Breaking into the XI
Author: Emily Pulham. Published: 11 November 2020 at 9:33pm
Written by: Jonathan Lee
After eight games (including six games against top half opposition from last season), earning 11 points, and lady luck finally smiling upon us against Fulham, DM must be fairly happy with how the season has started. He appears to have settled on a 3-4-3 (or 5-4-1 when defending more) formation and a consistent starting XI up until Antonio’s injury. But we cannot expect the same XI to play every game as injury, suspension and loss of form take its toll. Against Fulham many observers commented that we might have started seeing a drop off in performance from the likes of Soucek, Bowen, Fornals.
In many ways we cannot be overly surprised if there was a drop off in work rate against Fulham as the players worked so hard to grab those previous eight points against decent opposition, and ultimately they are not robots and won’t be able to replicate their best form across 38 games (that said, Declan and Angelo both did a pretty good job of doing that last season). Of the players waiting patiently in the wings, some look like they will only be called upon in a real emergency (or early FA Cup rounds) such as Randolph, Johnson, Dawson, Snodgrass etc while Fredericks and Diop are currently covering on the injury front in defence. Diop especially can count himself rather unlucky to be left out in the cold having contracted COVID-19 and allowing Balbuena to make the shirt his own (note his two fine interceptions in the box ahead of the penalty eventually being given away by Benrahma). However, Diop had shown some inconsistency last time he owned the shirt and you would hope a spell on the bench might fire him up when the time is needed given. On his current displays, you cannot see Balbuena being dropped.
Yarmo has turned into something of an enigma, and is either just awful (note his pass into the path of Sterling that nearly led to a City goal or his dereliction of defensive duties in conceding the late winner at Arsenal) or has a hugely positive impact (note last season’s winner against Chelsea or the neat assist for the second goal against Spurs) and can only be expected to get 15/20 minute cameos here and there. Our club skipper, Mark Noble, has seemingly fallen off the radar of the matchday 18 and is clearly behind both Rice and Soucek in any starting XI; however, you would anticipate his inclusion in the FAC come January and DM has said he still has a role to play this season but how much that will be remains to be seen.
That leaves Haller, Lanzini and Benrahma. Make no mistake, despite the former looking disinterested at times, all three players possess quality.
Haller’s chief issue just now is that he is not Michail Antonio, who is mobile, committed, puts himself about and – most importantly for a striker – is scoring goals. Haller will show a couple of times in a game with either a decent header, or holding off a couple of players then laying it off, but otherwise is clearly struggling to make an impact in matches which is frustrating for all concerned as there is doubtless a player of ability in there. His future must be in some doubt but if DM can just unlock his potential things could be so different for him and the team.
Lanzini must feel similar to Diop – having suffered awfully though injury in recent times he has apparently got back to fitness and is raring to go, but has been limited to late sub appearances (highlighted by that thrilling world class finish at Spurs) and his potential place taken up by Bowen/Fornals. Who knows if he can ever get back to the levels we saw from him in 2015/16, but surely he must be given the chance at some point when Fornals or Bowen deserve/need a breather, and to be given six or seven minutes here and there as sub is almost insulting. One would hope he will get more game minutes through November and December especially once the Xmas fixtures start coming thick and fast.
Said Benrahma is of course the newest kid on the block (was his ‘Come on you Iron[s]’ meant to be funny, or has he really got it wrong too ?!) and made an impact (albeit at both ends) when eventually coming on against Fulham. His replacement for Fornals seems the most obvious to many onlookers although Fornals has generally let nobody down; but Benrahma is not constrained by any self-doubt on his own ability, although that cannot be measured until we see him play a full 90 minutes or at least an hour from the start to see if he can transfer his ability from the Championship into the Prem. Another French speaker can only help our cause working down the left side with Arthur and he is capable of both assists and goals – DM has shown a preference to gradually introduce new players into the first team so this may be another player who sees more game time once we get into December.
Our next four games are still challenging – despite us having had a rock hard start to the season – as we travel to Yorkshire twice (Sheff Utd and Leeds Utd) and also entertain Villa and Man United – it would be very surprising if Lanzini and Benrahma did not feature at some point in those games, over and above being late substitutions.