Welcome to Premier League DARTS, Yahoo Sports‘ weekly column that runs every Monday during the EPL season. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell recaps the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
They promised us, themselves, and the football club they adore that they would be patient. From Tube stops to Emirates nosebleeds, they said they understood. Arsenal, last spring, finally gave them, the fans, what they had wanted: change. They, in return, acknowledged that change would take time.
Then the Premier League returned.
Arsenal sunk, from first place on alphabetical order to a point-less 17th after a manic 3-2 loss to Chelsea.
And the hysteria is back.
#EmeryOut is a thing.
Granted, after the deathly slog that was the latter stages of the Arsene Wenger era, patience has probably run dry. Perhaps this should have been predictable. Early-season meltdowns, after all, have become a tradition in North London. This one, despite talk of a new era, has felt eerily familiar.
Except that it’s different. The Arsenal Meltdown, or at least the disappointment-rage-crisis pattern the term had come to represent, is actually happening 250 miles away. It’s happening in Manchester.
It’s familiar for its own reasons, reasons synonymous with a sunburnt Portuguese scowl. For months, Jose Mourinho-induced turmoil seemed inevitable. On Sunday down on the south coast, it erupted as only #WengerOut frenzies previously had.
Manchester United and Arsenal, two of England’s three most successful clubs, lost by identical scorelines this past weekend. And both have problems. Legitimate problems. Neither’s are going away anytime soon.
But they are contrasting problems that should be treated accordingly. Arsenal’s pains are growing pains. United’s are deterioration pains. They’re nothing new.
In other words, Mourinho probably needs to go. Unai Emery, on the other hand, needs time.
1. Arsenal’s incoherence at Stamford Bridge
How do we know Emery needs time? Because while there have been glimpses of his philosophies through 180 Premier League minutes, confusion and incoherence have been more prevalent.
Saturday’s showdown at the Bridge was littered with defensive breakdowns that, at their roots, were often breakdowns of the strategic connections between players. For example, forwards would press, but a midfielder wouldn’t follow:
Midfielders would sit deep, but defenders, without any pressure on the ball, would play a (shoddy) offside trap:
Inconsistencies and disconnects were plentiful. The high defensive line was incompatible with the non-constant pressure on the ball.
Additionally, Arsenal’s starting central midfielders, Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka, got pulled apart by Chelsea’s two advanced midfielders, N’Golo Kante and Ross Barkley. That meant center backs were simultaneously responsible for the ball into Alvaro Morata’s feet and the space behind them.
The Gunners never quite looked like they had a plan. One pressing run rarely funneled the ball toward an area where it could be closed down even quicker by the next pressing run. Instead, it was far too easy for Chelsea to get its playmaker, Jorginho, in space:
The cost of the Gunners’ negligence was a flurry of first-half chances.
2. How pressing struggles led to problems farther back
On 12 minutes, Chelsea very easily could have doubled its lead. David Luiz played Kante over the top. The sequence highlighted Arsenal’s confusion:
Guendouzi had stuck with Kante as if it were a man-to-man scheme, then left him as Kante threatened to run in behind. The Arsenal teenager was neither marking a Chelsea player, nor covering a dangerous space so as to free up a teammate.
Xhaka was the one who needed to be freed. But for him to step to the ball, another Arsenal player had to account for Barkley. Had Guendouzi left Kante and slid to his right, that player could have been him. Had he tracked Kante, Arsenal’s center backs could have rotated, and Shkodran Mustafi could have stepped if necessary. Instead, Guendouzi was in no-man’s land. You can see Mustafi, circled in the GIF above, seemingly motioning to Guendouzi, his head spinning as he realizes he could be responsible for both Barkley and Kante.
The point here, however, is not to lay blame at the feet of a 19-year-old signed from the French second division – who, by the way, was pretty darn good Saturday. It’s that expecting Emery’s system to be executed flawlessly by flawed players – in their second games under him, against a top team – is absurd.
3. Arsenal’s solution is time … and better players
The confusion and disconnects are fixable with time, training-ground work and in-game familiarity. The short-term worry for Arsenal is that the players still aren’t good enough.
Arsenal, in theory, executed well in the buildup to Chelsea’s second goal. Perhaps Alex Iwobi could have been on top of Cesar Azpilicueta a split-second sooner. But if Mustafi or Sokratis reads the play, beats Morata in a 1-v-1 or 1-v-2 duel and sweeps up, it’s a textbook example of the efficacy of the press. Instead, it was 2-0:
If Mustafi and Sokratis – the worst central defensive pair of the Big Six – aren’t going to win individual duels, Emery could be in trouble in year one.
