What will Liverpool and Manchester City produce after the break?

Credit: Kevin Quigley

After a long and arduous international break, the Premier League returns on Saturday. In case you have forgotten where we left things a fortnight ago, here are some key talking points to get you back up to speed. 

Will Mikel Arteta play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through the middle? 

Arsenal’s attacking problems are defined by an unfortunate double whammy: they do not create enough chances and the chances they do create fall to the wrong players. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has taken fewer shots in the Premier League this season than Harry Maguire, Chris Wood and Yves Bissouma and his expected goals per 90 minutes puts him 65th in the division. He has not scored from open play in the Premier League since the opening weekend against Fulham. Whether he plays from the left, right or at centre-forward, Arsenal need Aubameyang to be the player on the end of moves and at present that is not materialising. 

Mikel Arteta has been reluctant to use Aubameyang at No 9, apart from a 20-minute spell against Sheffield United when Arsenal scored twice and played their best football of the season. It seems that Arsenal’s lack of presence between the lines in attacking midfield areas is a factor in Arteta’s thinking, requiring the striker to drop deep in order to compensate. When asked about starting Aubameyang centrally, Arteta said: "It will depend on who he’s surrounded with," hinting at these considerations. 

If you’re going to utilise a striker in that way, it makes some sense to sacrifice Alexandre Lacazette and leave your truly elite goalscorer in a freer role from the flank. That’s the thinking at least, although playing a striker on the left also has adverse effects on a team’s build-up play. 

With the attack not functioning and Lacazette out of form, maybe it is time to re-imagine the centre-forward role and trust any two of Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe, Willian and even Joe Willock or Reiss Nelson to link play and offer a degree of creativity. Sharing the goalscoring burden between Aubameyang and Lacazette has not worked, so play an extra wide player or midfielder to share the creative burden more evenly. Arsenal probably need a signing or two to fully solve their creativity block but they are capable of better than they have produced so far. It’s on Arteta to bring that out of his team. 

Sam Dean's Arsenal briefing

Will the double pivot continue to be in fashion? 

The league’s foremost coaches Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been devoted to 4-3-3 during their time in England – when you close your eyes and imagine their title-winning teams you picture that shape. However, in recent months both coaches have experimented with an altered formation using two deep-lying central midfielders. This was crystal clear in their 1-1 draw before the break, when Liverpool used a surprise 4-2-4 in attack with Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson sitting and City also used a midfield pair of Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan. 

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer uses a 4-2-3-1 resolutely, bar a short stray to a midfield diamond, with Fred and Scott McTominay his go-to pick. Jose Mourinho has favoured this shape since his time at Real Madrid, and Tottenham are thriving with a combination of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg plus one other behind Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso.  The same can be said of Arteta at Arsenal, who has not used the Barcelona-style 4-3-3 expected of him and is likely to proceed with Thomas Partey plus a partner. Frank Lampard has recently experimented with 4-3-3 but has played with a pivot combining two of Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic for most of his spell at Stamford Bridge. Ralph Hassenhuttl’s Southampton use a 4-2-2-2 with Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse central, while Dean Smith’s Aston Villa have been anchored by John McGinn and Douglas Luiz with Ross Barkley in front of them. 

Have we been transported back to 2010? 

Are Sheffield United and Burnley really that bad?

Sheffield United and Burnley are regarded, with some justification, as two of the best-coached and well organised teams in the division but currently occupy 20th and 19th place and are both without a win. 

The absence of fans from the stadiums and the sterile atmosphere around Premier League games are marginal factors, but Sheffield United and Burnley are two teams who rely on fine margins. Most of their victories are by the odd goal, and they are not teams who can play slow-tempo, low intensity football. They need maximum application to win games. When you rely on fine margins, you are always vulnerable to fickle changes of fortune. 

Both teams are in the bottom four based on expected goal difference, so on the face of it can have few complaints with their league position. That said, Burnley and Sheffield United have underperformed their expected goals more than any other team, and their expected goals for is already quite low to begin with. 

