The 5 big Prem questions this weekend: Manc bragging rights, Benteke and Bony
1. Will the Machester derby be decided in midfield?
It’s an area where both managers have arguably constructed their greatest units, in Makelele-Essien-Lampard and Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta
We all know the main point of interest on Saturday lunchtime, and it sure ain’t the players. From the second they dismount the coach through to their post-match interviews, all cameras will be trained on the two managers, and we can rest assured that any dialogue, eye contact or handshakes (or, god forbid, a lack of one) between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will be replayed and scrutinised like the Zapruda tape.
On the pitch, the discussion will likely be dominated by selections up front (Will Marcus Rashford get a game?! Who’ll replace Sergio Aguero?! Can Zlatan keep his homicidal instincts in check?!) – but perhaps the more intriguing battle will take place in central midfield. It’s an area where both managers have arguably constructed their greatest-ever units, in Makelele-Essien-Lampard and Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta. It’s also a position where both sides are still feeling their way into new set-ups.
At Manchester United, the elegant excellence of Paul Pogba has so far been fielded alongside the rather stodgier duo of Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney. The former has been impressive under Mourinho, and the latter has been nowhere near as clownish as some would have you believe, but the fact of the matter is that neither resemble elite-level central midfielders. Both have glaring weaknesses in their game, not least a complete absence of mobility – not something you could ever level at their likely opposite numbers on Saturday: Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
That said, Guardiola’s engine room is no less a work in progress – Ilkay Gundogan's still not made his debut – with the free roles granted to Silva and De Bruyne counterbalanced by the instructions that his full-backs jaunt infield and become auxiliary midfielders when the actual ones go walkabout. So far, compliant opposition haven’t tested this system a great deal, and we’ve largely been left to marvel at Pep’s weird, wonderful and ultra-modern masterplan.
United are likely to put up rather more of a fight, though, so Manchester City’s Rubik’s Cube-style setup will have little margin for error. Another tactical masterstroke from Pep, or skinny-tied smart-arsery for its own sake? The judgment will be made through the lens of the final result.
2. Will Jay Rodriguez continue along the path to recovery?
It’s easy to forget what an asset Rodriguez was two seasons ago, with a big-money move to Tottenham and a place in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad strongly mooted before a ruptured cruciate ligament
Unless your appetite for schadenfreude is especially immense (and given that we’re all football fans here, that’s a big ‘unless’) watching a young goalkeeper chucking away two points by chucking one in, as Sunderland's Jordan Pickford did in the final stages against Southampton last week, isn’t especially pleasant. The flipside to Pickford’s misery, though, was that it enabled one of the more heartening sights of the season’s opening weeks: Jay Rodriguez celebrating a top-flight goal for the first time since March 29, 2014.
That was the date when a tidy brace against Newcastle took his tally to five in four games, and 17 for the season. Seven days later, his knee gave way against Manchester City, and to say his momentum has been interrupted in the time since would be like describing Genghis Khan as a tad on the aggressive side.
Rodriguez scores against Sunderland
It’s easy to forget what an asset Rodriguez was two seasons ago, with a big-money move to Tottenham and a place in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad strongly mooted before a ruptured cruciate ligament – a footballer’s most dreaded diagnosis – consigned him to long road of surgery, treatment and rehabilitation. A serious ankle injury sustained last October cruelly lengthening the path.
But the current campaign has offered shoots of recovery: after a full pre-season, he’s been named in every one of Claude Puel’s squads so far, coming off the bench in the last two games – initially for six minutes, then for 16 – and scored in his previous outing.
It’s steady progress, to which the obvious next step is a start. This weekend’s date at the Emirates may be a tad too soon for that, but expect Rodriguez to be involved once again against a defence that conceded four in their only home game so far this term.
Southampton’s refusal to reinforce their centre-forward options over the summer could be seen as miserly, or it could be seen as showing questionable faith in Shane Long and Charlie Austin, neither of whom have convinced at the top level. Alternatively, it could be seen as a vote of confidence in a proven goalscorer, by a club who have come to be defined by their good sense and canny planning.
3. Is Stoke’s makeover done?
There comes a point when the common denominator is no longer identified as the players’ application or fitness, but the manager’s inability to get the best out of them
Mark Hughes’s stylistic revamping of Stoke City has been an exciting and impressively ambitious project , but how successful it's been remains up for debate three seasons in. While the football itself has undoubtedly been an upgrade on the mind-numbing dross served up in the latter days of Tony Pulis’s regime (his sides could be quite exciting before that, especially during their FA Cup final season), three consecutive ninth-place finishes doesn’t exactly scream uphill progress.
