Mon. Nov 30th, 2020

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Paul Pogba, Roberto Firmino & Nicolas Pepe: which players are causing the ‘Big Six’ bosses problems?

10 min read

The international break has afforded Premier League managers the chance to reflect on their seasons so far – and address a few headaches.

It’s already been an unpredictable domestic campaign with the traditional ‘Big Six’ fluctuating in the table standings. While some (Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea) are enjoying better moments than others (Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United), all of their respective managers are still facing issues in their squads. 

Sportsmail takes a look at the one player in each of their squads that will leave Mikel Arteta, Frank Lampard, Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho scratching their heads the most.

Arsenal – Nicolas Pepe 

He is the club’s record signing but Nicolas Pepe isn’t in Arsenal manager Arteta’s best XI at present. In fact, the £72million acquisition has only started once in the Premier League – coming off the bench a further six times. His one Premier League fixture this season came in the 1-0 defeat at Manchester City.

That was the case once more in their most recent game as he came on as 65th-minute substitute during their 3-0 home defeat by Aston Villa.

In Arteta’s preferred 3-4-3 formation, the winger is currently not making the cut. Against Villa, Willian was preferred on the right flank with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left and Alexandre Lacazette up front.

Nicolas Pepe has only started once in the Premier League for Arsenal so far this season

Nicolas Pepe has only started once in the Premier League for Arsenal so far this season

The 25-year-old is currently having to make do with EFL Cup and Europa League starts and has scored in his last two games in the latter competition.

Pepe was critical of his current omission by admitting he is unhappy with his lack of playing time under Arteta.

‘My goal is to play more. To have a little more playing time,’ Pepe told French channel Canal Plus.

‘A player who plays is happy. For me, I would like to play a little more to find a smile again.

Pepe came out and criticised Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta over his playing time

Pepe came out and criticised Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta over his playing time

‘He (Arteta) wants me to be 100 per cent focused during the 90 minutes of the match. Afterwards, I see during training that I will be a substitute the following weekend.

‘But the coach speaks to me, he also has assistants who are there for that. But it is frustrating for any player to be on the bench.

‘A super-sub role? The coach makes his choices. It’s up to me to show him that I don’t have that role.’

The former Lille man’s remarks won’t have done himself any favours under Arteta ahead of a tricky league tie at Leeds United on Sunday.

The 25-year-old's only Premier League start came in the 1-0 defe at Manchester City in October

The 25-year-old’s only league start came in the 1-0 defeat at Manchester City in October

Chelsea – Callum Hudson-Odoi

Will Callum Hudson-Odoi become Chelsea’s forgotten man? That seemed impossible just over a year ago but the talented youngster is facing a battle at Stamford Bridge.

In September 2019, the winger signed a new five-year deal at Chelsea worth a money-spinning £180,000 per week rising to £200,000 per week. 

That was a signal of intent by the Blues, who had rebuffed Bayern Munich’s heavy pursuit for the then 18-year-old.

Callum Hudson-Odoi faces an almighty battle for a starting spot on Chelsea’s wings

However, fast forward to the present and Hudson-Odoi – who turned 20 on Saturday – is down the pecking order in west London. Summer signing Hakim Ziyech has shone already in Hudson-Odoi’s preferred right-wing position, while on the other flank Christian Pulisic will regain his spot when fully fit.

This season Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Mason Mount have all been deployed out wide too, showing the strength of depth in Lampard’s options.

England international Hudson-Odoi has only started four of Chelsea’s 13 games in all competitions this season so far. He has ambitions of being in the England squad for the delayed Euro 2020 campaign next summer but won’t achieve that without regular playing time.

And with all that going on his situation is being closely monitored by Bayern who are still waiting in the wings at the opportunity to swoop in.

The 20-year-old has only started four of Chelsea's 13 games in all competitions this season

The 20-year-old has only started four of Chelsea’s 13 games in all competitions this season

Liverpool – Roberto Firmino 

Who has had the best attacking front three in the world? For the past two seasons that accolade has gone to Liverpool with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino leading their line. However, the performances of the latter are starting to be questioned.

