Friday 15 December 2017 / 02:14 PM

BOX-TO-BOX: EPL MATCHDAY 15

Talking points and analysis from this weekend’s Premier League action

In defence of United

The jury is still out on Manchester United’s defence. They conceded an excessive 33 shots in their win against Arsenal (that total bolstered by the last 10 minutes of play) and considering 15 of those were on target (none of those came in that one-sided period), there is genuine cause for concern. David De Gea is making a strong case for Manuel Neuer’s once-unchallenged status as the best keeper in the world, and continues to prop up a defence that can get caught spacing out when the other team holds possession and patiently builds up the play.

This is just simply ridiculous:

It draws an interesting line between their defensive record and De Gea’s contributions. Compare their record to Liverpool’s — the often-cited worst defensive team of the top tier — and there appears to be a distinct gap in their protective abilities, United conceding 10 fewer goals this season. But we’ve seen too many of these games to believe that represents whole story, and the numbers more than support this: David de Gea made 14 saves against Arsenal, and Simon Mignolet has made just 15 saves in his last 10 PL matches.

Liverool’s cushiony style does give away cleaner looks on goal. United aren’t as inherently vulnerable, but they still are allowing far too many chances. If this continues, there will be a tipping point. De Gea won’t be able to bail them out every time, especially when the shots are coming from point blank.

Arsenal’s goal was exemplary of this exact problem:

Simple, steady build-up exchanges that were guarded without any attempt to disrupt gave way to a simple cut towards goal from Ramsey, right through United’s defensive line. Sanchez, due to the space afforded by the loose coverage, was able to find him unmarked in front of goal. Ironically, Ramsey is deterred from taking what is otherwise a uniform tap-in due to the presence of De Gea, but has found himself in so much space he could play the ball back to a trailing Lacazatte.

Multiple other chances came from similar lapses, only prevented by some incredible keeping from the Spaniard. We can confidently draw the conclusion that claims of United’s defence being their calling card are simply untrue.

To finish 3-1 despite only 24% possession is a different shade of the United gimmick, but another win that lacked a clear path to victory doesn’t dampen concerns that they have yet to forge an identity. We continue to search for a single consistent element from week to week.

The result will leave Arsenal disappointed: Their tactics weren’t entirely off the mark, but they needed to be far more secure if they were to successfully tackle United head-on. Wasteful play at the back provided easy opportunities for the first two goals, and United are far too good to afford them such chances. If they didn’t shoot themselves in the foot that early, there’s enough to suggest this was a very winnable game for Arsenal.

Despite the scoreline, they were the better attacking team on the night. They finished with an astounding 24 key passes (the best indicator of chances created), coming from orchestrated build-up play, United only chalking up six in total, all coming in transition situations. Converting 50% of your total key passes into goals is impressive, but speaks more to their lethal strike-power upfront and Arsenal’s erratic ball-control, than to any offensive brilliance.

All of this does little to ease the pain for Arsenal, who again find themselves clearly on the outside of the title race looking in.

Chelsea, progressing

There was nothing new to learn in Chelsea’s 3-1 route of Newcastle on Saturday night, but plenty of confirmation of what we already thought.

Rafa Benitez will bring the game to anyone. But even though they tried to play defensively, Newcastle were still far off implementing a game-plan to take down Chelsea, who were the most typical version of themselves. The Magpies were opportunistic to nab the first goal off a lazy turnover, but overall looked unlikely to break down Chelsea’s defence from there on in. In the end the Blues were far superior — 3-1 isn’t a fair representation of the game, but the blemish is a reminder that Chelsea are still ironing out some issues.

Chelsea can be wasteful with the ball — and that came to back bite them early against Newcastle — but they’re so confident in defence that it barely matters. Habits like that are ingrained, and in quick-thought situations lead to unnecessarily easy shots on goal. Arsenal suffer from the same problem, and fell to United after making two of these similar errors early. They’re scrappy, which usually plays into their favour, but they have a tendency to enjoy the fight a little too much. If United depend too much on overbearing talent, Chelsea don’t utilise their advantage enough, and end up in dogfights with teams like the Magpies when they should be dominating.

It’s sloppy, but better to happen now than in a big game. This should function as a wake-up call.

Chelsea are figuring things out. One thing we know that does work is the long balls from the back, which they seem to execute at least half a dozen a game. They’ve also figured out how to best utilise Morata’s incredible aerial advantage: there’s still rumblings about the loss of Diego Costa, but I’ll disagree — Morata, especially, as he improves at remaining centralised, has opened up so much space for Fabregas and Hazard to dig in behind and run at back-tracking defences. Both are in incredible touch right now.

Unlike everyone not based in Manchester, Chelsea have their line-up down-pat. They only have two decisions to make. Picking between Moses or Zappacosta at wing-back is a good problem, but after a terrific display on Saturday, Moses may well have surpassed him, able to contribute more within the construction of their team. Seemingly, the only debate is Drinkwater or Bakayoko in the midfield: neither are particularly polished — Drinkwater blew multiple opportunities that he failed to convert due to this — but the decision comes down to steadiness or energy. Expect Conte to tinker with a string of favourable fixtures on the horizon.

(Poor one out for Willian.)

Klopp’s selection dilemma

Brighton, with their preference to park the bus and protect their goal, were always going to struggle to control Liverpool’s blazing attack. Relieved to not have their flaws poked out, the Reds put on an attacking showcase with Firminho, Salah and Coutinho starring in their five-goal demolition of the Eagles.

The success of the line-up opens up some questions: Wijnaldum obviously can’t play centre-back against any competent attacking side, and finding him a spot in the midfield, with the Milner-Henderson-Can trio offering better all-round abilities, is going to be tough. The potency of the front-three, and the steadiness of the midfield once Coutinho slid forward, also leaves Sadio Mane out in the cold. Klopp has some decisions to make that could alter the make-up of this team.

Parting shots…

• With Burnley failing to double down on their advantageous position on the ladder, it’s opened the door for the teams on the bubble to hunt them down. Watford, Leicester, Southampton and Everton (seriously) will be gunning for their spot.

• Another week, another clutch finish for City. Their comfort from behind and when closing games out clearly unsettles the opposition. Carrying themselves with the swagger of, dare I say it, a champion…

• Jersey watch: Huddersfield’s red away kit is the big loser of the week — with such clean looks for their home and alternate jerseys, it’s a disappointing drop-off in quality. I see what they were going for, but it just misses the mark. For the winners of the week, check out West Ham’s sleek away kit. Straight black is always a safe choice, the blue trimming completing a classy look.

• Oh, Tottenham. The Spurs are in a slump – a 1-1 draw at Watford their latest disappointment – and have done their very best to put out a raging fire that was lit after taking down Real and Dortmund. They’ve lost touch with the leading group, and what happens from here could decide the future of their manager and a few star players, with big clubs already circling. Watch this space.

• Aaron Ramsey was visible exhausted around the 17-minute mark, which is just bewildering, especially in a game of such magnitude. Pogba was able to dominate through the midfield due in part to his lazing around through the middle part of the first half. Made up for it with the assist, but was an obvious weak spot in the early stages.

• Speaking of: Pogba’s brainless challenge that rules him out of the Manchester Derby might be the most egregious play of the year. Stupid is an understatement. That aside, one of his better outings.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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