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

Date published: Thursday 19th November 2020 9:57


How does Thiago change the dynamic?

One aspect of the most recent Liverpool game that was almost lost in the international ether and overshadowed by the infernal debate over Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota was Jurgen Klopp’s midfield selection against Manchester City. It took courage and immense faith in both Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to trust them to do the job of three men away at their closest Premier League title contenders. Save for Gabriel Jesus’s goal, it pretty much worked. But it was a tactic born of necessity, one Klopp will keep in his back pocket but never rely upon.

Even if Fabinho is considered a centre-half for the foreseeable future, the return of Thiago complicates matters a little. A midfield trio of the Spaniard, Henderson and Wijnaldum offers some sublime variation – and has only been tried during stoppage time of the draw with Everton last month – but would require the sacrifice of one Liverpool forward. In the short term that is likely to be the infected Mo Salah but it could be bad news for Jota or Firmino in the long term.



Should they rotate more in the Champions League?

Liverpool played seven games between international breaks, with European competition introduced into their calendar. They made four changes from the starting line-up that faced Everton to the one that beat Ajax, then three (Sheffield United), four (Midtjylland), six (West Ham), two (Atalanta) and two (Manchester City) thereafter. An average of three-and-a-half changes from one game to the next struck something of a balance between rhythm and keeping the team fresh but of the six players that featured in all or all but one of those games, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez are both injured, Jordan Henderson suffered from muscle “tightness” and Salah has tested positive for that ruddy virus. Andy Robertson and Sadio Mane soldier on yet Liverpool have built enough of a points advantage in their Champions League group – with their two toughest fixtures out of the way – to start rotating much more.


What is the plan without Alexander-Arnold?

The absence of Virgil van Dijk has had no adverse effect on Liverpool in terms of their defensive output. They have conceded three goals in six games without him, only two of which came from open play. The loss of Gomez could change that but might also be offset by the return of Fabinho, the continued robustness of Joel Matip, the emergence of Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips, or a combination of all three factors. Similarly, the injury to Alexander-Arnold might not be felt so much at the back as it is going forward. Losing the attacking dimensions his crossing and Van Dijk’s passing from deep offers will necessitate some form of change in approach. Either the understudy Neco Williams is drafted in or Liverpool play it safe with James Milner and place the creative emphasis elsewhere.


Manchester City

Stick with Jesus or twist on Aguero?

Three goals in three games at the start of this season can be tacked onto five goals and three assists in eight at the end of last campaign to make a compelling case that Gabriel Jesus should continue as first-choice centre-forward for Manchester City. While history suggests such a run of form is unsustainable, the attack simply looks much more fluid with him as its focal point. Yet Sergio Aguero is remarkably difficult to overlook – and not for reasons Roy Keane might suggest. Injuries have taken their toll on the 32-year-old but that is standard for a player who never seems to need time to hit his stride after being sidelined. One poor game from Jesus and Aguero will be waiting to take his spot.


Can they strike a better balance between defence and attack?

That chastening defeat to Leicester had quite the impact on Pep Guardiola. His commitment to binary solidity has been evident in City’s Premier League results since: 1-1, 1-0, 1-1, 0-1, 1-1. Eight goals is the joint-fewest scored in five consecutive league games throughout the Spaniard’s entire managerial career. As much credit as he and the players – particularly the partnership of Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias – deserve for that turnaround, it has come at the expense of the attack. Twelve teams have scored more goals and six manage more shots on target per game. Time to figure out how to keep the door shut at one end while unlocking it at the other.


How can they help Bernardo Silva to help them?

Guardiola has thus far been true to his word with regards to never selling Bernardo Silva. But few would suggest the midfielder’s stock has not declined since being named City’s Player of the Year in 2018/19. Once one of the league’s best players and a perfect stand-in for the injured Kevin de Bruyne, the spirit of Bernardo seemed to leave City alongside the body of his namesake David. He has been tried on the right wing, in attacking midfield and in a more reserved role but none seem to suit the qualities that shone so bright only a year ago. Find a place for him to thrive, a position that accentuates his energy, movement and skill as a link between midfield and attack, and City will click.



Manchester United

When does Van de Beek come in?

The 23 minutes afforded to Donny van de Beek in the opening-day defeat to Crystal Palace remains his longest Premier League appearance in a Manchester United shirt. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has given the midfielder a couple of starting opportunities to impress in the Champions League but there are no doubts as to whether the former semi-finalist can acclimatise to that stage. It is on a domestic level where many feel Van de Beek, scorer against Italy and Spain in consecutive games for the Netherlands, has much to offer a side still finding its feet. He cannot possibly be worse than the options that have taken United to 14th and below Newcastle after seven games.



Who fits into that front three?

Anthony Martial has had neither a shot nor created a chance in four starts at centre-forward, while Edinson Cavani scored in the eight minutes he was given at Everton and came closest to breaching that Chelsea defence in his half-hour as a substitute last month. Sir Marcus Rashford is not performing close to the standard he is wholly capable of. Mason Greenwood is struggling under the weight of undue expectation. Daniel James does not inspire a great deal of confidence as a first-team regular. Juan Mata, 32, has emerged as a legitimate right-wing option that in itself begs serious questions of an expensively assembled squad. Bruno Fernandes will do his back in carrying that attack soon enough.


What is a Paul Pogba?

Somewhere on a sliding scale between what Didier Deschamps sees and how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer views the game sits Paul Pogba: an integral player for the world champions who is trusted far less than Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic at club level. United have won a single game of the four he has started in the Premier League this season, and even then he was taken off against Brighton after another no-show on the hour. He is absolutely not one of United’s main problems; the issue is that he isn’t a solution to any of them either.