Firmino isn’t a top goal-scorer, cry his critics. His supporters will point to his link-up play, constant pressing and importance in helping Salah and Mane flourish. All of the above are correct – Firmino has scored just once in 12 appearances this season but Liverpool sit one point off the top of the Premier League and boast a 100 per cent record in the Champions League.

If ain’t broke, don’t fix it – as the saying goes – but to remain at the top there is always room for improvement and Liverpool manager Klopp is acutely aware of this.

Roberto Firmino's place in Liverpool's starting XI is being questioned due to the form of others

Roberto Firmino’s place in Liverpool’s starting XI is being questioned due to the form of others

His goalscoring record doesn't look favourable again with just one goal in 12 games this term

His goalscoring record doesn’t look favourable again with just one goal in 12 games this term

The signing of Diogo Jota has been a masterstroke by the German. Initially the former Wolves man looked to be a direct replacement for when Mane and Salah are not available but the Portuguese forward has flourished in front of goal too. In 11 games for the Reds he has netted seven times – including a hat-trick against Atalanta in the Champions League.

That brilliant Bergamo treble saw Klopp alter his customary 4-3-3 formation to a 4-2-4 (in essence) to accommodate Jota in the line-up in Sunday’s heavyweight Premier League clash at title rivals Manchester City. It worked to brilliant effect in the first 20 minutes at the Etihad before City gained a foothold in the 1-1 draw themselves.

Klopp would’ve had plenty of food from thought from that experiment. When it clicked, it proved Liverpool can blow the very best away. However, when it didn’t it’s best to stick to what you know. But with Jota scoring the goals that Firmino isn’t, does that mean a change in that position with then Mane or Salah playing as a false 9?

Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher believes that’s the best course of action. 

‘Mane-Jota-Salah,’ Carragher told talkSPORT, without hesitation, when asked for the attack he would choose were he Liverpool manager.

Diogo Jota scored a hat-trick for Liverpool in their Champions League win at Atalanta last week

Diogo Jota scored a hat-trick for Liverpool in their Champions League win at Atalanta last week

‘Firmino isn’t in great form now and I don’t think he was in great form last season. Even though Liverpool won the league, certain things got masked. 

‘Firmino didn’t score a goal at home in the Premier League until the last game against Chelsea. 

‘Liverpool fans are educated enough (to know) that Liverpool’s goalscorers are out wide. But even the pressing stats, I checked them the other day and they weren’t at the numbers they normally are. 

‘You have ups and downs in your career… sit on the bench. Everyone is looking at him, so just leave him out for me for the next three or four games.’ 

Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher feels Firmino should be dropped for the in-form Jota

Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher feels Firmino should be dropped for the in-form Jota

Manchester City – Riyad Mahrez

Eyebrows were raised on Sunday when Riyad Mahrez was omitted from the Manchester City squad for their blockbuster league clash at home to Liverpool.

Guardiola chose to list four defenders on his substitutes bench for that encounter with Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden his only attacking options there.

No injury was reported for Mahrez – who had in fact started nine of City’s previous 10 games. However, at the Etihad Guardiola decided to deploy Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres as his starting wingers.

Riyad Mahrez was a surprise squad omission from Manchester City's draw with Liverpool

Riyad Mahrez was a surprise squad omission from Manchester City’s draw with Liverpool

In October’s 1-1 draw at West Ham, the Algerian was said to have angered Kevin De Bruyne for not passing enough. As per The Athletic, De Bruyne’s admonishment came weeks after Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho had also spoken to him about the same issue, suggesting he dallies and dribbles on the ball too much.

The 29-year-old has had an up and down season already, having contracted coronavirus at the start of it. He can be a matchwinner on his own but he is goalless in his last eight City appearances.

Guardiola will be looking to get him back on song for when they travel to title rivals Tottenham on November 21. 

He was admonished by team-mate Kevin De Bruyne after their draw at West Ham last month

He was admonished by team-mate Kevin De Bruyne after their draw at West Ham last month

Manchester United – Paul Pogba

Paul Pogba is in his fifth season at Manchester United since re-joining the club in 2016 but still the same question remains. How do you get the best out of him?

