BitFootball examines the most important Premier League developments by answering the key questions from this weekend’s slate of action.
How much patience does Sheffield United have?
It had to be Jamie Vardy.
The Sheffield native and boyhood Wednesday fan heaped more misery on the Blades as he streaked behind the hosts’ defense to glean a 90th-minute winner for Leicester City on Sunday.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder looked to the ground following Vardy’s goal. The club he’s supported his whole life, the one he guided into the Premier League from the foot of the third tier by melding a group of written-off players into an innovative and breathless tactical system, has just one point from 11 matches.
It’s a long way back from here.
Wilder would’ve been sacked by most clubs at this stage, but his case is unique after he orchestrated United’s rise. Will the Blades’ hierarchy make the unpopular decision to sack Wilder? Or will it give him the time he’s earned through four-and-a-half largely impeccable years in charge?
“I’ve got the arse ache … with people saying it’s fine lines and this, that, and the other,” Wilder said after the 2-1 defeat. “We’re a losing team at the moment. And I’m the manager of a losing team.”
Why did Guardiola make no substitutions?
Pep Guardiola criticized the Premier League’s decision to return to three substitutions per game as the competition entered its demanding 2020-21 schedule. And between Dec. 19 and Dec. 30, the two Manchester sides and Everton have fewer rest days than the rest of their top-flight rivals.
“Maybe this league likes to be different,” the City manager scowled in November.
So, Guardiola’s decision to not use any players off the bench during Saturday’s 2-0 win over Fulham must have been the Spaniard’s unique interpretation of load management. The presumption, then, is that most or all of City’s weekend starters will be held back for Wednesday’s dead-rubber Champions League match against Marseille before Guardiola has to choose his team to face Manchester United next Saturday.
Lineup of City players who didn’t feature vs. Fulham:
Sergio Aguero is the least likely of the above ensemble to play against Marseille. The striker is dealing with a knee injury and is racing to be fit for the Manchester derby.
Is this really the United way?
Manchester United came back from behind to claim all three points in Saturday’s 3-1 success at West Ham United a week after they erased a 2-0 deficit to win at Southampton.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often says such victories are in the club’s DNA, but does he really believe he’s reviving the glory from his playing days? The great teams Solskjaer played for under Sir Alex Ferguson would rarely be as inept as United were in the first half at the London Stadium. West Ham struck 12 shots while United were restricted to three hopeful efforts from range. Many players in the Reds Devils’ distasteful white-and-black kit were anonymous over the opening period.
Ferguson’s teams would fight from the first whistle and, more often than not, prevail. They would play matches on their terms. Solskjaer’s men only seem to turn it on when they need to and are heavily reliant on Bruno Fernandes.
The second-half rally at West Ham could also come at a cost. Solskjaer called Fernandes and Marcus Rashford off the bench at halftime to help rectify the situation, with grueling fixtures against RB Leipzig and Manchester City on the horizon.
Can Chelsea win the league if they sell Giroud?
Olivier Giroud came up huge for Chelsea once again in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Leeds United, scoring his first Premier League goal in his first start of the season to cap off a sensational week.
With Giroud getting the nod over Tammy Abraham for the second straight match, Chelsea looked sharper with a forward whose movement off the ball has traditionally caused problems for defenders. And Leeds were no different. Giroud made an instinctive run to give himself enough space to get on the end of Reece James’ cross at the near post for the opening goal, the Frenchman’s fifth of the week after he scored four against Sevilla in the Champions League.
It was a different story less than a month ago when it seemed inevitable that Chelsea would attempt to sell the French forward, who was reportedly upset with his limited role under manager Frank Lampard. But now the thought of off-loading Giroud seems downright ludicrous, especially ahead of a grueling holiday schedule where every Premier League team’s depth will be tested.
Chelsea are one of the few clubs built to withstand the tension on their squad over the next few weeks. Barring major injuries, they should still be in the thick of the title race by the new year. But it might be different in the long run. Chelsea’s title hopes could take a major hit without Giroud’s presence when the intensity ramps up over the final months of the campaign.
Is Kane the EPL’s most complete player?
Though he had just three touches in the final third during Sunday’s north London derby, Harry Kane came away with a goal and an assist, the fruits of yet another efficient performance from Tottenham Hotspur’s well-rounded striker.
Kane has always possessed the passing range of a midfielder, and Mauricio Pochettino can take credit for his development. But it’s Jose Mourinho who’s best utilized the forward’s unique skill set. Kane’s the reason Mourinho’s patented counterattack works to perfection.
The Englishman is at the center of every transition, playing key through balls before darting forward and rejoining the attack. Kane’s pass to Heung-Min Son for Sunday’s opener was weighted perfectly, while his goal was as much about his empathic finish off the top of the crossbar as it was about his off-ball movement. Son and Kane have a particularly telepathic relationship on the pitch, having combined for 10 goals this season.
On his own, Kane has nine goals and 11 assists in just 15 Premier League matches. At this rate, he’ll surpass the 20-assist mark, topping Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne’s joint-single-season record. We’re witnessing the start of a potentially historic campaign, authored by one of the Premier League’s most gifted talents.
What is Arsenal’s biggest problem?
Well, maybe we should breeze over the most pressing problem that looms over the whole club – owner Stan Kroenke – and focus on the on-pitch issues that trouble Mikel Arteta’s 15th-placed Arsenal.
Tottenham eased to a 2-0 win over the Gunners on Sunday, and in doing so exposed a growing gulf in quality between the two north London clubs. Arteta did work it out a little in the second half – the occasional inroad could be found down the flanks – but Mourinho’s rearguard never looked at serious risk of being breached by a series of hopeful crosses.
Better opportunities need to be created for the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, but Arteta is exhausting much of his playing resources in a back-three and deep-lying midfielders. There’s a lack of inventiveness in the starting XI, and that’s exactly what led to the persistent and fruitless deliveries from out wide.
While Mesut Ozil is frozen out of the squad, Arteta must get creative to enliven his roster. There needs to be a change in personnel, perhaps an injection of youthful vigor that can lift a team and its supporters. Finding a role for 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe – the only natural No. 10 at Arteta’s disposal – could be the only way to stop Arsenal’s 63-day run without a goal from open play.