Premier League Underachievers Who Need to Sort Themselves Out

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistNovember 10, 2017

It's been a tough start to the season for Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal.
It's been a tough start to the season for Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

With the Premier League taking a break for another round of international football, it's an opportune time to take a look at those who need to pull their socks up when the season kicks back into life next week.

      

Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)

Was it really just 71 days ago when Manchester City were ready to pay £60 million for Alexis Sanchez? Good luck trying to get half that amount in January, Arsenal. At least they have benefitted from his infectious enthusiasm thus far this season.

In fairness, the club's stance on the player was authoritative from the off. After weighing up the financial implications, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger was always adamant under no circumstances would he be sold. It stayed that way right up until the point Arsenal tried to sell him but couldn't because they had left it too late to find a replacement. Seamless. 

"Alexis Sanchez, he wants to be blue," was the chant heard last weekend at the Etihad as Arsenal were turned over 3-1. The only thing blue about Sanchez is his mood.

There was a certain irony to the fact both he and Mesut Ozil looked like they would rather be anywhere but Manchester, when in reality, behind the half-arsed grimaces and Elmer Fudd foot stomps, they'd love nothing more than being in Manchester permanently. Wenger here cast as the cuckold husband. His two star players making goo-goo eyes at former flames Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho must turn his stomach.

When post-deadline day Guardiola insisted he had never even entertained Arsenal's purported counter-offer of taking Raheem Sterling in part-exchange, it felt a bit like the response Brad Pitt might have given if questioned about Angelina Jolie when still co-habituating with Jennifer Aniston. "Angela, Angie, Angelina you say? Nope, can't say I've heard of her…."

Regardless, it looks to have been a career-defining episode passed with aplomb by Sterling. In Europe's most prolific attack he is more than holding his own. In the Premier League he has six goals from seven starts, along with a couple of assists. He needs only two more to match his best-ever tally for league goals in a season.

All of which, when coupled with Sergio Aguero (eights goals, three assists), Gabriel Jesus (seven goals, one assist) and Leroy Sane (six goals, five assists) being in equally resplendent form, begs the question: Do City still need Sanchez?

He'd be handy, but in Aguero, they have the regal elder statesman and in Jesus a kid as good as any young player in the world. Obviously, Guardiola would take him, but whether it would be quite the match made in heaven Sanchez envisages is open to interpretation.

If the value of Sterling is rising, the depreciation in Sanchez's worth could be plotted via the same line on the graph. Just going in the opposite direction. From his perspective, it's probably job done if it convinces Arsenal to sell him in January. He certainly showed in his performance against City he would have no trouble picking out players wearing blue.

His Opta stats for the season read: Six starts (two substitute appearances), one goal, two assists, 32 scowls, 13 down-on-one-knee stares into the middle distance, five first-down-the-tunnel sprints, 62 melancholic monologues issued to his confused-looking dogs.

When Wenger named Sanchez on the substitutes' bench last season, it felt like trying to start a fire with wet tissue when you have a shed full of wood. On the occasions he has done it this term, it feels like he is finally looking forward. For someone whose whole life over the past decade or more has been defined by a desire not to leave Arsenal, it's remarkable how placid he is towards players who will probably spend Christmas watching the Great Escape with a notepad to hand.

Sanchez is far too good a player not to have a lengthy list of suitors to choose from, but if he hankers after a significant upgrade on Arsenal he could do with reminding Zinedine Zidane, Mourinho et al just how good he really is between now and the New Year. There's no such thing as a clean divorce, but it beats a loveless marriage every time.

His current no-man's-land meanderings are good for no one. Least of all himself.

       
Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool)

This selection all depends on if you see the glass as half full or half empty. No doubt there will be plenty who see it less as empty or full and instead as a vessel to be thrown in my direction. The German has his disciples and detractors; few seem to flutter in the grey area in-between.

Certainly, on the back of Liverpool winning four of their last five matches it might seem an inopportune time to question how Jurgen Klopp is performing. And in fairness, with Manchester United and Arsenal having recently received heavy criticism for dismal away records at "top-six" rivals, it seems a little churlish to include the German largely on the basis of shooings at Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, respectively.

