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 …
“Unfortunately, we’ll never see what these guys can really do. Because they’re tired all of the time because of the schedule.”
Ever heard that quote before? Any idea who uttered it? Maybe not. But given recent discourse, and given the headline on this column, you could probably fashion a decent educated guess. Pep Guardiola, perhaps? Jurgen Klopp? Jose Mourinho? Or maybe Arsene Wenger?
For years, NBA players, coaches and executives have fought their own “fixture congestion” battle, if you will. The league has studied wear and tear on players’ bodies scientifically, and painstakingly, in extraordinary detail. This past summer, it finally conceded that it was asking too much of its multi-million-dollar stars; that their workload, a product of the grueling schedule, was overbearing; that something had to change.
So the NBA did change. It revamped its schedule to cut down on “back-to-backs” and allow players sufficient recovery time in between games more often. The solution wasn’t perfect. But it was a major improvement.
And it’s an amendment the English Premier League could learn from. Because the NBA’s problem was far more vexing than the Prem’s. Organizers of the English top flight don’t have to fit 82 games into six or so months. They merely have to fit 38 into nine months, albeit with other competitions crowding the calendar; and, most importantly, they have to not force teams to play four times in 10 days, or two in three.
Inexplicably, they can’t figure that second part out.
The explanation is tradition, but it’s an empty one. Tradition is football on Boxing Day. Maybe it’s football on New Year’s Day, too. But tradition doesn’t explicitly call for games the weekend before Christmas and the weekend before New Year’s. Tradition doesn’t call for running players into the ground.
Guardiola has called the festive fixture congestion “a disaster.” Wenger and Mourinho have complained about it. West Brom’s Alan Pardew blamed it for his team’s second-half collapse at West Ham on Tuesday. “I understand, 100 percent, tradition,” Klopp has said. “But to have a matchday with two days in between? There should be another possibility.”
There are simple solutions here. Scale back from four matchdays over the festive period to three, spreading each out over several days, and you can eliminate two-in-threes while retaining the holiday spotlight, and all the marketing value that comes with it. This isn’t rocket science.
And yet those in the Premier League offices continue to be either incompetent or neglectful. They refuse to care about the well-being of the players that their entire product depends on.
“We are going to kill the players,” Guardiola said Tuesday. “The federation – whoever the bosses are – have to reflect. It’s not normal.”
Nor is it acceptable. It’s time for change.
1. Did the busy holiday schedule cost Man City?
There’s a strong argument to be made that fixture congestion ended Manchester City’s winning streak. To be clear, Guardiola isn’t making that argument. I am.
City finally slipped up at Crystal Palace, and Roy Hodgson’s side garnered justified praise for the way it confronted the league leaders. The Eagles played without fear. They defended as much from the front as from the back, with central midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Luka Milivojevic triggering a restrained, but selectively aggressive, press. They struck a finely-tuned balance between counterattacking and ensuring City couldn’t.
But for all the plaudits Palace got, it needed compliance from City. It needed a less-than-stellar performance from a team that has consistently gone well beyond stellar. There were sizable holes in the Palace dam. City was just a split-second slow. Its touches were slightly loose. Its movements weren’t quite as crisp as usual.
It won’t be the last time City slumps for 90 minutes. This was bound to happen at some point, and is bound to happen again. But is it a coincidence that the imperfections finally revealed themselves during the holiday grind? Probably not.
2. Man City’s streak, by the numbers
City’s 18-game winning streak should stand as a Premier League record for a long time. And although it required luck, as any such streak would, it accurately reflected City’s dominance. The numbers beyond 18 tell that side of the tale.
City outscored its 18 opponents 58-11. The 58 came courtesy of 12 different goalscorers. None were scored before the 10th minute, but six were scored from the 89th onward. Only 21 came before halftime; 37 came after the break.
Eighteen different players played at least 90 minutes over the 18 games. All 18 started at least once. Over the 1,620 minutes, they had 72 percent possession. They outshot opponents 330-110.
We could go on and on, but best of all: City won 18 games in a row, before the calendar turned. Manchester United won 18 all of last season. The season before that, only Leicester won more than 20; Liverpool won 16; Chelsea won 12.
3. Questioning Guardiola
Guardiola has almost become immune to rational criticism. But for somebody who clearly understands the importance of rest for professional footballers, his refusal to rotate his starting lineup has been baffling. Kevin De Bruyne’s superhuman recovery from what initially appeared to be a serious injury was worthy of awe. But even if he was fit enough to play two days later, why the heck did he? Why the heck was every first-choice starter in the team on one day’s rest for a straightforward home game against Watford?
Guardiola has been forced into some lineup changes, and has rotated for tactical reasons, but he has almost always played his best available 11. De Bruyne, for example, has started all 22 of Premier League games, and five of six in the Champions League group stage. And he and others haven’t just played, they’ve played at a breakneck pace, with relentless intensity. This could all be irrelevant if, with the league wrapped up, Guardiola can rest players in March to hone in on the Champions League. But just something to watch going forward.
4. Kevin De Bruyne, real-life Ironman
Before we move on, back to De Bruyne for a second. He takes a beating every weekend. Pep has pleaded with referees to protect him. But he just might be the sporting version of immortal. He’s unbelievable. He was on the receiving end of two particularly vicious tackles on Sunday. He played two days later. Meanwhile, the two players who had bites at him, Scott Dann and Jason Puncheon, tore cruciate ligaments in their knees bringing him down, and will miss the remainder of the season.
5. The case for rotation, featuring an NFL comparison
Jurgen Klopp has taken a different approach to Guardiola’s. He’s a firm believer in rotation. And despite his team relying heavily on a few star attackers, he won’t stray from his stance.