There was nothing he could do about Alexandre Lacazette’s embarrassing giveaway and lack of defensive effort in the buildup to the third goal, either:
The personnel problem is an Arsenal problem. It’s not an Emery problem. And it’s certainly no reason to doubt the manager’s competence in August of his first season.
4. Chelsea, by the way, has problems as well
Chelsea is more talented than Arsenal, and far closer to a finished product under its own new manager. But it’s still not all that close. It very easily could have lost this game. Because there were and are holes. Gaping holes.
The widest one was between left back Marcos Alonso – accustomed to a wingback role under Antonio Conte – and left-center back David Luiz – most comfortable in the middle of Conte’s three. Arsenal targeted the space behind Alonso. Luiz didn’t adjust, and left Jorginho pulled in one too many directions. Watch how the Brazilian center back urges Jorginho to pick up a runner rather than taking responsibility himself:
Fault lines in the Luiz-Alonso-Jorginho triangle largely explain the barrage of Arsenal cut-backs from the right endline toward the penalty spot. Triangular relationships like those take time to develop. Maurizio Sarri, like Emery, will need it.
5. Time to talk about Mourinho and United
Mourinho has had time. Enough time. Too much time.
He has spent more than Jurgen Klopp, more than Mauricio Pochettino, more than Chelsea since his arrival. He has what should be his players. He has had two-plus years to mold them to his liking. And Manchester United still is not heading in the right direction. It is still stagnant in attack with attackers, judged in a vacuum, nearly on par with Manchester City’s.
We can dissect the Brighton loss all we want. But to dive in too deep is to sacrifice the long view. To ramble on about the specific faults of Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly – both Mourinho purchases, by the way – is to place too much emphasis on one game, and not enough on the broader trend.
The broader trend is that United was dull and ineffective in year one under Mourinho, then dull, ineffective and fortunate in year two. It hasn’t improved. If Mourinho’s third-season track record is any indication, it isn’t going to.
Chief executive Ed Woodward probably won’t sack Mourinho seven months after handing him a contract extension. It would look too much like a rash reaction to one defeat. He’ll hang on to the all-too-slim possibility of progress.
But progress would be far more probable with a league-average replacement. Woodword should sharpen his metaphorical axe. He absolutely should. Because in August, the season is salvageable. In a few months, if Mourinho goes down the 2015-16 Chelsea route, it won’t be.
Early returns are … not great, Bob – er, not great, Fred.
I was never really on board. But if I were, this is the moment I’d have jumped ship:
7. Cool free kick routines
A month after the World Cup of Set Pieces, clubs appear to have taken notice. More and more routines come off the training ground. Chelsea ran – to use basketball terminology – some combination of a back screen and a flare screen to get Marcos Alonso free for a lob/knock-down header:
And Everton pulled off this intricate sequence for a goal:
8. Benjamin Mendy cut back on social media … or did he?
After Manchester City’s season-opening win over Arsenal, Pep Guardiola chided fun-loving fullback Benjamin Mendy for his prolific use of social media. A week later, after City’s 6-1 thrashing of Huddersfield, Mendy told reporters he is cutting back …
Or is he?
Twitter >>> shower 🚿😅
— Benjamin Mendy (@benmendy23) August 19, 2018
9. Let’s all marvel at this Ederson assist
Ederson has created goals with his long-ball archery before. But never with a pass as stunning as this:
10. David Silva’s special moment
David Silva scored a lovely free kick in his first appearance of the season. More importantly, it was somebody else’s first appearance at the Etihad: It was Matteo Silva’s debut.
David’s son was born extremely prematurely last year. With the Spanish midfielder absent for a December showdown with Spurs, City dedicated the game to him. “We have to win for one reason,” Guardiola said passionately in the locker room before the match. “We have to win for David Silva and his young friend. He’s fucking suffering. When you go out there and enjoy [the game], enjoy it for him.”
That’s why you saw Kevin De Bruyne flash two fingers on one hand and one on the other after he scored, a nod to Silva’s No. 21. Players held up his jersey for a postgame photo.
On Sunday, Matteo was in that photo:
He was also on the field in his father’s arms before kickoff. That was undoubtedly the best moment of the Premier League weekend.
Previous DARTS: Week 1
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