Will the defence pass a proper test?

Sevilla are 12th in La Liga with only Eibar and Celta Vigo scoring fewer goals. Manchester United are 14th in the Premier League and seemed genuinely fearful of over-committing until the latter stages. Krasnodar are 10th in the Russian Premier League and scored almost one-third of their total goals for the season against relegation-battling Khimki. Burnley and Sheffield United are the two lowest-scoring teams in Europe’s top five leagues. Rennes played with ten men for more than half their game. None of which is to denigrate Chelsea’s achievement in conceding once in six matches, merely to provide context to their obvious defensive improvement. If Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva can manage to keep Newcastle (*ahem*), Tottenham, Leeds, Everton, Wolves, West Ham, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Leicester relatively quiet between now and January 12, then the Stamford Bridge canteen had better stock up on humble pie.



Is N’Golo Kante the Premier League’s best midfielder again?

It was touch and go for a couple of seasons there but in this of all upside-down years, N’Golo Kante might be returning to his rightful throne. The Frenchman has the most combined tackles and interceptions (45) of any player in the Premier League and has overcome recent fitness issues to miss just seven minutes thus far. His pressing, positioning and awareness has been the foundation upon which Chelsea have built their recent revival. Kante is still one of the best around.


Who plays where and when?

That does lend itself to another question as to which of his new toys Frank Lampard plays with and when. Some selection choices have been forced upon him with Christian Pulisic’s injury, Kai Havertz succumbing to a global pandemic and Hakim Ziyech missing the start of the season, but those composite pieces are coming together and there are only so many that can be used at any one time. Kante is guaranteed to start but if Mason Mount and Mateo Kovacic flank him there is no room for Jorginho, while Callum Hudson-Odoi risks being suffocated in a remarkably strong squad. The onus is on Lampard to prove he knows best how to use the team he has assembled.



Are they title challengers?

Every team from Manchester City and up will be asking themselves the same question, with Tottenham the only exception. A club that has been collectively burned more severely than a narcoleptic sunbather in recent years will not allow itself to dream too much, nor too soon. But they are on the longest current unbeaten Premier League run, have the joint-best defensive record, are one goal behind top scorers Chelsea and have the best player in the division within their ranks. With Moussa Sissoko there are no limits to what they can achieve. That Jose Mourinho character could prove useful too.


Can Ndombele and Lo Celso click?

Only twice have Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso started a Premier League game together for Tottenham under Mourinho: the famous Juan Foyth draw against Norwich last December, then the 2-1 defeat to Chelsea two months later. Neither match made much of a case for both being given an extended run in the same team but circumstances have changed. Ndombele has been excellent this season with Lo Celso cast in his former role of frustratingly non-durable maverick. The pair have barely played alongside one another this season, Lo Celso replacing Ndombele against Southampton, Burnley and West Brom, while the Frenchman came on for the Argentine at home to Newcastle. It might not work but with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg settled and thriving, it is surely worth at least one look.


What is the best centre-half pairing?

Eric Dier should have retired from international duty after that tackle on Sergio Ramos, but his club form is far better. In his seven Premier League starts Tottenham have conceded six goals. The one game he missed saw Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez cruise through 80 minutes against West Ham before The Incident. Mourinho clearly adores Dier and wanted to throw hands with Ed Woodward over Alderweireld but Sanchez is by far the youngest, fastest and most expensive of the three with far more upside. It remains unclear which is the best combination.



Does Arteta have the ability to adapt?

Mikel Arteta has had 42 games as manager of Arsenal. There have been 19 decided either way by a single goal, as well as eight draws. So in 64.8% of his fixtures the Spaniard has succeeded in narrowing the margins, making matches much tighter and ensuring there are points to be fought for until the final whistle. It is a deliberate decision that enhances the euphoria of a battling victory, such as beating Manchester United 1-0 away, but brings the inherent risk of disappointing defeat, like those against Manchester City and Leicester. But the first glimpse of it going seriously wrong came at home to Aston Villa before the break. That exposed the need for something a little more nuanced in certain games to suit the opponent rather than trying to mask the deficiencies in this squad. Arsenal’s four Premier League wins this season have come against teams currently in 12th, 14th, 17th and 20th, with losses to sides in 1st, 3rd, 6th and 10th. The flat-track bullies need to change their game up at times. Maybe Olivier Giroud is the answer?


Will Aubameyang be moved central?

The key to everything could be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The paradox of Arsenal struggling for goals while one of the continent’s best strikers is farmed out on their left wing cannot have been lost on Arteta. Liverpool have made a notable success of stationing their most effective goalscorer out wide but that has only worked in a supreme system with a selfless centre-forward capable of bringing everything together. Alexandre Lacazette is no such focal point and so the idea of sacrificing anyone to accommodate him is rendered entirely pointless. Aubameyang has created more chances than any Arsenal player this season when he should be in positions to finish them. Teenage left midfielder Bukayo Saka has more shots than any teammate even though the player ahead of him on the pitch has 20 goals or more in six successive seasons.


What more does Pepe have to do?

Alternatively: what less does Willian have to offer? After skewering Fulham on his debut the Brazilian has been largely anonymous despite being brought in to provide know-how and experience to a callow and disjointed squad in need of direction and leadership. News of his ill-advised jaunt to Dubai, of which Arsenal are still ‘trying to establish the full facts’, must also rankle with Arteta and his non-negotiables. Nicolas Pepe, previously consigned to the seemingly separate Europa League squad, must surely come back into the Premier League fold. If not, Arteta risks that most grave of managerial mistakes: perceived favouritism.


Matt Stead

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