, knowing his center back was absent, would have come for the cross.
That’s not to absolve De Gea or Young of blame. De Gea should have taken command. Young shouldn’t have shied away from the play. But first and foremost, Smalling shouldn’t have returned to the pitch. Mourinho and the medical staff shouldn’t have allowed him to. They – and the forwards who missed chances – are all partially responsible for the two dropped points.
6. Swansea’s Roy Hodgson lookalike
As we transition toward the bottom of the table, let’s take a break for some levity. The resemblance between Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson and this Swansea steward is borderline freaky:
When Roy Hodgson met Roy Hodgson at the Liberty Stadium… pic.twitter.com/2MdAlXffjc
— Swansea City AFC (@SwansOfficial) December 23, 2017
7. OK, to the relegation battle …
At the midway point of the season, it appears to involve 11 teams. Conveniently, those 11 occupy places 10-20 in the table. Here’s what the bottom half (plus one) looks like:
That’s the first consideration when handicapping the relegation battle. The second is the actual quality of the teams …
8. The bottom 11, power ranked
Ignoring results and performances over the first half of the season, and focusing solely on expected performance over the second half of the season, here’s how we’d rank the bottom 11:
11. Crystal Palace
14. Stoke City
15. West Ham
17. West Brom
And finally, as we head into Christmas …
9. Recalibrating our projected table at the halfway point
Nineteen games in, 19 to go. A perfect time to hit the reset button and have a refreshed go at projecting what the table will look like in May. As always, the number in parentheses is the difference between preseason predictions and the current ones.
1. Manchester City (-)
2. Manchester United (-)
3. Chelsea (+1)
4. Tottenham Hotspur (-1)
5. Liverpool (-)
6. Arsenal (-)
7. Leicester City (+5)
8. Everton (-)
9. Burnley (+10)
10. Southampton (-7)
11. Watford (+5)
12. Crystal Palace (-2)
13. Newcastle (-)
14. Stoke City (-3)
15. Huddersfield (+5)
16. West Ham (-7)
17. West Brom (-3)
18. Brighton (-1)
19. Bournemouth (-4)
20. Swansea (-2)
More nuanced coverage of the relegation battle to come over the coming weeks and months – and perhaps even on Wednesday, in a special post-Boxing day edition of DARTS.
So carve out some time to watch the Premier League on Tuesday, maybe send in a mailbag question to the email below, and most importantly, enjoy the holidays.
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