Still, given he is now into a third season as Liverpool boss is it not reasonable to expect a little more than a defence as porous as it has ever been? If anything it's getting worse. The mood on Merseyside has lightened with recent improved form, but there is no getting around the fact it is essentially impossible to mount a realistic title tilt with a defence as bad as Liverpool's. 

It's hardly an issue no one saw coming either. Signing Naby Keita for £48 million for next season may prove a brilliantly prescient piece of business, but if it in any way hindered attempts to bring in a quality centre-half, it's like buying a beautiful sofa before fixing a leaky roof.

In fairness, there was clearly more money there. It's just whoever makes the final call on transfers at Liverpool decided paying £35 million for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made more sense than bringing in defensive reinforcements. The midfielder has made three times as many Premier League starts this season for Arsenal than Liverpool, despite moving to Anfield on August 31. 

To date, of the big six, Liverpool have conceded 12 more goals than Manchester United; 10 more than Manchester City and Tottenham; seven more than Chelsea; one more than Arsenal. On the same points, Burnley have conceded eight fewer.

Klopp should feel suitably chastised at the sight of Premier League new boys Newcastle United (seven fewer), Brighton & Hove Albion (six fewer) and Huddersfield Town (four fewer) all having significantly more watertight back lines. Each have proved building a defence is less about personnel than creating a cohesive unit. As it stands, it's hard not to surmise Klopp is severely deficient as a defensive coach. 

It might have been quicker just to say West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Watford, Stoke City and Everton are the only teams with worse defences. Three of the five have sacked their manager this season.

Maybe it's a backhanded compliment to put Klopp on such a list. Expecting Wenger to use the international break as an opportunity to "sort himself out" is like trying to fix a broken marriage by suggesting a romantic meal at McDonald's. Some things are too far gone. It's not dissimilar with Mourinho. He is what he is. At Wenger's age he'll probably still be sneering at poets, while winning trophies by means necessary. 

There's still time for Klopp to prove he is more malleable, just as Mauricio Pochettino has done at Tottenham. He has shown it's possible to have the best of both worlds, clearly having learned from a rude awakening in Europe last season. When Plan A doesn't suit his opponents, there's now a plan B, even a plan C to call on. Liverpool, in comparison, are too one-dimensional. As thrilling as they are, and no neutral really wants them to change, tactically they can lack both variety and sophistication.

To play as openly as Liverpool do away from home at the best teams in the league, with a high press and a counter-attacking style that involves pretty much everyone charging forward with the exception of Simon Mignolet, is footballing hara-kiri.

If Liverpool keep committing it, securing a top-four spot may prove beyond them.

            
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)

While Sanchez is possibly football's worst poker player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is much harder to read. Whether he's in Manchester United's team, or out of it, he carries himself in much the same way regardless. 

A self-confessed thinker in a sport of doers, he can look as though he has been given 24 hours to rid the world of all of its ills. In reality, all the Armenian Jack Bauer needs to work out is why after delivering five assists in United's first three Premier League matches, he has managed zero since. It's hard to see where the next 27 are coming from if he is to match his career-high of 32 assists in a single season. Goals have not exactly been free-flowing either, with just two in all competitions arriving against Everton and CSKA Moscow respectively.

For much of last season, he was a cause celebre for Manchester United supporters. History seemed to be repeating itself, with Mkhitaryan cast as the new Shinji Kagawa. Both had arrived from Borussia Dortmund as exciting playmakers coming off brilliant Bundesliga campaigns; both spent much of debut terms wondering what they had done wrong.

Mkhitaryan has started 10 of United's 11 Premier League matches this season, but the mood has changed. Fans who once championed his cause when Mourinho ignored him, now can't believe someone as ruthless as the Portuguese continues to pick him.

Watch him. He starts to trudge off the pitch just as soon as he sees the fourth official reach for the substitutes' board. In fairness, his self-fulfilling prophecies have proved on the money. Mkhitaryan has been substituted in all 10 of his league starts. He's become a footballing version of James Joyce's Ulysses: an obvious thing to start, almost impossible to finish.

Mourinho's in-built contrariness will not allow starting Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford together, even if, like every other United supporter, he goes to sleep dreaming of the triumvirate working in unison. And wakes up with a smile. That said if there's one thing to sharpen the focus it's two defeats in three matches.

When United were winning Mkhitaryan could get away with being inoffensively anonymous, receiving studied if slightly unsure applause for his good "continuity" work on being replaced. In bleaker periods, the sight of either Martial or Rashford kicking their heels on the bench while he struggles will bring the issue to a head.

