Big Premier League questions from the weekend: Fernandes for MVP?

BitFootball examines the most important Premier League developments by answering the key questions from this weekend’s slate of action.

Has Bamford dispelled his doubters?

Patrick Bamford returned to the Premier League this season with a point to prove. The 27-year-old Leeds United striker had the reputation of a player who excelled at the second tier but lacked the quality to thrive in the top flight.

Bamford scored one goal in 27 previous Premier League outings on loan at Crystal Palace, Norwich City, Burnley, and with former parent club Middlesbrough. It was a far cry from the 2014-15 campaign that witnessed him win Championship Player of the Year. Perhaps that was Bamford’s level.

GLYN KIRK / AFP / Getty

Leeds might have thought the same when they splashed a club-record £27-million fee to lure Rodrigo from Valencia. Two months on, and Rodrigo has barely gotten a sniff. He can thank Bamford for that.

On Saturday at Selhurst Park in a 4-1 loss to Palace, the uncapped English forward scored his seventh league goal of the season and was robbed of an eighth when VAR harshly ruled that his arm was offside in the build-up.

“I always knew I could play at this level, so it was more for me to prove to myself that I can do well here,” Bamford told Sky Sports’ Jack Wilkinson.

Chances are Bamford has convinced himself that he belongs at this level and many of those who doubted that he did.

How will Hodgson find room for his talented attackers?

That question felt strange to write, but it’s true: Ol’ Roy has slowly assembled a strong attacking group at Selhurst Park.

Eberechi Eze formally introduced himself in Crystal Palace’s 4-1 win over Leeds on Saturday, teeing up Scott Dann’s headed opener from a corner, and striking a beautiful free-kick over the wall and in via Illan Meslier’s crossbar. Dead-ball expertise isn’t what defines Eze’s game, and he’ll soon furnish a reputation for duping Premier League defenders with his elasticity and trickery.

Elsewhere in the attack, Wilfried Zaha, who’s begun the campaign with five goals and two assists, and Andros Townsend are still mainstays in the lineup. Jordan Ayew, who logged a commendable nine goals last term, faces competition from on-loan Belgian frontman Michy Batshuayi.

The days of Palace pinning their hopes on Christian Benteke finding his shooting boots again are long gone. The only thing that could scupper Hodgson’s promising attack is a lack of inventiveness through the middle. Jairo Riedewald, James McCarthy, and James McArthur provide tenacity but don’t possess Yohan Cabaye-esque vision and passing.

Can Everton survive without Richarlison?

Probably not. The sample size isn’t enormous, but Everton have crumbled with Richarlison serving a three-match ban for a horrid challenge in the Merseyside derby against Liverpool.

They’ve lost all three games played without the Brazilian forward – against Southampton, Newcastle, and Manchester United – and have been outscored 7-2 in the process. Manchester United, who’ve been wildly inconsistent this season, completely shackled the Toffees’ attack on Saturday, holding the Richarlison-less side to a single shot on target en route to a comfortable win.

PETER POWELL / AFP / Getty

The energetic 23-year-old’s absence robs Carlo Ancelotti of balance and a crucial combination down the left side. Opposing teams have focused all of their defensive efforts on slowing down James Rodriguez, which in turn shuts off the supply valve to Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Meanwhile, left-back Lucas Digne doesn’t have as many opportunities to overlap and put in the menacing crosses that have served the team so well this season.

Ancelotti, who has branded the Brazilian international as “impossible” to replace, is well aware of the issues at play. “There is no player in the world like Richarlison. So we have to replace him with another player with different quality,” the manager said earlier this month.

Richarlison’s return after the international break should provide a huge boost.

Are Sheffield United in real danger?

Confidence is seriously low at Sheffield United.

Chris Wilder’s game plan is mostly the same, with overlapping center-backs and overloading in wide areas, but the one-touch moves and early crosses are less frequent since indecision crept into their play. The Blades are dwelling on the ball and not taking enough risks.

Following Sheffield United’s 4-1 loss at Chelsea on Saturday, they’ve now taken just one point in an 11-game run, which started after last season’s emphatic 3-0 victory over Frank Lampard’s Blues. A three-point gap has opened up between the bottom-placed Blades and safety after eight matches of this term.

A new signing or two could galvanize the dressing room but, with over seven weeks to go until the January window opens, a change of mentality must come from within. Wilder lifted his squad from the bottom of League One in 2016, so it can be done.

“Nobody is going to give us anything,” Wilder told BBC Sport after the Chelsea loss.

Time to drop Fernandes’ ‘penalty merchant’ moniker?

