In a Top-Heavy Premier League, More Teams Rush to the Bunker

There was a moment, a few minutes into the second half, that encapsulated it all. Not just this game and these teams, but what the Premier League has been this season, and what it might become.

A Manchester United attack had just broken down, and Everton’s defense had cleared the ball. Phil Jones, United’s central defender, collected the ball deep inside his own half. Oumar Niasse, Everton’s hardworking forward, chased him down.

Jones hurried a pass to his teammate Marcos Rojo, whose touch was not entirely clean.

The boisterous Goodison Park crowd, scenting weakness, stirred. Niasse sprinted toward Rojo, but could not make it in time. The striker turned, expecting another blue shirt to bear down on Rojo and keep the pressure up. And then he stopped, exasperated. None of his teammates had even left their own half. Rojo strolled forward, unmolested, and United began to attack again.

A pattern has taken hold in the Premier League this season. This game was not the most egregious example of it in recent weeks — far from it — but there was nevertheless something eerily familiar about Manchester United’s visit to Everton: A sense that we had seen this game before, and that we would see it again, and again, in the weeks and months to come.

Goodison Park can be one of the most intimidating stadiums in England. It is raucous and rowdy, and just a little ramshackle. Everton is one of the country’s most history-laden teams. Its fans duly have certain expectations. One of them, perhaps, is that on home soil, Everton will assert itself, regardless of its opponent.

Yet on the first day of 2018, Sam Allardyce, the club’s freshly installed manager, sent his team out not to stand toe-to-toe with Manchester United, but simply to stand firm: to absorb pressure and cling on.

“Our attacking powers are limited,” Allardyce explained afterward. “I knew that before I arrived. If we can keep a clean sheet, then we know that one goal can get us a win. Our ratio of chances created is very limited.”

He is right, of course: Most Everton fans would accept that his team does not have the offensive firepower to match Manchester United. His employers certainly would — that is why Everton is preparing to spend $33 million on the Turkish striker Cenk Tosun. Allardyce’s attacking options are limited, a situation exacerbated by a grueling schedule of four games in ten days over the festive period. He was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

In this instance, it was not enough. Though Everton crackled sporadically into life after Anthony Martial gave United the lead, it did not muster a shot on target for the second home game in a row. The resistance lasted only until Jesse Lingard artfully sealed a 2-0 victory for the visitors in the 81st minute.

But what is most significant about Allardyce’s approach is that it is not a one-off, a measure he is employing for his specific circumstances. It is a very clear trend. Newcastle United provided perhaps the most obvious case study against Manchester City — the Premier League’s runaway leader — on Wednesday.

From the kickoff, Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey took a shot from inside his own half that was easily fielded by City’s goalkeeper. As the ball was in the air, Shelvey’s teammates retreated a few feet, and then prepared for an evening in the trenches.

As Gary Neville, commentating that night, said, Newcastle “did not want to get involved” with trying to assert itself against Manager Pep Guardiola’s team. Instead, Newcastle Manager Rafael Benítez opted for what could be described at best as containment, and at worst as appeasement.

As with Everton, a kind eye might suggest it nearly worked — Newcastle gave up just one goal and was in the game until the end, unlike many of City’s victims this season. A less generous interpretation would point out that Guardiola’s team missed a raft of chances, and easily could have been ahead by 2 or 3 at half time.

In part, simplistic as it sounds, that is because there are six of them. When Manchester United — or the great Arsenal or Chelsea sides of earlier this century — “had opponents beaten in the tunnel,” as Hughes, a former United player, once said, only one or two teams inspired such fear. Now, with six, there are weekends when the majority of Premier League games follow the same pattern. That jeopardizes the uncertainty that has become the league’s calling card.

Just as important, it serves to muffle the fans. “It is hard for the crowd to engage,” Neville said of Newcastle’s supporters during the game against City. Goodison Park was quieter than usual, too, for much of United’s visit. Watching what amounts to a training exercise — one attack against one defense — offers precious little reason to cheer.

It is an issue that is often framed in moral terms, as though those managers who veer towards caution are in some way abrogating their sporting duty. The alternative, when faced with teams with vastly superior players and resources, remains unclear.

Besides, much more pressing is the more practical side of it. There may come a time when we feel we have all seen this game before, and will see it again. At that point, some may ask the question: Where is the thrill in watching?