Exploring Under-the-Radar Storylines in the Premier League Season So Far

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistOctober 6, 2017

Marouane Fellaini has finally won around a sceptical Old Trafford faithful, and it's only taken four years.
Marouane Fellaini has finally won around a sceptical Old Trafford faithful, and it's only taken four years.PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

The Premier League is taking a breather to let the international footballers do their thing.

With Harry Kane swapping the white of Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley for the white of England at Wembley, and adding another goal to his tally, we thought it an opportune time to look at some storylines not involving the superstar striker that have flown a little under the radar.

        

Fellaini has been really good, with no caveat for it being Fellaini

For large parts of last season, Marouane Fellaini must have felt his sole purpose in life was to act as a vessel for Jose Mourinho's contrariness. Manchester's Miranda split United supporters straight down the middle. They either disliked him a little or a lot.

Mourinho kept picking him. Lumbering in and around the team in that awkward way of his that somehow makes him look like an adult dressed as a child, it was as though Fellaini's presence was Mourinho's way of reminding everyone else that only his opinion of what constitutes a Manchester United player bears any weight. 

Comedy wigs that stretch the boundaries of what constitutes comedy to the point Mrs. Brown's Boys starts to look like Curb Your Enthusiasm in its nuance, suggested a smattering afforded him cult-hero status. When he came on as a late substitute against former club Everton in December, with the sole instruction to help his side see out a 1-0 lead, only to concede a needless penalty, the joke ceased to be funny anymore. The writing looked to be on the wall. Funnily enough, it spelled out something not dissimilar to "cult."

When Mourinho took the reins at Old Trafford and poked around the garage to see what his predecessors had left him, the anticipation was he would fire up his eBay account immediately. Few anticipated Fellaini, taking up too much room like an exercise bike that hasn't made its way out of the box, would not be one of the first to be listed.

A relic of the David Moyes nine-month omnishambles, the Belgian, along with Juan Mata, was one of only two signings the Scot made. Both are into a fourth year in Manchester having survived three transfer windows under Mourinho (including £300 million spent on new players).

Arguably neither have ever been as important. This season Fellaini has not just been awkwardly effective—though he's been that, too—but genuinely good in the way other players are good: without caveat. Talk of an imminent new deal being signed will largely be well-received. 

It can't be a coincidence United have lost just three of the last 46 matches he has played in. The last of those against Crystal Palace, prior to the international break, saw him score a fourth goal of the season in his eighth appearance. It's a wonder Mourinho doesn't wear him around his neck as a lucky charm.

"If I have to break my foot for him, I'll do it. That's me," Fellaini said in May, before presumably off-tape adding how he would just as happily break anyone else's, too. If Mourinho ever had a body to bury, Fellaini would be stood right beside him with the shovel.


"He is effective—knows his strengths and limitations," was Adrian Mole's Ryan Giggs' assessment of his former team-mate's digging skills talents, in the May edition of his Sky Sports diary.

Obedience is just as important as self-awareness. Mourinho likes players who do as they are told, and just like Ashley Young is finding out at the minute, loyal foot soldiers are often rewarded if they bide their time. 

Fellaini's time is most definitely now.

            

Mesut Ozil is almost certainly off, and no one seems to care

Is this the end for Mesut Ozil and Arsenal with Manchester United waiting in the wings?
Is this the end for Mesut Ozil and Arsenal with Manchester United waiting in the wings?Clive Rose/Getty Images

Mesut Ozil's suitability for English football has been a cause celebre for so long there is an episode of The Flintstones where Fred and Barney have a set-to over whether the German is inspired or indolent. To Proper Football Men, he is a mirage of a footballer, the illusion of world-class talent no more real than a pile of sand in the desert is a plate of steak and chips and a cool, crisp pint.Equally as voracious a voice in the debate is that which says to judge him on what he doesn't do

Equally as voracious a voice in the debate is that which says to judge him on what he doesn't do well, is to dismiss Pablo Picasso as a fraud because his paintings don't even look like real people.

Since moving to Arsenal in 2013, from Real Madrid for a then-club-record £42.4 million, the waif and rakish schemer has ranked top in terms of Premier League assists and big chances created. In fairness, it's not a bad CV for a playmaker. To even query whether it might be an idea for him to chase back, or, God forbid, press, used to elicit righteous indignation and accusations of not understanding the game. 