Looking forward, there is more hope for Burnley climbing the table. They have maintained their famed defensive obduracy – only Brighton and Leicester City have a lower expected goals against total so far this season. By contrast, only Leeds and West Brom have a higher expected goals against total than Sheffield United. Combine that with their modest attacking numbers, and it could be a long season for Chris Wilder’s team. 

Sheffield United are without a win all season

Credit: Reuters

Will Donny van De Beek be more involved for Manchester United? 

Manchester United’s big summer singing has made some valuable contributions from the bench an impressed in their Champions League victory over RB Leipzig, but there is surely more to come from van De Beek. It seems that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has given up on the idea of shoehorning Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and van De Beek in one team, but if Pogba continues to be out of favour could he play Fernandes and the Dutchman in front of just one sitting midfielder? Solskjaer has not showed much inclination so far, but another midfielder capable of making late runs into the penalty area could make United even more potent. 

Have Fulham turned a corner?

There were fears Fulham might threaten Derby County’s lowest-ever Premier League points tally from 2007-08 but they look to be improving. They drew away at Sheffield United while missing a penalty, comfortably vanquished West Brom before they were beaten by a last-minute goal at West Ham. They missed another penalty that day, with Ademola Lookman fluffing an attempted panenka, but the winger has given Scott Parker’s team a much-needed injection of threat and quality. Four teams have a worse expected goals difference than Fulham, nine teams have produced fewer expected goals while three teams have a higher expected goals conceded total. So they are not completely adrift. 

Could Tottenham win the league? 

The rhythms of post-lockdown football seem to suit Jose Mourinho. A major concern about Mourinho’s ability to find an edge at the elite level was his laissez-faire approach to coaching his attacks, loading responsibility on individuals to find their own solutions. However, with quick turnarounds between games and a lack of training ground time, this apparently simplistic approach might prove ideal. Especially when you possess attacking talent such as Harry Kane, Heung-min Son and Gareth Bale who do not need their hands held. 

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Spurs have certainly earned their league position of second. They have the second-highest expected goals tally, behind only Liverpool, and the second-best expected goals difference (behind only Liverpool). They have scored 37 goals in all competitions. That said, they have benefited from a soft set fixtures since an opening day defeat against Everton, with three consecutive wins coming against Brighton, Burnley and West Brom. Five of their next six fixtures are against City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leicester which will be a stiff test. 

Can West Ham win when they are favourites? 

Worries about West Ham not winning not winning a single point from their opening seven games proved misguided, with David Moyes quietly rebuilding his reputation with some impressive performances and astute recruitment. They were unlucky to lose at Arsenal, but defeated Wolves and Leicester and drew against Manchester City and Tottenham. West Ham also came out of a narrow loss away at Anfield with plenty of credit. 

Now Moyes’ side must guard against falling into the ‘typical West Ham’ pattern of giving fierce rivals a bloody nose before dropping away in games which should be their bread and butter. They laboured against Fulham, and now face Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Aston Villa in their next five games without Michail Antonio. At the end of that run, West Ham could either be in a very strong position or kicking themselves once again. 

West Ham have exceeded expectations this season

Credit:  Shutterstock

Can Leeds stop giving up so many high-quality chances? 

Marcelo Bielsa will not take a backward step and nor should he: his principles, pressing and patterns of play have taken a mid-table Championship team back to the top flight for the first time since 2004. 

However, he might be considering small tweaks to stop Leeds leaking so many good chances. No team has a higher expected goals against tally than Leeds who shipped seven goals in their two defeats against Leicester and Crystal Palace before the international break. Leeds’ man-marking makes them an outlier in the Premier League and they leave themselves short on numbers at the back if teams can pass their way through pressure. Leeds are a thrilling watch, and their relentless attacking should see them win enough games to thrive, but they would be a serious force if they could find a way to keep the back door shut.