What the EPL?!: It’s a trap, says Ange, but Fulham jump into it anyway
We all love international football, but it has a time and place. That time is the end of the season, and that place is, increasingly, in despotic regimes.
Look, obviously we need to play qualifiers and friendlies and the like, but it isn’t half annoying when you’re really enjoying the club football.
We were back this weekend, and with a bang. A Merseyside derby, in which Liverpool won 2-0 and Everton had a man sent off (that always happens) followed by a London derby where Chelsea chucked a 2-0 lead to draw with Arsenal. In between, the hipster coaching derby ended Pep 2-1 de Zerbi.
It was a bumper round for ‘I can’t believe it’s not the Championship’ derbies: Brentford beat Burnley, Nottingham Forest drew with Luton and Bournemouth’s nightmare start was extended by Wolves.
To round it out this week was our boy, Ange Postecoglou, whose Spurs team beat Fulham 2-0 to go two points clear at the top. Let’s start there.
Fulham fall into the trap
Here’s the thing about playing Angeball, especially in its current high-powered version: you either have to attack it or park the proverbial bus, and the bulk of teams have realised that the 426 to Martin Place is the best option.
It’s not just Spurs who face this, of course, but given the tactical lineage of what Ange tries to do, it was always likely that he’d end up with Guardiola, Mikel Arteta and the rest of the compañeros of juego de posicion.
This is a relatively late development for Postecoglou, and certainly a compliment, as he’s now ranked with the absolute best as a coach whose side will impose what they are doing regardless of what the opponent does.
It’s a late arrival because, prior to Celtic, he didn’t enjoy the talent advantage that he does now, and thus it made more sense for other teams to take their best shot at toe-to-toe.
The deep block never really worked in generating wins but it seldom led to a thrashing, and once Celtic had beaten Dundee United 9-0, everyone was happy to take a narrow defeat and chance their arm elsewhere.
In Scotland, every team would just sit off and the game became about breaking down the opposition, even though there was a feeling – evidenced in Europe – that the manner in which Celtic played was there to be got at.
At Spurs, the team are much better and thus, outside the very top of the league, it’s deep blocks all the way.
The opposition are better too, which makes this an extremely interesting time to watch Ange’s teams. The Fulham game was a classic example.
Marco Silva’s side were so compact, deep and tight, but they couldn’t escape the constriction.
Having kept Spurs chanceless for 36 minutes, they decided to play out from the back, got trapped in the press and presented a chance to Son Heung-Min. He didn’t miss.
Then they did it again, with James Maddison slotting home after another high turnover.
That’s the thing about this style. Teams think it’s dangerous when Spurs have the ball, but it’s much more dangerous when they have it themselves.
Why didn’t Chelsea sign a striker?
The big draw on Saturday was Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal, and watching the game, you’d have struggled to pick which side was unbeaten in second place and which was languishing in midtable.
This was probably the best showing of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign and showed that, though the results haven’t been great, the style is bedding in.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of xG is aware by this stage that the Blues are underperforming theirs massively, which is generally a sign that they either can’t finish or are very unlucky.
Chelsea have been both, really, with their lack of a properly elite striker a curious absence despite spending the GDP of a small country on attacking players and then letting Romelu Lukaku leave, again, to Serie A.
Even on Saturday, they started with Raheem Sterling – remember, a wing back at times last year – as a false nine and Conor Gallagher, realistically a deep-lying midfielder, in the 10, flanked by Mikhailo Mudryk and Cole Palmer. Their only proper centre forward, Nicolas Jackson, was benched.
Thus despite playing well for 75 minutes, the best they had to show for their efforts was a slightly lucky penalty – in that it wasn’t a penalty five years ago – and a very lucky cross that went in.
Arsenal were played off the park, yet retained a chance of coming back. Robert Sachez duly passed the ball to Declan Rice, who returned it superbly into the corner, before Bukayo Saka produced a moment of magic for Leandro Trossard to equalise.
It was a little metaphor for Chelsea’s season so far, and even though they had scored twice, they were also rubbish in attack.
The good news is that the defence and midfield are going, and the hope remains that currently injured forwards Christopher Nkunku and Armando Broja aid them up top.
It would be worrying if Jackson has already been so readily discarded, however, because 18-year-old Brazilian striker Deivid, who was on their bench on Saturday, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page let alone a profile on their website.
The point of advanced metrics like xG is to try and discern signal from noise in terms of football results.
The signal for Chelsea is good, in that they are creating the chances to do a lot better than they are, and thus you’d expect them to get a lot better once they get a bit luckier, or a striker returns, or both.
The noise, unfortunately, remains bad. Pochettino is lucky that he’s new, and nobody expects much quite yet. Injuries have slammed his side at the start of the year and, undeniably, they are getting better.
The problem now might be that they face Spurs, Manchester City, Newcastle (away), Brighton and Manchester United (away) next. If the luck is going to change, they could do with it happening fast.
Do Manchester United have a plan?
At least Chelsea have a plan. Sure, it might not be working all that well, but you can see what they’re trying to do and how it might work if personnel or fortune changed.
Manchester United…less so. Their game against Sheffield United was perfect for the Sunday morning early riser crew, and came imbued with emotion following the passing of club legend/all round football hero Bobby Charlton.
They got a result, which is good, and from a belting long range strike, which was a fitting tribute to a man who basically invented the thunderbastard fifty years before anyone called it that.
Erik ten Hag can’t afford many more slips, but for the second match running, he was delivered a result if not a performance. Though United won, make no mistake: they were rubbish.
In an age where attacking plans are laid out by the best coaches, United don’t seem to have advanced beyond ‘pass it to the good kid’.
Sometimes that’s Bruno Fernandes, sometimes it’s Marcus Rashford. Antony was back in the side, almost a poster boy for doing a lot while also doing nothing.
Rasmus Hojlund must have joined United, looked at their ranks of creative midfielders rand licked his lips at the service he would receive. And yet…very little.
The problem, really, is that the transition remains their best attacking opportunity. Rashord, as ably demonstrated for England, is best when he gets grass in front of him and can go at defenders. Hojlund, too, is best with space to run into. Fernandes’ long passing can pick them out.
Every team knows this, however, so just denies that space. Cue lots of not very much, dribblers trying to beat five men and shots from range. That’s fine when they fly in, as Diego Dalot’s did, but it’s not a reliable source of goals.
United turned 69% possession into 8 shots in the second half, but six of them were from outside of the box and only one, Rashford’s just before the hour, is what you might call a chance.
Yes, they won. But no, they didn’t improve.