In previous campaigns, the clock ticking on a contract that expires in June would have had live minute-by-minute coverage dedicated to it. As it stands, Arsenal appear to have no intention of offering him a new one that in all likelihood he would turn down in any case. And no one seems to care. More concern has been raised over what will happen to Alexis Sanchez's dogs should the Chilean leave north London, than has been afforded to Ozil.

It would appear his road to Manchester United Damascus moment came in Arsenal's insipid-to-the-point-of-being-shambolic 4-0 defeat to Liverpool back in August. "I'm fuming. It's just pathetic," was Gary Neville's live assessment for Sky Sports. For 90 inglorious minutes, Ozil looked lost, as though an ageing tourist with sunstroke trying to pull a suitcase through a crowd despite having no idea which direction his hotel is. 

Ozil was having none of it, taking to Facebook to rage: "Too expensive, too greedy, bad body language, and lacking fight.' This is what people have said about me." They'll be saying Donald Trump is insensitive next. An inflamed ego knee has meant he has played just twice since the Anfield debacle, with Arsenal over the same period having gone unbeaten throughout September and October in claiming six wins from seven games.

Once unthinkable, it may be that Ozil leaves Arsenal via the back door over the summer to polite applause, or even in January, without a homemade banner in sight.

     
David Silva has been just as good as Kevin De Bruyne, if not better 

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

There is little doubt in my mind David Silva is the most highly rated underrated player in the history of the Premier League. Though his quality is universally accepted, in terms of column inches dedicated to talent, he'd have a case to take every major news outlet in the country to court. It at least explains why he has finally flipped and taken a razor to his gloriously tousled locks like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

Silva is an oxymoron brought to life: a reliable artist; a punctual rock star. He has all the talent of Ozil, and none of the hang-ups. All of which means he's a better player, but a less interesting character to write about. Flaws are what make us human.

It is the performances of Kevin De Bruyne that have garnered the most praise in Manchester City's near-immaculate start to the season. Many quite reasonably see the Belgian as being the most complete footballer operating in the Premier League. As ever, less has been said of the man alongside him, Silva. 

Yet a player regarded as Manchester City's greatest-ever by a large portion of their supporters has arguably never been better. When Bernardo Silva pitched up in Manchester over summer, one had to squint to make sure David had not undergone some weird Benjamin Button-style metamorphosis.It would appear added competition has been just the tonic for the senior Silva. Muttered talk of him being gently eased out now seems hopelessly premature.

It would appear added competition has been just the tonic for the senior Silva. Muttered talk of him being gently eased out now seems hopelessly premature.

His tally of six Premier League assists sees him top the pile (one would have thought Henrikh Mkhitaryan must have at least twice that number, such has been the respective coverage of both players), while in all competitions he has been the architect of eight goals in nine appearances. In his previous seven seasons in England, he has never not reached double figures for assists, with that number now in touching distance at the start of October. A career-high of 18, set in the year of City's first Premier League title in 2012, is another realistic target to chase.

A lack of goals, and he has yet to register this season, is perhaps the only deficiency in his make-up. Some 34 in 117 appearances for Spain make it all the more a mystery why his best return for City is a relatively modest 12 in 2014/15.

Even if he finishes the campaign with his goals column blank, a continuation of his current form will surely put right one of the greatest wrongs in English football over the past decade. Never once has Silva made the PFA Team of the Year, let alone been nominated for an individual prize.

Other than the rise of Trump, there has never been greater reason to revoke the right to vote.

    

The rise of uber-full-backs has been the final nail in the coffin for traditional wingers

If a predilection for inverted wingers that has become ubiquitous in recent years sounded the death knell for those of the traditional variety, then the rise of uber-full-backs and wing-backs with lungs the size of traction engines has seen the first handful of soil tossed.

Alas, touchline-huggers with a strip of white across their boots are less antiquated than obsolete. A portly genius in the guise of Nottingham Forest's John Robertson wouldn't make it out of an academy in today's game, let alone graduate to a first team.

Manchester United supporters reared on George Best, Steve Coppell, Lee Sharpe, Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo now make do with Antonio Valencia and, in recent matches, Young. A pair of wingers converted into full-backs.

For all the talk of Marcus Rashford being a striker, there are few more edifying sights in the Premier League than when he ignores a natural inclination to drift inside and instead stays wide to torture a full-back. It's the same with Anthony Martial when he follows a long tradition of twisting blood down Old Trafford's left flank.

A tactical shift in recent seasons, which sees most top-flight teams employ either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3 formation, leaves no room for traditional wingers that see crossing as their bread and butter. Chelsea's use of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses as brilliantly productive wing-backs last season set the template in many respects. It was since been aped, adapted and bastardized by pretty much of all of Antonio Conte's peers at one point or another over the past 12 months.

