Through the first nine games of the Premier League season, the table is starting to take shape and some players are separating themselves from the pack while others have shown signs of a struggle.
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Liverpool is flying atop the Premier League table with Manchester City giving chase, but teams like Everton, Manchester United, and Tottenham are floundering below their expectations. There are players on those squads who expected to be performing at a higher level that have instead struggled to make an impact.
Here is a quick overview of five players who look shells of their former selves and could do with a hard reset. All numbers from UnderStat.com.
5) Gylfi Sigurdsson – Everton
The Iceland international, along with the rest of the Everton attack, has been completely invisible so far this season. With just one assist through the first eight matches, the Toffees have had trouble converting chances, and Sigurdsson was benched for the win over West Ham on Saturday.
Thankfully, for Gylfi, there’s plenty of hope that both he and Everton will figure it out moving forward. According to infoGol’s xG model, Everton has by far the biggest differential between expected table position and actual table position based on chances created. Their expected table placed them fourth in the league before the West Ham game, with their actual position in the relegation zone. The same can be said for Sigurdsson, whose expected assist total is actually up – significantly – from his career total, with a 0.33 mark this season compared to his career clip of 0.21. It will come. In fact, it already has…he scored a brilliant hit from distance after coming on for the final few minutes of the win over West Ham, a goal that could mark the beginning of a return to form for Sigurdsson.
4) Nicolas Pepe – Arsenal
Now, to the players we’re a little more worried about. Nicolas Pepe cost Arsenal a whopping $118 million, but he hasn’t lived up to that price tag to this point. Through eight matches, Pepe has been a periphery player in the Arsenal attack with just one goal and two assists. The xA off his passes so far this season, on a better team, is on pace for about half what he put up last season at Lille. Obviously he’s facing better competition in the Premier League, but the drop in creativity is stark.
Pepe is also taking worse shots than he did last season in Ligue 1, with just a 0.11 xG mark per shot compared to 0.14 last campaign. That doesn’t seem like much, but most breaking that down further, most concerning is his shots inside the box are much poorer than usual. In his 11 shots from inside the area are averaging just 0.13 xG compared to last season where he found a 0.26 xG mark, a massive contrast that expanded to a full season amounts to just a 6.79 xG total for the season compared to his whopping 17.71 xG total last season for Lille. He is on pace to take slightly fewer shots, which makes perfect sense given Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are the two main goalscorers in the Arsenal offense, but Pepe needs to make his own efforts count much more.
There is hope for Pepe. It seems he still is learning the Arsenal offense, and should he improve his play even slightly, it tracks that Unai Emery would entrust him with a more prominent role in the attack. Sadly, at the moment, he appears just a bit-part player with Dani Ceballos instead looking the most impressive creatively.
3) Richarlison – Everton
While Gylfi Sigurdsson appears poised to turn his own fortunes around with Everton likely to pick up the pace this season, his Brazilian teammate’s poor form is far more worrisome. Richarlison has been invisible through the first nine games of the year, and put in yet another anemic performance against a West Ham squad at Goodison Park that defended very poorly and did not play well.
Marco Silva stuck Richarlison up front in a striker role against the Hammers, benching Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Moise Kean, and it didn’t get him more involved. Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi were excellent and Bernard also played well, with the trio behind Richarlison all excelling to produce Everton’s best attacking display yet, but Richarlison wasn’t invited to the party. He took just two shots and missed the target with both, while completing just 58% of his passes (14/24) including 2/9 in the penalty area. So far this season, Richarlison has not taken a single shot inside the six-yard box, having taken eight last season, with six finding the back of the net.
Richarlison admitted over the international break that his increased defensive responsibilities were sapping his attacking energy, which makes sense, and he approached Marco Silva about changing the tactics a bit. This tracks with his switch to a spot up top in the formation, and while it produced a win for the team, it did little to enhance Richarlison’s form.