That’s not easy to do. Rotation is like fourth-down decision-making in American football, in that narrative-based incentives don’t align with performance-based incentives. NFL coaches punt and kick field goals far too often because when the smart, aggressive choice (going for it) doesn’t come off, it’s low-hanging fruit for criticism; when the dumb, conservative choice (kicking) doesn’t come off, it gets buried under other storylines.
Likewise, when a Premier League manager rests players and drops points with second-stringers, he gets blasted. When he doesn’t rest players, and those players’ performances gradually decline toward the end of the season, the players bear fault in the eyes of fans and media; nobody remembers the lack of rotation months earlier.
Ignoring the public narrative requires courage – and, crucially, a boss who’s willing to do the same. But it allows for rotation, which is necessary and, in the long run, advantageous. The drop-off from regular to reserve in two or three matches against inferior teams is, in most cases, less significant than the drop-off from rested regular to worn-down regular in every match over the final third of the season.
And when the reserves win anyway, like Liverpool’s did? That’s a double-win, and an important leg up in the top-four race.
6. Anthony Martial, and how United changes without Lukaku
Sometimes rotation isn’t a choice. That’s our transition to Jose Mourinho and Manchester United. They lost Romelu Lukaku – who had previously played every single minute of all 20 Premier League games – to a head injury early on against Southampton. Without him, United hobbled to a 0-0 draw.
But two days later, with Anthony Martial leading the line, the Red Devils played their best half in over a month. The second 45 minutes at Goodison Park were enlightening. They highlighted both the value and drawbacks of Lukaku, and accentuated certain features of United’s attack.
Martial was a Lukaku replacement in name only. The striker role changed with the French forward in it. Whereas Lukaku tends to stay high toward the middle of the field and play off opposing center backs …
… Martial is a floater:
The difference was encapsulated by one second-half sequence on Monday. Martial drifted left, simply because that’s where he saw space. He eventually picked up the ball with Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw all running beyond him, and sliced open Everton’s defense with a fine through-ball.
But when Shaw picked up his head to cross, there was no United player within the width of the six-yard box, and within 10 yards of goal. That’s Lukaku’s area. And that’s the give-and-take. The move doesn’t materialize without Martial. But because the lone striker sets it in motion, there’s no poacher in the box to finish it off.
United’s attacking midfield trio, therefore, had to adjust their games to cater to Martial’s. Lingard in particular had newfound responsibility. When Martial vacated the traditional striker position, Lingard, from his left wing starting point, often filled it.
That dynamic enabled the opening goal. Lingard’s out-to-in run occupied the center backs. Martial discreetly lagged behind the play, sauntered into space at the edge of the box, and won the game.
7. The Pogba position debate
Pogba has spent most of his year-and-a-half at Man United playing as one of two central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. He was excellent as a No. 10 on Monday, which naturally stirred up the debate about which role suits him best.
In an odd way, though, Monday provided telling examples of why Pogba isn’t a 10. Throughout much of the first half, there was no space between Everton’s midfield and defense, and therefore no room for Pogba to operate. Rather than having his influence dulled in a deeper position, his influence was non-existent, because he couldn’t get on the ball.
In the second half, he got on the ball by flaring wide left – to the half-space, and even all the way to the sideline. He effectively became a playmaking winger through whom United ran its offense. He had more touches than any other player on the field in the second half. He couldn’t have been nearly as effective beside Nemanja Matic or Ander Herrera as a deep-lying midfielder.
Pogba thinks his best position is the more advanced one, but the second half at Goodison provided important clarification. It’s Pogba’s best position if it comes with freedom. Because he’s so insanely talented, there’s a temptation to deploy Pogba as a jack of all trades – to burden him with more responsibility. However, he thrives with less. His offensive talent is applicable anywhere on the field. The only requirement is that it not be confined to one area, or constrained by defensive duties.
8. The Arsenal uproar, and the reason it didn’t miss the mark
Very few people disputed the take that Mike Dean was incorrect to award West Brom a late penalty against Arsenal on Sunday. The main objection, rather, was an objection to the objections. Why was the response to Dean’s decision fiery when, in the end, both teams got what they deserved?
On one hand … yes. Absolutely spot-on. Luck evens itself out over time. Arsenal hadn’t done enough to win the game anyway. More time and words should have been dedicated to the performance, not the penalty.
xG map for West Brom – Arsenal. Seems like this could have been 1-1 from normal half chances, but instead was 1-1 from a deflected OG and a… debatable penalty. Much more fun! pic.twitter.com/jnrD6RLzM8
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) December 31, 2017
But the protests and their ferocity were primarily products of exasperation. On top of the circumstances, the stakes in a heated top-four race, and the identity of the club that felt aggrieved, there’s the sentiment that Petr Cech, still fuming, summed up in his postgame interview with Sky Sports: “We have meetings with the referees prior to the season, and every time, it comes to this point. The player is too close to the ball. He has no chance to react. That will never be a penalty.”
We, as fans and media, are also told time and time again that the exact incident that cost Arsenal should not be given as a penalty. And yet Dean gave it. Arsenal perhaps didn’t deserve the three points, but the vehemence of the reaction was justified.
9. Premier League trivia time
To wrap up a special mid-week DARTS, a special mid-week trivia challenge. Liverpool center back Ragnar Klavan became the first Estonian player to score a Premier League goal. Estonia became the 97th nation to be represented in the EPL’s goalscoring record books. Five of the following 10 countries are also among the 97. Can you pick out all five?
Antigua and Barbuda
St. Kitts and Nevis
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Answers are on the Premier League’s website. Go see how wrong you were. Then pass the quiz along to a friend so you’re not alone.
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