Three questions for each of the Premier League’s Big Six

Date published: Tuesday 10th September 2019 9:18


Can Klopp manage midfield rotation?
Liverpool have made seven changes to their Premier League starting line-ups so far this season, culminating in the exact same side that conquered Arsenal being justifiably trusted to overcome Burnley. Joe Gomez and Divock Origi faced Norwich before being dropped against Southampton, while swapping Alisson for Adrian was enforced. But the most movement has come in midfield. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum faced Norwich, Arsenal and Burnley, with Liverpool’s magic Gini reprising that role with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner at Southampton. It is perhaps no coincidence that that was their most disjointed performance yet, but Klopp knows it is a position where condition is as important as consistency. Naby Keita should be fit to return after the international break, while Adam Lallana continues to offer something unique. Even Xherdan Shaqiri is an option Klopp could and should consider in the coming months.

Joe or Joel?
Since Joel Matip joined Liverpool in summer 2016, he has started 84 Premier and Champions League games, winning 55 and conceding 74 goals. He has been the unsung hero of their development from no European competition whatsoever in his first season to consecutive Champions League finals by the end of his third. Despite missing the first few months of Klopp’s reign, he ranks in the top ten for most Reds appearances under the German. But there is still a sense that Joe Gomez is the ideal partner for Virgil van Dijk. The smaller sample size bears relevance but Liverpool have lost just three of 19 games the England international has ever started at centre-half for them, and never in the Premier League. If only Matip wasn’t in the form of his life. Once Gomez is fully fit, will Alan Shearer’s best mate¬†be proved right?

Will they turn up when it matters?
Last season, Liverpool dropped almost twice as many points in ten games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham (11) than they did in 28 against the teams from 7th to 20th (6). Where facing their direct rivals was once their main strength, it became their relative Kryptonite. Can Klopp recapture the essence that made them so dangerous in such crucial matches?


Manchester City

How will they cope without Aymeric Laporte?
With no official timeline on Aymeric Laporte’s return, it is difficult to say just how big an impact his injury will have on Manchester City. The reigning champions do not face a fellow Big Six rival again until November, with trips to Everton and Crystal Palace the most daunting in their next seven Premier League games. They also have a kind Champions League group that can be navigated without their best defender.

But there is every chance he will be absent for the rest of the calendar year, and emerging at 100% from a meniscus injury is nigh-on impossible. So City must make the most of the international break by drawing up some contingency plans. Do they cross their fingers and hope that John Stones is fit and ready? Do they shift Kyle Walker into the centre of a defensive four, handing Joao Cancelo his chance on the right? Do they drop Fernandinho or even Rodri in alongside Nicolas Otamendi? Do they trust youth in Eric Garcia (18) or Taylor Harwood-Bellis (17) to fill the void? Ederson could probably do a job there. Whatever the solution, the adjustment period without Laporte will be painful.

Is it time to embrace Cancelo culture?
Whether Walker finds himself dragged into the Laporte situation or not, City will soon start using the third most expensive player in their history. Rodri has already flown past Riyad Mahrez in establishing his importance, but Joao Cancelo is no closer to making his meaningful debut. And no, a single minute at the end of a win over Bournemouth does not count. Pep Guardiola has described the period after the international break, when the fixture list is more congested than ever, as “the start of the real season”. It is then when Cancelo, who “arrived late and wasn’t in pre-season”, should be introduced.¬†“There are many things Kyle knows completely and Joao is starting to understand what to do,” the manager added. It is surely a matter of time.

What is the priority?
To defend their Premier League crown against such credible challengers to the throne? To finally transfer their domestic dominance to Europe? To draw four League Two clubs and Arsenal in a piss-boiling route to League Cup glory? City’s comfortable Champions League group provides plenty of room for manoeuvre but seven games in 22 days after this international break will sharpen the mind and clarify which plates Pep Guardiola is focused on spinning. Some kinder draws helped them complete an “impossible” Treble last season but, if the balls don’t go their way this time, what sacrifices are made and when? And at what stage does it include Phil Foden playing against lower-league opposition?



Where does Mesut Ozil fit in?
If at all, of course. Those who happily pretend that Unai Emery is little more than a Spanish Arsene Wenger with slick hair and a less welcoming smile would do well to remember how rare it was for Mesut Ozil to miss any Arsenal match under the previous regime. After starting 137 of a possible 187 Premier League games (73.3%) from 2013/14 to 2017/18, the German has started in just 20 of 42 (47.6%) over the past two seasons. When Emery finds some sort of miracle cure for Ozil’s illnesses and back strains, he will have another problem to solve.

Can the defence settle?
Ozil is the longest-serving member of the current Arsenal first team. In terms of the defence, Calum Chambers is almost inexplicably the most established by more than a year. When Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding complete an injury-prone top three no older than 24, it offers an insight into one of the club’s biggest problems. Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal and Petr Cech have taken with them years of valuable experience and leadership credentials on their respective departures from north London this summer, leaving a gaping hole that not even David Luiz’s vast follicles can fill. The return of Bellerin and integration of Kieran Tierney should help immeasurably, but Emery must either patiently persist with a seemingly incompatible central partnership of Luiz and Sokratis or find a better pairing.