Tottenham's width this season has been provided by Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier, a pair of buccaneering full-backs. Davies has profited from Danny Rose's injury to the extent it is now debatable as to who is Spurs' first choice left-back. The Welshman's two goals, and as many assists in the league, combined with Rose's loose mouth, will make for a tough decision for Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino when they are both fit.

Trippier has been equally impressive, providing crosses for three goals in his five Premier League starts. Few boast a better delivery on the move. To watch him, it's clear Trippier has studiously observed Beckham's technique. 

Man City manager Pep Guardiola spending over £100 million on three new full-backs over the summer seemed to border on fetishism. It did not go unnoticed, attracting much mirth in the process. Then we all saw City play and quietly began to realise the Spaniard might have had a plan all along.

With Benjamin Mendy prior to injury and Kyle Walker marauding up and down the touchline with what can only be described as a pathological vigour, it has allowed the likes of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane to move inside. Operating in the pockets of space that tend to leave opposition defenders in a perpetual state of existential crisis, the pair have shared 11 goals between them already.

It is little wonder why, in the modern game, managers no longer want their forward players tied to the touchline. 

Arguably Liverpool's Mohamed Salah is the only proper out-and-out winger being used in his natural position by any of the top clubs. One might suspect this has led to a dearth of headed goals this season. However, if the union of wide men wish to make a case for their defence, they need to look elsewhere. According to an interesting piece by Football365's Daniel Storey, 23.7 percent of Premier League goals this season have been headers, which represents an unprecedented rise on recent campaigns.

Right smart arses, wingbacks, aren't they? 

     

Are Liverpool profligate as well as porous?

Should Liverpool sign Virgil van Dijk in January, presumably his team-mates will dispense with the usual toe-curling initiation ritual of making a new boy stand on a table to belt out a tune, and instead toss him a water, a loaf of bread and a fish in anticipation of him knocking out a great meal. 

Rare to the point of perhaps being unique has a single player been so universally singled out as being a solution to a given club's problems. At least Liverpool would make something back on what would surely be an exorbitant transfer fee, by not having to pay for his ferry ticket. The Dutchman making a show-stopping entrance by walking on the River Mersey seems a reasonable expectation for £60 million-plus.  

While there's no doubt the Southampton defender would represent a significant improvement on what is available to Jurgen Klopp, debate still quietly simmers as to whether the German is the man to find the solution or part of the cause. Whether it is individual error responsible for Liverpool conceding 10 more goals in seven matches than either of the Manchester clubs, or a wider collective failure, will only come to light perhaps when said individuals have been replaced.

An easier option might have been not selling Mamadou Sakho and playing him instead. With only West Ham United and Crystal Palace having conceded more this season, Liverpool are in pretty dire straits. 

Even if they can get it right at the back, it would be generous to the point of being remiss to believe Liverpool's defensive deficiencies are the only issues at Anfield. There's a case to say they are almost as profligate going forward as they are porous at the back.

As pointed out by OptaJoe's Twitter feed, the 137 shots Liverpool have attempted this season is a Premier League high. It's two more than Manchester City, who have scored nine goals more. Indeed, across Europe's top five leagues, Liverpool average the third highest shots per game, at 19.9.

They are down on last season in terms of shot accuracy, shot conversion and big-chance conversion. Since spanking Arsenal in August, they have scored just one second-half goal in their last four Premier League matches. A drop-off in their pressing game has been noticeable, too. 

While it's true only Tottenham and both Manchester clubs have scored more than Liverpool's 13, had they taken some of the chances squandered, the need to sort it out at the other end would be nothing like quite as desperate.

In draws against Watford, Burnley and Newcastle United, they had a combined total of 47 shots to their opponents' 19. Only four sides across Europe's top five leagues have allowed fewer shots on their own goal than Liverpool, who average out at just 8.4 per game.

In that respect, the midfield seems to be doing its job, in shielding its defence and creating chances for its attack, but when you have issues either side it's not always easy to find a solution.

They may be gloriously entertaining—how could a side trying to squeeze Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Salah into its first XI not be—but as Jamie Carragher summed up perfectly on Monday Night Football (via The Independent): "I think if Liverpool are on TV everyone wants to watch, but I think if there's one set of supporters who aren't being entertained by it, it's Liverpool supporters."

Winter is coming for Klopp and Liverpool. 

    
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