Saturday 19 January 2019

10 Premier League questions we will have answered before the next international break

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

Daniel Zeqiri

The first half of the Premier League season is punctuated by two international breaks, but what will we learn before the next one in October?

1) Is Manuel Pellegrini about to 'do a Frank De Boer'?

Well not quite, because West Ham have at least scored while Crystal Palace sacked De Boer after only four league games. With a trip to Everton, home games against Chelsea and Manchester United, followed by Brighton away before the next international break however, there is a realistic prospect of West Ham matching Palace's seven straight defeats at the start of last season.

The London club are the exemplary case of credit being too easily granted for spending vast sums of money. Worship of spending for its own sake is one of modern football's most distorting and fruitless ideologies. Buying players is a means to an end - the end in question being improving the team - it is not an end in itself. David Sullivan and David Gold appear blissfully unaware of the distinction.

West Ham acquired some fine players this summer, Felipe Anderson the best, but their hires still look a list of random names acquired by dragging a trawler net across European football. Pellegrini's coaching reputation is that of a facilitator of talent, but there is no Isco (Malaga) or Juan Román Riquelme (Villarreal) equivalent in this West Ham squad.

West Ham United manager Manuel Pellegrini has come under fire following a poor start to the season (Nigel French/PA)

2) Is Harry Kane's dip temporary or a long-term concern?

Four goals in his last five Premier League games either side of a World Cup Golden Boot is a rarefied kind of slump, but Kane's increasingly minimalist performances are a worry for Tottenham Hotspur and England.

This weekend's blue-chip game between Spurs and Liverpool will provide a welcome point of comparison. His overall contribution in the fixture last season (a 4-1 Spurs win) was stunning: scoring twice, linking play, out-muscling Liverpool's centre-halves and running them into the ground in the channels. Since returning from an ankle injury in March, Kane's game has not had the same range, though he retains a knack of snaffling chances in the box - particularly from set pieces (see Old Trafford and Tunisia in Volgograd).

Last season, before his ankle injury, Kane averaged 5.90 shots on goal per 90 minutes. Since his March return, the England captain has averaged just 2.57 shots per 90 minutes. This is problematic for a striker whose modus operandi has always been an eye-watering volume of shots, rather than quality of chances. Touches in the opposition box have decreased from 7.20 per 90 to 4.35 per 90 too, a statistic that also passes the eye test. Kane dropping deeper into a No.10 position with Dele Alli or Lucas Moura running beyond has been a habitual feature of his performances, and the same was true for England in the World Cup knockout stages.

England's Harry Kane Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

3) Which team is best equipped to cope with Europe?

The mornings get fresher, the crow-black evenings draw in and the Champions League returns before the clocks go back. It will be Christmas before you know it (sorry).

The group stage draw for this year's competition is uncharacteristically original, with Liverpool in with Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli, Spurs facing Barcelona and Inter Milan, while Man Utd have Juventus and Valencia to contend with. Only Manchester City's group can be described as straightforward.

Trying to predict fatigue levels months in advance is a thankless task due to the dozens of variables at play, but as a general rule difficult Champions League draws are more tiring. The matches themselves are more intense, but the chance of swift qualification - and thus the opportunity to rest players in games five and six - is also reduced. Man City will likely have more scope for rotation, which only strengthens their favouritism to win the league. Gary Neville, speaking to The Times, even suggested Liverpool should 'kick the Champions League into touch'.

Chelsea and Arsenal meanwhile, face the long-haul drudgery of the Europa League group stage. The quality of their opposition should enable them to qualify with second-string teams, however.

4) Can Burnley recover?

Speaking of the Europa League, Burnley's elimination from the tournament will give them some welcome free weeks as they look to recover from a worrying start.

Sean Dyche's team suffered three successive defeats before the break, and were unusually laboured in their off-the-ball work. No team has conceded more shots on target than Burnley's 30 in their opening four games, after playing three rounds of Europa League qualifiers taking place on six successive Thursday nights. Losing at home to Man Utd can be accounted for, but shipping seven against Watford and Fulham is very much in the category of un-Burnley like.

It is easy to explain their struggles by regression to the mean: Burnley have consistently out-performed their Expected Goals against numbers (conceding fewer goals than you would expect from the shots they allow). Those statistics however, do not do justice to Burnley's particular skill for blocking shots and putting bodies between forward and goalkeeper in the penalty area.

Sean Dyche

5) Will we finally see the new faces so far kept under wraps?

When to reintroduce players back to the Premier League grind in a post-World Cup season is a dilemma for managers, and we have seen a variety of approaches. Kane and Paul Pogba were pressed into action from the opening weekend, despite both reaching the latter stages in Russia, while others have been eased back.