Bruno Fernandes’ increasingly dwindling group of detractors has coined the Portuguese talisman a “penalty merchant” whose statistical returns are skewed by his efforts from the spot.

Fernandes has scored on 11 of his 12 penalty attempts since joining Manchester United in January, but the 26-year-old displayed that he’s far more than a dead-ball specialist in Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Everton at Goodison Park.

Matthew Peters / Manchester United / Getty

First, Fernandes leveled the scoreline with a thumping header. Then the crafty international began to control the tempo, driving United forward with a series of runs and incisive passes that had the Toffees on their heels. His pinpoint cross for Marcus Rashford sailed past Jordan Pickford and into the back of Everton’s net, and he played the pass to Edinson Cavani for a late insurance marker.

On the day, Fernandes had the most touches (81) and duels contested (19) while managing the most shots (six), shots on target (three), and crosses (four). He also recorded the most tackles (four) and was involved in all three goals. Fernandes is far more than a penalty merchant, and he’s United’s most important player by some margin.

Is Cancelo happy at left-back?

Following a difficult start to life in England, Joao Cancelo has been one of Manchester City’s most consistent performers since Premier League players reconvened after the coronavirus-enforced hiatus.

The Portuguese right-back was primarily known for his attacking attributes when he joined City from Juventus in August 2019. This was clear when his excellent delivery over the top of Liverpool’s defense was headed wide by Gabriel Jesus during the second half of Sunday’s 1-1 draw. The Brazilian should’ve scored.

Cancelo’s also contributing defensively. No one from either side completed more tackles or interceptions than the 26-year-old during the Reds’ visit, with one challenge on Mohamed Salah late in the game particularly noteworthy. Cancelo was octopus-like as he somehow stretched and dragged the ball away from the attacker while sprawled on the turf.

Cancelo is becoming one of his team’s standout men while playing out of position. Despite the tackle leading to Liverpool’s early penalty, Kyle Walker is currently playing some of the best football of his career at right-back. Either Cancelo bides his time and eventually purloins his preferred spot from Walker, or he continues to deputize in City’s long-running problem position of left-back.

What should be Arteta’s 1st fix?

There’s nothing quite like an entirely abject performance ahead of the international break. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta will have plenty of time to reflect on Sunday’s shocking 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa, and the Spaniard would be wise to make some changes.

The scoreline flattered an Arsenal side that was outworked and outplayed by a Villa team that conceded six goals over the last two league outings. Arsenal’s stellar showing at Old Trafford seems but a distant memory. The Gunners have scored nine goals in the league this season, which narrowly puts them ahead of a quartet of players with eight apiece. Players, not teams.

ANDY RAIN / AFP / Getty

It’s time Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang starts up top at the expense of Alexandre Lacazette. Aubameyang, who shared Golden Boot honors two seasons ago, hasn’t managed a non-penalty shot on target since the win over Sheffield United on Oct. 4. That’s less a reflection of Aubameyang’s pedigree, and more an indication that he’s wasted on the left side of an attack with Lacazette as its focal point.

The front three of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Willian simply isn’t working. Consider that second-half substitute Nicolas Pepe managed more shots on target Sunday in 148 seconds than the aforementioned trio recorded in 65 minutes, and it’s painfully apparent that Arteta needs to make some alterations. Aubameyang’s mismanagement isn’t the manager’s only worry, but it’s one that can be immediately addressed.

Can Liverpool cope with upcoming schedule?

Liverpool may have run away with a point against City on Sunday, but they certainly didn’t escape unscathed. Trent Alexander-Arnold suffered a calf injury midway through the second half of the 1-1 draw, potentially leaving the Reds short another defender in a season chock-full of setbacks. They’ve now lost 13 players to either injury or COVID-19 this season, and yet they’ve remained competitive throughout, sitting one point behind Leicester in third place and going 3-for-3 in the Champions League.

But the upcoming schedule isn’t very forgiving. Once Liverpool’s players return from international duty – which carries its own injury-related and safety risks – they’ll have virtually no break until the new year. With 12 matches in six weeks, it’s unlikely Liverpool – or any other team for that matter – will come away without significant fitness concerns.

Everyone could see the dip in quality at the Etihad on Sunday. After a blistering first half, Liverpool and City dropped their intensity, and the game became a choppy mess. The two sides managed just one shot on target between them in the final 30 minutes. It was a sign of what’s to come.

Luckily for Jurgen Klopp, Fabinho and Thiago are expected to recover in time for Liverpool’s next game against Leicester.

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