If it’s true that we learn most about people in adversity, then we learned nothing about Liverpool as it romped to a dazzling 6-1 victory over Watford at Anfield on Sunday.
Liverpool utterly dominated until it took its foot slightly off the gas with a five-goal lead and only 20 minutes to play.
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Yet the game did serve as a useful primer in some elements of Jürgen Klopp’s innovative soccer math.
First, the Anfield surface is 74 yards long and 110 yards wide. Even the wide bodies Watford fielded are no more than a yard across the shoulders. That means that, even if all 10 outfield players stood in a line, and there were times when it looked like that’s what they were trying to do, there would still be more than 60 meters of space across the field, not to mention almost 110 yards of vertical space to play in. On Sunday, the Liverpool players spent the afternoon demonstrating how much space the Watford players could not fill.
Second, and this is the counter-intuitive equation that might win Klopp the Fields Medal, even when a team like Watford does pack its defense with six, seven, eight or even 10 hulking men, Liverpool’s diminutive front four of Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané will have them outnumbered. It was astonishing to watch. It did not matter how many Watford defenders there were, Liverpool players could always keep the ball or pass it to a team-mate. The Reds even won the air war, with Mané, who is 5-foot-9, scoring with a header in penalty area crowded with 6-foot Watford players.
Finally, and, to be fair, this a theory that has been advanced by other coaching Einsteins, if you win lots of league games, you will collect a lot of points. If you win more than anyone else, you will, almost always, have more points. Klopp’s math has carried Liverpool to the top of the standings. It deserves to be there.
SWAN DIVE In his first battle of coaching wits with the “Special One”, Bob Bradley won the second half. Unfortunately, that came after a first half in which Manchester United had scored three times and ended with Swansea booed off by its fans.
After a week that opened with a home draw against Burnley and continued with a Europa League loss at Fenerbahce, José Mourinho had reverted to his instincts and dropped the kids. Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney came in, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford.
Perhaps not expecting United to opt for old and slow, Bradley dropped his paciest player, Modou Barrow. In the first half, Swansea stood around and watched with timid respect as United strolled around. United could not have asked for a more obliging foe. Paul Pogba, looking like the world’s most expensive player in a deeper role, volleyed a blistering first goal. Then Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke his scoring drought with two. Rooney, looking quick and lively against a lethargic defense, assisted on both.
At half time, Bradley sent on Barrow and Jefferson Montero. Swansea fought back. Mike Van Hoorn scored. It would have been a coaching master-stroke except that if Bradley had started the two men, maybe his team would not have spent the first cowering on the back foot. In any case, long before the end, United’s old men were already relaxing in their recliners.
It was a result that suggests that United is not quite as bad as critics have suggested but that Swansea is.
CARING NEIGHBORS Derby’s can be heated and ill-tempered, so it was heart-warming to see Arsenal and Tottenham exchanging gifts in their 1-1 draw at the Emirates on Sunday.
Kevin Wimmer headed into his own goal to give Arsenal the lead after 42 minutes. Tottenham’s only two goals in its previous five games had come from the penalty spot, so if it was going to score, it needed help from an Arsenal defender. In the 51st minute, Laurent Koscielny charitably tripped Mousa Dembélé on the edge of the box. Harry Kane, lumbering through his first match after injury, converted.
So this North London derby ended, like most of those in recent years, with the two teams sharing the points.
Mauricio Pochettino had sprung a surprise by adopting the suddenly fashionable formation of three center backs. It worked. The approach clearly surprised Arsenal at the start and deprived the swarming Gunners attack of space throughout. The tactic meant Spurs could play one less man in midfield where, deprived of Dele Alli and Érik Lamela by injury and Moussa Sissoko by suspension, they are a little light. Playing an extra defender could also have been a roundabout way of bolstering the attack by releasing Tottenham’s two speediest players, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, to play as wingbacks. But ultimately, Pochettino played the formation because, with a squad overloaded with defenders, he can.
For Tottenham the result was good and bad. It drew away to its hated rival and prevented Arsenal going top of the league. It remained unbeaten in the league. Tottenham still has the best defense in the division by some way.
On the other hand, Tottenham has now drawn four straight league games and has not won any of its last seven games in all competitions. Its challenge season is in danger of atrophying. And it still cannot score from open play.
Arsenal had more possessions but the few clear-cut chances were shared equally. It failed to win at home against one despised neighbor and instead of going up top, is now unexpectedly looking up at another, Chelsea. But this latest derby draw revives suspicions that Arsenal can still struggle to deliver the knockout punch when it most matters.
LIGHTING THE BLUE TOUCHPAPER It’s remarkable how quickly Antonio Conte has Chelsea accelerating through the gears. Last week, when Chelsea beat Southampton, 2-0, with an old-fashioned Mourinho-era performance of solid defense and opportunist attack, it began to look like a contender. On Saturday, as the Blues demolished a previously solid Everton team, 5-0, they looked like champions—although Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool (and Bournemouth), have also produced such exhilarating displays in what promises to be a vintage season.
After just 11 games, Conte has introduced a new formation and made it work. That’s not always easy. Everton tried to mirror Chelsea with three at the back on Saturday and failed, horribly.
Certainly Chelsea’s one blue-chip summer signing, N’Golo Kanté, has made a difference. But on Saturday, two Conte signings greeted with raised eyebrows, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, who scored, looked comfortable in the new system.
But as the opposing manager, Ronald Koeman, told the BBC. “It was not about the system today it was about the quality on the pitch in every aspect of football.”
Conte inherited talent and has found a way to lift it out of last season’s funk. The three most eye-catching Chelsea players on Saturday were, Diego Costa, who did almost nothing last season, Eden Hazard, who did absolutely nothing last season, and Pedro, who, last season, did nothing sitting on the bench. Costa and Pedro terrorized Everton and each scored once. Hazard was even better, crowning what might have been the best display in his frequently brilliant four-and-a-bit seasons at Chelsea with two dazzling goals.
It’s not always easy to keep such a high-performance machine in tune, as Arsenal and Manchester City, which drew at home to Middlesbrough and Bournemouth, showed this weekend. For now, Chelsea is purring.
IRRELEVANT CHAMPION In spring 2015, when Leicester was lying dead last in the Premier League, its players and fans would have grabbed an offer to become a dreary, irrelevant, mid-table team scuffing for dreary, irrelevant, mid-table points with the dreariest and most irrelevant of mid-table scuffers, West Brom.
Yet West Brom was assuredly not why British TV chose the game to close this weekend’s Premier League schedule. Leicester is the reigning Premier League champion. That looked more unbelievable than ever as Leicester failed to record a shot on target in the first half Sunday and lost, 2-1, a defeat which ended a 20-game, 13-month-long, home unbeaten run.
The danger of mid-table scuffing is that a couple more bad results and Leicester could find itself back in a relegation battle with every point desperately relevant. Sunday’s loss dropped it to 14th with only a two-point safety cushion.
And yet, even as it has quickly slumped into insignificance in the Premier League, Leicester is trying to write another chapter in its fairy tale. It might be hard to believe that a team that cannot handle Matty Phillips could hope to go toe-to-toe with Europe’s soccer aristocracy, but Sunday’s loss came four days after a Champions League draw which put Leicester on the verge of reaching the knock-out round. Maybe that took a toll. Sunday was a nightmare, but Leicester is still living the dream.