Will the goal burden be shared?
When Arsenal visit West Ham on December 7, it will have been almost exactly a year since they last won a Premier League game with neither Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nor Alexandre Lacazette scoring. Lucas Torreira’s goal in the 1-0 win over Huddersfield remains the most recent occasion on which they did not have to rely on their two supreme strikers to earn all three points. Placing the burden on such capable shoulders is no crime, but Aubameyang has 35 league goals since the start of the 2017/18 season and Lacazette is on 29. In third place is Aaron Ramsey (11), with Ozil (9) in fourth and Alexis Sanchez (7) rounding out the top five ahead of Henrikh Mkhitaryan (6). Nicolas Pepe is surely the answer, but others will also have to pitch in more regularly.


Manchester United

When is it time for Mason Greenwood?
The island of hope in a sea of United sh*t
has been submerged within a few months of first-team involvement. Mason Greenwood ended last season as a beacon of light, his performance in an otherwise drab final day defeat to Cardiff the solitary saving grace. Yet that platform has been wasted as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer drip feeds the 17-year-old minutes in difficult circumstances. The fear of throwing the forward in at the deep end and watching him sink is foolish when he could just as easily help drag the club to shore. There appears to be little to lose from giving him more than half an hour to impress, and plenty more to gain.

Do they have travel sickness?
Since Solskjaer was appointed permanent manager on March 28, United have travelled to Wolves (twice), Everton, Barcelona, Huddersfield and Southampton, conceding 12 goals and scoring four. Their last away win of any kind was that breathtaking Champions League victory at the Parc des Princes, while Romelu Lukaku scored twice and Ashley Young even netted in their last league success on the road. It is an awfully mid-table record that must be overturned if realistic hopes of finishing in the top four are to be harboured.

Is there a Plan B?
That such a question should even be asked in early September suggests Plan A – reminding the players that this is Man United, talking incessantly about 1999 and the Nou Camp and focusing on swashbuckling counter-attacking football – has not quite succeeded in restoring pride at Old Trafford. How surprising that a forward line built around fast breaks and transitions is finding it difficult to thrive on 57.8% possession – the second-highest average so far behind Manchester City. They used 46.2% of the ball at home to Chelsea to create nine chances and score four goals; 65.6%, 71.3% and 58.6% possession against Wolves, Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively has combined for just three goals. Precious few teams can afford to have only one way of playing, and England’s sixth-best is not one of them.



Are all the distractions gone?
Mauricio Pochettino discussed celebrating the closure of the transfer window for a reason. Tottenham were externally unscathed, the late deadline offering the chance to sell Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and find a happier home for Marcus Edwards. But the damage was internal and almost interminable. The futures of Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and a slew of other first-team squad members meant the start of what should have been a prosperous season in north London was mired in uncertainty and struggle. The excuse has now been removed, the existing players can settle and those who joined in the summer are finally free to step outside without the vultures circling. The Champions League runners-up can only improve.

Is there a case for the defence?
With Alexandre Lacazette’s goal on the stroke of half-time at the Emirates Stadium, Tottenham’s run of consecutive Premier League games without a clean sheet stretched to seven. That mark had only ever been reached twice previously throughout Pochettino’s reign, both in his first season. So Hugo Lloris ought to say his prayers and eat his vitamins before facing Crystal Palace at the weekend. It is no accident that Tottenham look more porous, particularly considering they have allowed more shots (71) than every team except for Aston Villa (77) so far this campaign. The reintegration of Jan Vertonghen alongside Alderweireld will help, as would an actual right-back.

What is the best central midfield?
In four games so far, Tottenham have used three different central midfield combinations. The Tanguy Ndombele, Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko triumvirate eventually delivered a win against Aston Villa, the Ndombele and Winks pairing somehow emerged from a Manchester City mauling with a point, and Sissoko and Winks supplied boundless energy and metronomic passing but disappointing results against Newcastle and Arsenal. When Giovani Lo Celso establishes himself as a fit option, he will join a relatively deep pool. At that stage, it will be up to Pochettino to either form a midfield for all matches or tailor it specifically each game to suit the opponent.



How transformative are the returnees?
As the bar continues to be lowered, the caveats keep coming. But one seems entirely fair: this is not Chelsea’s best selection of players as injuries are holding them back. While Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James nurse long-term problems, Antonio Rudiger has been similarly sidelined and N’Golo Kante has started one of four Premier League games. Frank Lampard does not deserve the gushing praise he has received, but nor should he be truly judged until he receives a full deck of cards to play with.

Is there a case for this defence too?
“It’s not defence, it’s conceding as a team,” said Lampard after Chelsea’s most recent game. “We conceded because we switched off in a game we should be comfortably seeing out, and that is no disrespect to Sheffield United. We’re just at a moment now when we obviously need to stop conceding so many goals,” he added, like a self-taught surgeon telling everyone that he should probably remove the bullet from his patient and treat the wound instead of actually doing it. Whether Chelsea’s manager has the tools remains a point of debate. Only Everton (29) and Manchester City (24) have allowed fewer shots than the Blues (37), who have conceded more goals (9) than every club but Norwich (10). Lampard must unravel that riddle and solve the puzzle. How long until he is spotted at Aston Villa begging them to let John Terry come home?

Will Tammy Abraham show more than what we already know?
With just three players ahead of him in the Premier League top goalscorer charts after four games, Tammy Abraham can most certainly be happy with his return. The forward has waited long enough for a Chelsea chance to let it go to waste, and such a quick start was crucial. But his nine career Premier League goals have come against Crystal Palace, Watford, Huddersfield, West Brom, Norwich and Sheffield United. This dog will either have to perfect his old tricks or develop some new ones over the course of the season.

Matt Stead


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