With three games gone this term, they’re propping up the division. This weekend’s opponents, Spurs, have started in similarly unimpressive fashion; the visitors to the Bet365 Stadium on Saturday can expect a closer contest than the 4-0 rout that confirmed their title credentials back in April.
But Mauricio Pochettino has a level goodwill in the bank his counterpart does not. On the face of it, Hughes’s recruitment in his time at Stoke has been impressive, with a whole host of twinkle-toed technicians having upped sticks from Europe’s juggernauts and relocated to the potteries of Staffordshire.
Theory hasn’t quite translated to practise, though, and so far the likes of Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Affelay haven’t been quite as inspiring as expected. There comes a point when the common denominator is no longer identified as the players’ application or fitness, but the manager’s inability to get the best out of them.
Perhaps that's unfair on Hughes, who's shown himself to be capable of putting together fun and exuberant sides, but perhaps his overarching project of taking a squad containing Charlie Adam, Cameron Jerome and Dean Whitehead and creating tiki-taka-on-Trent has stopped him from seeing the wood from the trees. If so, the summer signings of two hulking giants in Bruno Martins Indi and Wilfried Bony suggest that may no longer be the case. There’s an excellent player in both of them – it’s just up to Hughes to coax it out.
4. Is Benteke the striker to save Pardew’s job?
A counter-attacking setup with a heavy emphasis on wingplay should be a natural fit for a powerful striker who feeds off crosses
No club’s fate will be decided for some months yet, but such leniency is not granted to the men at their helms. As proven by Brendan Rodgers a year ago (date of departure: October 4) and Paolo Di Canio two years before that (September 23), the autumn weeks may be too soon in the season to know much for sure, but it’s never too early to sack a manager.
With this in mind, Alan Pardew is in trouble, even if his Crystal Palace side aren't (yet). The good news for him is that his side includes a number of players with the capacity to bail him out, chief among them one Christian Benteke.
Benteke’s problems at Liverpool are well documented but by far and away the principal one was that he simply didn’t fit into Jurgen Klopp’s way of playing. On the face of it, you wouldn’t predict a similar discordance in Pardew’s system: a counter-attacking set-up with a heavy emphasis on wingplay should be a natural fit for a powerful striker who feeds off crosses.
Look a little closer, though, and perhaps things aren’t quite so simple. Pardew’s wingers may be old-fashioned, but the way they’re deployed is newfangled. Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha, in the finest tradition of widemen, like to isolate their full-back and beat them with pace and trickery, but the problem is what comes next: as opposed to skirting down the touchline and whipping in a cross, their default move is to cut inside and look towards goal. As has become customary in the post-Ronaldinho era, both are played as ‘inverted’ wingers rather than traditional ones, and its effect is to narrow the pitch, not widen it.
All of which means Benteke may not get the service he needs – and, fine a striker as he is, he does needs service – unless significant tactical tweaks are made: namely the wingers switching over and being asked to provide goals rather than score them.
5. Can Zaza rebuild his dignity?
If Zaza can replicate that sort of in-your-face hostility against a Watford side whose tally of away losses was only exceeded by the relegated clubs last season, he’ll be doing his job
Bill Buckner was a successful baseball player who played with some distinction for two decades, but in 1986 he let a straightforward groundball roll through his legs at the World Series, losing his side the game in excruciating fashion. Djimi Traore was a distinguished top-level footballer in a number of countries, but he also backheeled the ball into his own net in an FA Cup tie against Burnley.
For some reason – maybe an innate tendency towards misery – humans prefer to remember the bad over the good, the idiotic over the enlightened. In football, there's a select group who will always be remembered for a single moment of flashbulb inanity: Traore, Peter Devine, Jamie Pollock.
Poor Jamie Pollock
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It’s a list to which Simone Zaza is dangerously close to adding himself to – in England at least – after committing one of tournament football’s most self-inflicted balls-ups with his moment of goose-stepping lunacy in July’s Euro 2016 semi-final shootout against Germany.
In the Italian's loan move to West Ham, though, he’s been presented with a chance to resuscitate his image. Zaza is more mobile than Andy Carroll, an aggressive and direct striker, if not a free-scoring one; Carroll’s purpose, though, runs well beyond his goals, and if Zaza can replicate that sort of in-your-face hostility against a Watford side whose tally of away losses was only exceeded by the relegated clubs last season, he’ll be doing his job.
A goal would be nice, too, of course, but not at any cost – it'd probably be best to keep Mark Noble on penalty duties for the time being.