2) Marcus Rashford – Manchester United
Looking at Marcus Rashford’s season-long numbers, it’s a shock that he’s receiving the criticism he’s garnered. He collected three goals and two assists in the first eight games, plus a 4.39 xG total in that span, which puts him on double the pace of last season. Then you look a little closer…two of his three goals and 1.40 xG came from the opening match against Chelsea, and two of his three goals are from the penalty spot. In his last three games, Rashford has three total shots (including a pair of goose eggs) for a total of 0.27 xG, plus a measly xA total of 0.13. In the 1-0 loss to Newcastle last time out, Rashford – in a 90 minute performance – had 0 shots while center-back Harry Maguire had two. The 21-year-old was invisible, attempting just 16 passes (nine of which were backward), failing to complete a take-on, 0/4 in the air, and failing to draw a foul.
In addition, Rashford’s contribution to others in the Manchester United attack has plummeted. Last season, Rashford put together a 0.2 xA mark per game, but the bottom has dropped out of that, falling to 0.06 thus far. Much of that can be attributed to overall team performance in a toothless Manchester United attack, but Rashford has certainly contributed to that as well.
There were plenty of positives to take from today’s performance against Liverpool. While he will still hope his time on the ball increases as the season progresses – Solskjaer’s somewhat negative tactics playing with a lead contributed – Rashford’s movement at times was stellar. On the goal, he utilized a common but effective striker move, drifting towards the near post forcing Joel Matip commit before fading away to the far post where he met the cross. Rashford also completed four take-ons in dangerous areas, adding to the collective showing. Still, he remains miserable in the air (0/5), only received 19 passes all match and delivered just 11 himself, and the goal represented one of just two shots taken (the other was a poor finish when given space outside the top of the area). He was withdrawn after a 83rd minute run that did not produce separation from his defender. The signs of improvement are there, but he must become more consistently dangerous to reach his true potential.
1) Dele Alli – Tottenham Hotspur
Of all the players on this list, Dele Alli’s season-long performance is by far the most worrisome. He’s completely lost his place in the Tottenham squad, and the few chances Mauricio Pochettino has given him to prove his worth have gone quite poorly. Alli was given his first start of the Premier League season against Watford, and Pochettino clearly hoped to reign in his wandering, giving him a smaller area to cover. His passing in the middle of the field was tidy, but he struggled to unlock a Watford defense that has been porous this season. Alli earned two chances created, but both the ensuing shots were extremely poor efforts from bad positions outside the box. Alli did make his trademark runs through the defensive line and was rewarded with the late equalizing goal, but if he is to earn more playing time over or alongside Christian Eriksen, he has to put in a better overall performance to help Spurs get better results than a home draw against Watford.
In their two Champions League games where Alli has seen the field more, he was even worse. Against Bayern Munich, Alli had little influence, especially in the first half where the game was still in the balance.In Greece he was even less influential, sending 11 of his 27 completed passes backward while failing to record a single shot assist, completing just one take-on, and committing three fouls while earning none. Overall, his body language is extremely poor and he looks like he expects bad execution before mistakes even happen.
Honorable mention: Harry Kane – Tottenham Hotspur
This is a tough one because on paper, Harry Kane is in great goalscoring form. He’s bagged five goals this Premier League season, plus a whopping nine goals in his last nine international matches. And yet, the eye test tells a completely different story.
Watching Kane, he has devolved from a quick, crafty striker with excellent off-ball movement to a static target man unable to keep up with counter-attacking chances. Kane has been sapped of his explosiveness, most likely thanks to a host of ankle injuries suffered over the past few seasons. Have a look at Kane’s radar for this season compared to the previous two, and you can see the worrying regression.
As you can see, the xG totals have declined sharply, while so have his shooting totals. Numbers can be rectified with improved play, but watching Kane play tells a whole different story, one of a striker who appears unable to produce the same skill set he once could, and at 26 years old its far too early in his career for that to be a natural transition.