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 will come a day when Manchester City no longer monopolizes our affection and attention. There will come a day when its dominance is no longer the most compelling story in the Premier League. But today is not that day.
It will come soon enough. Five teams are set to scrap for just three available berths in the 2018-19 Champions League. As many as nine clubs will battle to avoid relegation. The Premier League narratives that run concurrent to the title race will soon take over, as City soars out of sight.
But while the dominance is still so ripe and fresh, it is impossible to ignore what is happening on the east side of Manchester. It is impossible to ignore what happened at the Etihad on Saturday evening.
So please, permit us at least one more week to express our love. Because Tottenham Hotspur travelled north this past weekend and taught the entire league a valuable lesson: You come at the king, you best not miss.
Tottenham came at the king. It missed a lot, by a lot. And, well …
1. The main source of City’s Tottenham destruction
Manchester City is now through half of the Big Six mini-league, and it has repelled blows from all angles. That is to say, elite opponents have approached matches against City in vastly different ways. Manchester United and Chelsea conceded possession and space to ensure defensive solidity. Arsenal and Tottenham bellied up. Neither strategy has worked. But Spurs’ failure was more glaring than the rest.
Tottenham tried to match City man for man. It tried to play with the hosts. It tried to press them. But the higher Spurs pressed, and the more energy they expended, the more they were exposed. They were stretched thin by City’s spacing, and by the speed at which Pep Guardiola’s side moved the ball horizontally. Those two characteristics illuminated some fundamental structural issues that Spurs couldn’t correct.
Chief among the structural flaws was the configuration of the two midfields. Here’s what the two teams looked like for the first 30 minutes if the ball was at City keeper Ederson’s feet:
There were no glaring holes in Tottenham’s 4-1-2-1-2. But the trouble came when the ball began to move. If Spurs went three-on-three – strikers on center backs, Dele Alli on Fernandinho – at the top of their press, the three remaining midfielders were three-on-four. They often found themselves responsible not only for Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne, but also the two fullbacks.
That in itself isn’t a problem if defensive rotations function correctly. But those rotations often were imperfect. In the 4-1-2-1-2, the weak-side midfielder – either Christian Eriksen or Harry Winks – had to tuck in to make up numbers. They often didn’t, or were slow to do so.
A little more than a half-hour in, Pochettino tweaked Tottenham’s shape during an injury stoppage. It became a 4-2-3-1, with Winks next to Mousa Dembele, and Eriksen and Son wide. That turned the 3-v-4 into a 4-v-4, with wingers on City fullbacks and central midfielders on City central midfielders.
But similar issues arose when Spurs tried to press high. A high press required Alli to ditch Fernandinho for one of the center backs or Ederson. Winks followed suit to pick up Fernandinho. When City was able to evade the pressure, Dembele was left with both De Bruyne and Gundogan. One of the two became City’s outlet, the instigator of the attack:
There’s no simple solution here. The only two are to press flawlessly, or to not press high at all. Spurs tried the first, but came up well short.
2. And even when Spurs did match up in midfield …
Pep had the antidote. He has taught Fabian Delph to read various spatial cues and tuck inside as an “inverted fullback.” So just when Eriksen and Spurs feel they have the middle of the park covered …
… Boom, City wins the ball, plays out through Delph, and is on the attack:
3. City wins when the ball changes feet
City’s transitions are so quick. So crisp. Players rarely switch off. And when opponents do, the Citizens prey on them. They capitalize on split seconds of frustration. Watch Fernandinho’s reaction when City loses the ball, vs. Kieran Trippier’s when he misplaces a pass a second later:
For Fernandinho, the change of possession was a trigger to press. He forced Trippier into a mistake. For Trippier, the subsequent change of possession triggered frustration, and by the time he snapped back to the match, the ball was behind him.
Trippier’s lapse didn’t cost City a goal. In the second half, though, Danny Rose did. When De Bruyne won the ball off Dembele in midfield, the English left back had a good eight-yard head start on Raheem Sterling. Ten seconds later, due to some combination of Rose’s poor concentration, fatigue and laziness, Sterling found himself unmarked for a back-post tap-in:
That’s not tactics. It’s one player being better than another players. It’s 11 players being better than another 11.