And then Mourinho will start Marouane Fellaini instead and the Internet will explode.

It has yet to click for Sigurdsson or Everton this season.
It has yet to click for Sigurdsson or Everton this season.Dave Thompson/Associated Press

Gylfi Sigurdsson (and by extension, Everton period)

It's fair to say the only chance Ronald Koeman has of spending £150 million of someone else's money again, will be if he walks into a bank wearing a balaclava and carrying a sawed-off shotgun. 

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Even withstanding the £75 million sale of Lukaku, having spent twice as much on new players, it was widely anticipated they would have a decent season. Matching last term's seventh place was a given prerequisite, with the intention to kick on from there.

The Dutchman is long-since departed, holed up in an underground bunker wondering what might have been had Everton's new mega-money owner Farhad Moshiri sanctioned the addition of just one more slow-to-medium paced No. 10. Koeman should have picked himself if he wanted to add an injection of pace into an Everton midfield that housed Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen at the start of the season.

Interim boss David Unsworth has ditched Klaassen altogether, leaving him out of all but one of his matchday squads. When a new manager promises passion, a player who has attempted five tackles all season, losing three of them, is always susceptible.

If 1967 was the summer of love, then 2017 may be remembered as the summer of excess. It's unfortunate the eminently likeable, and unquestionably decent, Sigurdsson became the unwitting poster boy of a transfer window in which English football finally ate itself.

Sigurdsson will point to not being played in a settled position. Being pushed out wide at times when he favours an advanced central role echoes a similarly frustrating time at Tottenham. When he was used as a lone striker in the 3-0 Europa League defeat to Lyon, it was hard not to feel for him.

At £45 million, though, even taking into account how he's no doubt been a victim of circumstance to some extent, it's hard to dispute the Icelander has been anything but a catastrophic failure. 

For any forward-thinking player, disregarding price, a failure to register either an assist or goal from eight Premier League starts and two substitute appearances is unacceptable. Over the last three seasons at Swansea he had chalked up 27 goals and 26 assists in the league, hence the sky-high valuation.

There's definitely a real player in there. It'll be up to Unsworth, or whoever succeeds Koeman permanently, to tease it out.

       
Renato Sanches (Swansea City)

Such is Renato Sanches' standing as one of the world's most promising young midfielders it's not immoderate to suggest any Premier League club would have considered his signing quite the coup. 

After watching the 20-year-old imperiously boss Chelsea's midfield as Bayern Munich eased to a 3-0 win in a friendly over the summer, renewed calls were made from Manchester United supporters for Mourinho to go back in for a player he had previously admitted he would have liked to have brought to the club.

Chelsea were also tentatively linked to the man who cost Bayern £44 million when they took him from Benfica in the summer of 2016, with then boss Carlo Ancelotti having said he was open to letting the player move to England on loan.

All of which made Sanches' pitching up at Swansea City positively jaw-dropping, even appreciating Paul Clement having previously worked with the player during his own stint at Bayern.

In a transfer window when Premier League clubs were playing a giant game of Brewster's Millions, it still felt big. It wasn't quite when in 1982 Charlton Athletic somehow convinced Ballon d'Or winner Allan Simonsen to snub Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur on leaving Barcelona to join them in the English Second Division, but it was pretty spectacular by any standard.

To say it hasn't quite gone to plan would be to say Brexit might not have been properly thought through. On his debut against Newcastle United, he gave the ball away 14 times in the first half-hour. Think about that. I haven't played football in a decade, get out of breath if I bend down too quickly to pick up the post, but I'd still be quietly confident of staying out of the way enough not to lose the ball 14 times.

By the time his bow was curtailed on 69 minutes he had lost the ball more times than Lukaku touched it against Chelsea last weekend. 

It hasn't got much better for Sanches since. Swansea have taken a solitary point from the five Premier League matches he has figured in, with Sanches having finished just one of the four games he has started.

Few doubt Sanches has the tenacity and quality to be a real hit in England, but whether being pitched straight into a relegation dogfight at Swansea is right for a kid used to playing with kings not paupers is still to be seen.

In the words of pop troubadours D:Ream: "Things Can Only Get Better."

Except when they get that little bit worse.