Liverpool are faring well in this topsy-turvy season. But one player is really having a tough time of it.
10) Anthony Martial
It was a front three Gary Neville described as the best in the Premier League; a trio fearsome enough to entice Neil Custis into a quite painful argument with Jamie O’Hara; a triumvirate that seems barely recognisable mere months later.
Marcus Rashford has been below his usual standards, although ten goals or assists in 12 appearances – including a Champions League hat-trick – suggests that is more because they are so high. Mason Greenwood’s struggles are well-documented and seemingly ongoing yet he remains far ahead of the typical development curve. Anthony Martial has no such excuse for his four Premier League starts without managing to create a single chance or have a shot on target. A striker that has thrived in Europe but floundered domestically quite neatly encapsulates his club’s season so far.
9) Chris Wood
No Premier League club has been in the lead for less time than Burnley this campaign. The ten first-half minutes they held an advantage for in their opening fixture at Leicester was something of a false dawn for both clubs.
Even more so for Chris Wood, who scored the opener with his first shot of 2020/21 but has not breached anyone’s goal with his subsequent 12 attempts. He has played all but six minutes as Sean Dyche’s battering ram, the manager shifting Ashley Barnes out to the wing in search of an answer to their troubles but not daring to move his centre-forward any further than an elbow’s reach of the two opposition centre-halves who will inevitably shackle him. His best scoring season in the top flight could well be followed immediately by his worst.
8) Raheem Sterling
Not since his debut seasons for both Liverpool and Manchester City has Raheem Sterling started so slowly in terms of raw numbers. His first seven starts of a Premier League campaign have delivered:
No goals, two assists (2012/13)
Three goals, three assists (2013/14)
Three goals, two assists (2014/15)
One goal, one assist (2015/16)
Four goals, three assists (2016/17)
Five goals, three assists (2017/18)
Four goals, two assists (2018/19)
Six goals, no assists (2019/20)
Two goals, one assist (2020/21)
That is admittedly an arbitrary figure in relation to game time but the data is supported by the evidence of watching Sterling in his current flightless state. He remains a supreme player capable of the ridiculous but the unavailability of some of his fellow forwards has placed a burdensome emphasis on his game. While he undoubtedly needs more help, Sterling himself would admit his failure to clear the ludicrously high bar he has set himself to this point.
When does Chris Hughton start to tell Brighton they should have been careful what they wished for? Never, because he is a delightful gentleman who is entirely unpetty and somehow also 61 years of age.
But Graham Potter might soon come in for some genuine scrutiny. In Premier League terms, Brighton rank sixth for average possession per game, seventh for dribbles, eighth for shots, tenth for pass-success rate and, most remarkable of all, first for fewest shots conceded. Yet they place 16th in The Table That Matters Most after winning one game, losing four and allowing 14 goals. As lovely as it is to watch, it clearly hasn’t been effective. And their next four games are against Aston Villa, Liverpool, Southampton and Leicester.
You’d suspect anyone who predicted them to get relegated (and was laughed at for it) would be lording it up right now. They should take a leaf out of Hughton’s unfathomably evergreen book.
6) Grady Diangana
Mark Noble concluded his brief message with no fewer than five exclamation marks, so ‘gutted, angry and sad’ was he. Jack Wilshere told Grady Diangana to ‘go and do your thing in a club that respects you’. David Sullivan spoke solemnly of the need to address “a very unbalanced squad”.
Few would have expected the West Ham co-owner to look the most prescient of the three a few months later but 2020 cares not for convention. The Hammers are 12th and faring well enough; Diangana has done nothing outside of scoring a goal in a 5-2 defeat, culminating in him starting on the bench against Tottenham despite the absence of the similarly disappointing Matheus Pereira as West Brom looked considerably better and more stable without both. It’s not great when you’re doing an impression of the worst bits of Franck Ribery.
5) Pablo Hernandez
As a child of divorce, one can only empathise with Leeds supporters and the predicament they have been placed in. How difficult it is to be in between two role models as they fight so fiercely. But at least they get to have two separate Christmases and birthdays with Marcelo Bielsa and Pablo Hernandez.
There is hope of a reconciliation, particularly after the latter’s public apology and the former’s policy of not discussing what goes on behind closed doors. Hernandez’s reaction to being substituted at Leicester despite having made no impact whatsoever seemed to rile his manager but there are greater crimes than showing passion and desire. The punishment of being dropped for the defeat to Crystal Palace was sufficient. After losing consecutive games 4-1, Leeds need him back and at his absolute best.
4) Dele Alli
What a remarkable shame. What an avoidable waste. What a regrettable inevitability that a player who has struggled to establish himself in one set position over the past few years, and whose attitude and application has been called into question previously, has failed to secure the trust of a manager who favours functionality and abhors anything less than consummate professionalism.
There is a morsel of relief in the fact that Dele Alli and Jose Mourinho do not seem to be at constant war in the same way the Portuguese was with Paul Pogba. A mutual respect and admiration exists between the two – perhaps even hope of a reconciliation – but there has been a disconnect along the line. That revival upon Mourinho’s appointment last year, as well as Alli’s brief spurt of form shortly before football’s suspension, seems an awful long time ago.
3) Chris Wilder
So much of this is out of Sheffield United’s control: the injuries that would have wreaked havoc at any club; the loss of a talismanic goalkeeper and need to replace him adequately that dented their transfer budget; the lack of fans that neuters a team so reliant on intensity and atmosphere to bridge the quality gap to most of the rest of the league; that difficulty in trying to replicate a phenomenal first season back in the top flight.
It has all combined to crushing effect as a team that bloodied noses and boggled minds with overlapping centre-halves a year ago looks lost and ordinary. Chris Wilder will be furious that the lazy tropes peddled by Danny Mills and Garth Crooks upon their promotion look inadvertently a little more justified over time.
Arsenal supporters and many a neutral looked on with glee but Chelsea fans had seen this dance before. Willian provided two assists and had a couple of shots against Fulham, yet he was using up one of his five wonderful performances in an entire season rather than signalling a new consistent chapter of his career.
In six Premier League games since, the Brazilian has had three shots and created five chances. This despite starting or drifting into more central positions than usual and being given much more licence and agency over his role than Chelsea afforded him. Many people questioned the wisdom behind handing a 32-year-old a three-year contract, but even they expected at least one good year from Arsenal’s investment. There has barely been one good month.
1) Roberto Firmino
It is an inexact science but the findings are stark. Roberto Firmino was substituted on or before the 70th minute due to anything other than injury in three Premier League games in 2019/20, two in 2018/19, four in 2017/18, none in 2016/17 and, under Jurgen Klopp, five in 2015/16. Eight games into this season and he was taken off relatively early against Aston Villa (68th) and West Ham (70th). His 59th-minute removal against Manchester City was the first time Klopp had ever replaced Firmino before the hour mark in a Premier League game.
Again, it seems a random number to base entire arguments around. Klopp also seems to be desperate to protect Firmino more than anyone against the dreaded Liverpool schedule. But the forward does not look his usual effervescent self. The counter-pressing is not quite as energetic, the interplay not quite as incisive, the flicks less accurate and more predictable. For perhaps the first time of his reign, Klopp has genuine attacking alternatives to choose from, and Firmino has done precious little to persuade him not to. That Liverpool engine does not need replacing; it could just do with a break to prevent overheating.
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