The answer? No one quite knows. United manager Solskjaer has tried him in a variety of positions so far and none to great effect. He’s played centrally in a midfield two and three, on the left of a diamond, as a No 10 and on the left wing.

Pogba’s talent is without question but nothing seems to be coming off for him at present. Solskjaer has tried to accommodate him but results haven’t come. As a result the France World Cup winner was subsequently dropped for the 3-1 win at Everton at the weekend with Fred, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes forming the midfield three.

Paul Pogba is in his fifth season at Manchester United but questions remain over his position

Paul Pogba is in his fifth season at Manchester United but questions remain over his position

He came on as a substitute in the 3-1 win at Everton after being dropped from the starting XI

He came on as a substitute in the 3-1 win at Everton after being dropped from the starting XI

France manager Didier Deschamps defended the 27-year-old on Monday, criticising Solskjaer instead.

‘Paul, I know him well and he knows the group well. He is in a situation with his club where he cannot be happy, neither with his playing time, nor with his positioning.

‘He is not in his best period, he has had a series of injuries and the Covid-19 which has hit him quite hard. He needs to find his rhythm.

‘The match he had to make last month was good and consistent despite a lack of pace. We cannot however say that he is fulfilled in what he does at his club.

France manager Didier Deschamps has leapt to the defence of the

France manager Didier Deschamps has leapt to the defence of the 27-year-old midfielder

‘With me, there is no such concern, but I try to manage it too. When a player is in discomfort in his club, obviously, he is happy to play for the France team. He will tell me about his feelings and as I know him very well, it will go in a positive direction. Even if it is also up to him to make all his efforts.’

Pogba’s future has been a source of contention for many seasons now and it was only last month that he would ‘dream’ to play for Real Madrid one day.

However, he most focus on the present and an in-form Pogba is an undoubted asset to Solskjaer. Not the one who has given away silly penalties in home league defeats by Tottenham and Arsenal.

Pogba fouled Hector Bellerin in the box to allow Arsenal score with a penalty in a 1-0 win

Pogba fouled Hector Bellerin in the box to allow Arsenal score with a penalty in a 1-0 win

Tottenham – Dele Alli 

Was the writing on the wall for Dele Alli last season? As revealed by the All or Nothing documentary on Amazon, the midfielder was told by manager Jose Mourinho that he was ‘f****** lazy’ in training after their first training session together in November last year.

‘I’m going to be a pain in the a*** on you, and you are lucky. You are lucky, because when I am a pain in the a*** it is a good thing,’ Mourinho continued.

Twelve months on though, it’s fair to state that Alli probably doesn’t feel ‘lucky’ as he continues to be overlooked by Mourinho in the Premier League.

Dele Alli has only featured twice in the Premier League for Tottenham as a substitute this term

Dele Alli has only featured twice in the Premier League for Tottenham as a substitute this term

Alli faces a battle to force his way into manager Jose Mourinho's first-team plans at Tottenham

Alli faces a battle to force his way into manager Jose Mourinho’s first-team plans at Tottenham

The 24-year-old, who was linked with a move away in the summer window, has made just two Premier League appearances for Spurs this season – but both have been as a substitute. In fact it has been over a month since he featured in the top flight and that was in the 6-1 win at Manchester United on October 4.

Even in the Europa League he hasn’t been an automatic starter there – coming on as a substitute in a 3-0 group win over LASK. He did start the following week against Royal Antwerp but the fact he was hooked at half-time of their 1-0 defeat in Belgium was telling.

The England international was once again overlooked by Gareth Southgate for their matches over the next week. International recognition couldn’t be further from Alli’s mind though as he tries to convince Mourinho he is worthy of a place in his high-flying side.

On Tuesday, he posted a picture on Instagram of himself working out with the caption: ‘Make improvements, not excuses.’ Time will tell if he makes the improvements required to meet Mourinho’s demands.

The 24-year-old showed a home workout on his Instagram as he works to get back into favour

The 24-year-old showed a home workout on his Instagram as he works to get back into favour

The Tottenham outcast stayed this summer and vows to 'make improvements, not excuses'

The Tottenham outcast stayed this summer and vows to ‘make improvements, not excuses’

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