The same goes for new signings, particularly from abroad, who have been granted extended adaptation periods. Arsenal are yet to start Lucas Torreira, likewise Crystal Palace and Max Meyer while Liverpool's shiny new defensive midfielder Fabinho has not featured at all. This need not be a concern for the Brazilian - Jurgen Klopp did not start Andy Robertson regularly until mid-way through last season and he was accustomed to English football. Even Naby Keita, arguably the summer's most exciting arrival, started on the bench for Liverpool at Leicester.

New Liverpool signing Fabinho is still waiting for a chance to make an impact (Nigel French/PA).

6) Will Unai Emery settle on a first-choice XI?

Arsenal head coach Unai Emery is yet to name an unchanged team, and in two of Arsenal's four matches has made a half-time substitution. Such tactical tinkering is natural as he gets to know his players and they him. However, it will be intriguing to see if frequent tweaks are merely a result of Emery's newness or a more fundamental part of his methods.

Arsenal's players have very publicly, and pointedly, remarked on the deluge of information about the opposition they are receiving from Emery and tailoring their approach accordingly. Arsene Wenger tended to favour consistent selections in order to foster chemistry and cohesion, but horses for courses might be something Arsenal fans have to get used to. Introducing Torreira, how to get Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the same team, balancing Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey and whether or not to drop Petr Cech are Emery's priorities over the next few weeks.

7) Is this really a Jose Mourinho 'third season' or not?

From Jose Mourinho's eeyorish tone of pre-season to Pogba's deliberately ambiguous comments, the idea that United are about to de-rail like Chelsea in 2015-16 has a seductive air of determinism. But does the pattern of 'the Mourinho season' quite hold in United's case?

Mourinho did not win a trophy - let alone the league - in his second season, an essential stage of his supposedly predictable managerial arc. There were signs of life in United's first half against Spurs while they cruised to victory at Burnley. The disappointing truth is that United's season is shaping up to provide neither death nor glory, but rather a slow march to an underwhelming top four finish (at best).

Whether the Pogba situation calms or inflames over the next few weeks could be decisive.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

8) Will two strikers be the season's tactical trend?

Lacazette and Aubameyang in tandem sparked Arsenal into life in the second half at Cardiff, with the latter moving off his left-sided perch to a more central position. The pair are Arsenal's one truly elite partnership and their goals and combination play have the potential to catapult a flawed team above their station.

'Joint top' Watford have also benefitted from a strike partnership of Troy Deeney and Andre Gray at the top of their narrow 4-4-2, while Pep Guardiola started both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus right up against Newcastle's five-man defensive barricade. Gareth Southgate's England featured Kane and Marcus Rashford together at the sharp end, though a back three does make it easier to accommodate two forwards. Eddie Howe's Bournemouth are another team who regularly start two strikers.

Quite why this mini-trend has emerged (beyond the cyclical nature of these thing) is unclear, but one theory is that two up top is a response to attacking full-backs. Several teams rely on their full-backs for width and attacking threat on the flanks, so leaving two up front can keep one, or even both of them, on the back foot.

9) Can an English midfielder, any midfielder, emerge for Gareth Southgate?

Will the English Luka Modric sprout from nowhere in the next four weeks? Absolutely not. There are one or two possibilities which might grab Southgate's attention, however.

Nathaniel Chalobah is back from a serious injury, but faces a battle to displace Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure in Watford's engine room. His teammate Will Hughes has also impressed as the dexterous, technical midfielder England have been accused of lacking. He is another player happiest in the No.8 or No.10 roles though, when England really need a tempo setting passer from deep. The same goes for James Maddison, who looks a worthy alternative to Dele Alli should England want a player happier coming short and receiving the ball to feet.

Tottenham's Harry Winks, who earned an England call-up before injury struck, is a metronomic midfielder who could improve matters.

10) Will Leicester emerge as best of the rest?

Leicester scored two moral victories against Man Utd and Liverpool, and were unfortunate not to take a point from both games in which they enjoyed an abundance of possession and territory. The club's recruitment deserves fresh adulation: the young talent in their first team could be worth more than £200 million, money which will be reinvested to kick off a new cycle. Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell, Wilfried Ndidi, Demarai Gray and Maddison could each attract the attention of the top six. Nampalys Mendy, who was became Leicester's record singing two years ago, is also reaping the benefits of a season on loan at Nice.

Their fixtures before the next international break are: Bournemouth (A), Huddersfield (H), Newcastle (A) and Everton (H). Jamie Vardy is also back from suspension.

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