Written by : Joe Levy
Two wins and six losses from nine Premier League games this season have been layered with several peaks and troughs. These highs and lows manifest in a variety of ways, but none more so than the gaps between our star players and those struggling to get out of first gear.
Fans and pundits have waxed lyrical about our very own Fab Four in Fabianski, Diop, Rice and Arnautovic; presented with a scenario in which one of these players is missing from the team sheet, it stimulates the level of dread that is normally reserved for approaching the Dartford Crossing at half five on a Friday. Diop and Rice represent an excellent core of youth with solid technical ability, physical presence and a knowledge of the game beyond their years. The Pole in Goal is a contender for bargain of the season, and despite his ripe age of thirty-three, could be our best ‘keeper since Ludo. And of course, Arnautovic needs no introduction nor smoke blown up anywhere.
However, there are two other players who have stood out for the wrong reasons – mainly as their poor form this season is utterly parallel to their form in seasons past.
The first, Michail Antonio. His first season culminated in goals against Spurs, Liverpool and (in)famous goal celebrations. A second season saw him win Hammer of the Year, earn an England call-up and a new four-year contract. So far, so good. Yet, from there on, his form has dropped off quicker than Roger Johnson scuttling away from a bulldozing Yaya Touré. Injuries began to pile up, accusations of weight gain and acting ‘big-time’ filter through and a former star man is now a shadow of his former self. It is true that his technical shortcomings are being highlighted more regularly in an ever-improving Premier League and his formerly lauded physical strength and stamina now seems to hinder him greatly, and he’s looking tired well before he should. A £20 million-pound move to Crystal Palace never materialised this summer and there was hope that he could rediscover his powerful early form.
Whilst a lot of criticism surrounding Antonio puts the blame on him as an individual, the systems he has found himself have tended to hinder his capabilities. Slaven’s failed right-back experiment gave me nightmares for months and now, under Pellegrini, the system could be a cause of Antonio’s shortcomings. The player himself has previously argued his case for playing as a centre forward, but a combination of Arnautovic’s star quality and Antonio’s lack of technical ability, means his opportunities are limited to the wing. However, Pellegrini prefers to play with inverted wingers, Anderson and Yarmolenko cutting in on their ‘wrong’ foot for their corresponding position. This allows the full-backs to charge on, perfectly demonstrated by Zabaleta’s assist for Anderson against Manchester United. Antonio does not suit this style one iota – he’s a very direct player and very one footed, and a requirement of a modern-day winger is track back regularly, which is not his forte (and yes, Anderson is not particularly adept at this skill either, but that is for another time).
So, the solution for Antonio? Another stint at full-back? Forces his way past Arnautovic? Highly unlikely, and with each substitute appearance showing less and less of what we knew of the player, a move away in January or the summer, would be the best move for player and club.
Another early-season struggler is Arthur Masuaku. Since his arrival at the club, a constant duel between the DR Congo man and Aaron Cresswell has developed. The two possess very different styles in both defending and attacking – Cresswell, more reserved and conservative, the occasional telepathic link-up with Andy Carroll, and very average defensively, would be many people’s ‘sensible choice’. On the other hand, Masuaku is the footballing equivalent of Speedy Gonzalez and Roadrunner’s love child. Constantly running, dribbling and tricking his way into the final third with a wicked cross, but ultimately leaving gaps the size of craters in the defensive line. Once again, Masuaku’s form may lie in the system.
Under Moyes, a back five allowed Masuaku to take up his favoured LWB position. Minimal defensive responsibilities and the freedom of the flank to cause havoc. Pellegrini’s switch to a back four means that Masuaku now must adhere to his defensive shackles, perhaps double-guessing himself before setting off on a mazy run. Coupled with the fact he shares a side of the pitch with Anderson (a non-tracking winger) means that any venture forward results in a dangerous counterattack in the making.
Masuaku also has a trait in which he loses all sense of space and understanding. The handball penalty he gave away at West Brom, and regularly losing his man in the box, means that he has become a defensive liability.
However, his quality is undeniable. Placing in the upper echelons of best dribblers in European football last season, an outrageous piece of skill against Spurs and electric pace mean that, unlike Antonio, he has a future at the club. Masuaku’s best chance of finding success is further forward. He has already shown his ability as a left winger and this would revoke some, not all, defensive duties. This would result in Anderson shifting inside, as a number 10 in the midfield three, minimising his defensive duties too. Asymmetrical wingers in a 4-3-3 could work very well, along for a combination of traditional and contemporary wing-play.
Antonio and Masuaku will not be the only players this season to come under fire for underperforming but there are solutions to the situations they find themselves in. I expect Pellegrini to continue to switch his left-backs and perhaps dip into the market come January. For Antonio, the writing may be on the wall. Pellegrini’s choice to bring on Diangana for the injured Yarmolenko against Spurs shows his commitment to a system and Antonio’s inability to match this required mould.
Despite form being temporary, Pellegrini’s decision could well be permanent.