4. Ederson, the goalkeeping Xabi Alonso
Remember when we laughed at Guardiola’s insistence on playing Willy Caballero or Claudio Bravo – AKA Anybody But Joe Hart, because Hart was terrible with his feet?
Now that he’s got a goalkeeper who can play with his feet and hands, too, Guardiola’s the one laughing at all of us. Some of Ederson’s distribution is divine:
— Bald (@BaldCityzen) December 17, 2017
It’s tough to overstate just how valuable this is in Pep’s system. The overarching question that every team must answer when facing a press is whether it wants to play through or over. For most teams, those two options translate to either trying to keep the ball at all costs, or giving a striker a 50/50 ball and some support.
With Ederson, the lines blur, because he can ping A FREAKIN’ 80-YARD BALL RIGHT ONTO A WINGER’S FOOT. If an opponent gets overaggressive, City can go from one end to the other in three passes with a remarkably decent success rate. Ederson’s ball-playing wizardry enables so much that a muggle goalkeeper wouldn’t.
5. 1,000 words in, and no mention of City’s press …
LOL. This team is impossibly good. We’ll save the defensive side of the league leaders for another time.
6. Romelu Lukaku is “back amongst the goals”
But he isn’t back to his best. He still doesn’t quite look confident and comfortable with the rotating cast of characters and fluctuating attacking approaches around him. The thing about Lukaku is that he needn’t be at his best to be a match-winner. He’s showed that twice in a week, most recently in a 2-1 win at West Brom. He doesn’t have to fit seamlessly within a system to overpower defenses in the penalty box. That’s part of his appeal.
But let’s hold off on predicting a return to early-season form.
7. “Park the bus, park the bus, Man United”
It’s catching on. And it’s delightful. City fans broke out the new tune at Old Trafford last weekend:
Video clearly got through to City players, who echoed it in their dressing room after the victory over Spurs:
United fans also sung it ironically after going 2-0 up Sunday at West Brom, so fair play to them. Something tells me we haven’t heard the last of this.
8. Why Burnley can’t crack the top four
Burnley’s 1-0 victory over Stoke on Tuesday seemed to be the moment that forced casual fans to take notice. But – with all due respect to Burnley, and to those rooting for them to upset the Premier League apple cart – there’s no need to take the Clarets seriously as a top-four contender. Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Brighton was a timely exhibit of why. Even if they continue overachieving against the top of the league, their style isn’t conducive to consistency against teams 7-20. (Oh, and they’re still getting very fortunate. Their luck is bound to dry up at some point.)
9. Crystal Palace, and an “I told you so”
OK, it’s more of a “we told you so.” We, the rational observers and objective analysts, told you not to freak out about Crystal Palace as the Eagles entered October without a single goal or point. Yes, they were already in danger of relegation because of the horrid start. But they were more terribly unlucky than terrible. The past two months have validated that stance. Palace is unbeaten in its last seven, and looks more likely to finish in the top 10 than the bottom three.
So, because I’ve been banging this drum for a while, I’d like to give myself a brief pat on the back, if you’ll permit it. I said Palace would stay up at the end of August, in early October, and again in early November. I wrote in late October that I would “ride the ‘Crystal Palace is actually decent’ train until a voice comes over the intercom to tell me it is out of service.” Needless to say, I’m still on the train, and I think it’s already safe to say clinging to the railing and sticking it out was a good call.
10. DARTS holiday schedule
No mailbag question this week, because we went all in on City. Instead, a public service announcement. As always, the festive period is packed with Premier League football. Over 14 days, from Dec. 22 to Jan. 4, there are only three without games:
Premier League Christmas Schedule! pic.twitter.com/10GTYiMYyf
— James Yorke (@jair1970) December 15, 2017
So what does that mean for DARTS? You can expect a column on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 24, rather than on Monday, Christmas morning. You can likely expect another post-Boxing Day edition on Dec. 27. Everything beyond that, however, is up in the air. Stay tuned for updates, and enjoy Saturday’s nine-game extravaganza.
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