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article imageSeptember: Five things we learned in the Barclays Premier League

By Tyrrell Meertins     Oct 3, 2014 in Sports
Here are the key Premier League conclusions during the month of September. Mesut Ozil and Frank Lampard make a point, Burnley are slowly slipping away, and Stoke City have found a successful approach moving forward.
Ozil remains central to Arsenal’s hopes of making the jump
It’s difficult to come to a conclusion as to whether Arsenal are playing to their expected standards, or simply regressed this season. We’re accustomed to their positive starts and tragic collapses at the turn of the year, but the Gunners have been shockingly underwhelming this season. Arsene Wenger’s side is struggling to cope with countless injuries, but failing to bolster a feeble midfield and defence has also impeded positive results.
A loss to Chelsea in the first week of October would possibly end Arsenal’s title hopes, and once again the Gunners would be battling to ensure they sustain Champions League football. Considering the money Arsenal has spent over the past two summer windows on foreign talent, Wenger’s excuses are slowly running old, but so are his tactical decisions.
Wenger has persisted to field Mesut Ozil on the flanks to accommodate Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into his starting XI, whereas the Chilean’s impact decreases as a natural winger. There’s been an evident lack of balance throughout Wenger’s side — in particular, Ozil’s threat in a wide role is futile in Arsenal’s setup. The Gunners possess the direct runners to maximize the German's strengths, and Wenger's reluctance to unleash his creative German is peculiar.
In Arsenal’s best performance of the domestic campaign, Wenger decided to field Mesut Ozil in his preferred no.10 role. Ozil was the key player of the match, scoring the opener, and igniting the build up for the second goal. It was a breath of fresh air for the Gunners, and it was one of the rare moments where the German looked comfortable since his move to the Emirates.
Arsenal is undoubtedly fluid with Ozil pulling the strings in a central role — plus it forces Wenger to play a double-pivot, which is required considering the Gunners lack a top-class defensive midfielder — and he’s provided Wenger a performance that deserves a few games in his natural position. With so many attacking options capable of making runs behind the defence, it seems like the logical move forward.
Versatile English midfielders shining bright
English football received another reality check this summer when the national team failed to win a game at the World Cup. Following the nation’s group-stage exit, the positive banter regarding the state of English football has dwindled. However, recently, a few English-born Premier League players rose in prominence by showcasing their overall versatility.
James Milner has been one of Manchester City’s key players this season due to his versatility, and the England international’s significance was displayed in the champions’ monumental tilt with Chelsea. A loss would hand Chelsea an eight-point gap with City, and it’s fair to conclude that a draw kept Manuel Pellegrini’s side in a title race that appeared to be fading away.
Milner operated in four different positions against Chelsea. Initially he helped Pablo Zabaleta negate Eden Hazard before charging forward to create overloads with the Argentine. Subsequently, Milner served as a reliable passer in midfield, before moving to left back where he continuously ran past Andre Schurrle and assisted Frank Lampard’s equalizer.
Stewart Downing has also excelled in multiple roles for West Ham in Sam Allardyce’s midfield diamond. Downing was the key player in three positions this season, and is shockingly making a deserved push for a recall to the England squad. He dominated Danny Rose from the right flank in West Ham's season opener against Spurs, served as a creative reliable passer in an entertaining draw against Hull City, and nullified Steven Gerrard’s threat in midfield before breaking into space behind the veteran in an impressive win over Liverpool.
Roy Hodgson may be shifting towards the youth for Euro 2016, but the experienced English players are attempting to make his squad selections difficult.
Lampard still has a role to play in the Premier League
Frank Lampard’s Chelsea departure was supposed to be the end of a tale. A move to the MLS unofficially declared the end of an English goal-scoring midfielder like no other. But here we are a few months later praising the 36 year-old for his involvement in Manchester City’s quest to retain the Premier League title.
The thing is, we knew Lampard could still play in the Premier League; ultimately, this was no secret. Lampard’s issue at Chelsea was that he didn’t have the stamina, passing range, or pace, to operate in a midfield two. This was evident in City’s showdown against Arsenal a few weeks ago, where Lampard struggled to cope with the frenetic pace of the match.
Lampard, though, has showcased that his threat of making well-timed runs into the box still remains, as he haunted his former employers with a vital second half equalizer. The 36-year-old continued his rich vein of form scoring twice in the Capital One Cup, at Hull, and joining David Silva as City’s best performers against Roma in the Champions League.
Decreasing Lampard’s defensive duties, along with positioning the former Chelsea midfielder in advanced positions can guarantee goals, and Pellegrini is finding these characteristics useful with every passing week. It’s undoubtedly certain that Lampard’s best days are behind him, but his experience and goal-scoring prowess can serve as a piece to a title-winning puzzle.
Stoke suited to harm teams on the counter
Stoke City represented an odd outfit in the early months of the Premier League season. Mark Hughes was brought in to produce proactive football, and the players purchased in the recent transfer windows have hinted a shift in the club’s proposed philosophy.
Peculiarly, Stoke have lost two of their opening three home games, and their most recent win witnessed Hughes’ men devastate Newcastle through Victor Moses’ pace. Stoke has recorded two victories this season against Manchester City and Newcastle — games that saw Hughes instruct his side to remain compact and press in midfield, before breaking forward with pace and power.
At the Etihad, Peter Crouch and Mama Biram Diouf closed down Yaya Toure and Fernandinho’s passing lanes, whereas the wingers effectively tracked the runs of City’s attacking full backs. It was fitting that Stoke’s winner stemmed from Diouf receiving the ball at his own box and storming forward to the other end of the field to slide the ball past Joe Hart.
In fairness, Stoke should utilize this approach in away fixtures, as Moses and Steven N'Zonzi were equally impressive in a draw against QPR at Loftus Road. Hughes' side rued their poor finishing in the final third, but the runs of Moses and Diouf continued to torment defenders, while N'Zonzi's powerful runs through midfield, along with his reliable passing has been a key element to the Potters' success this season.
While Stoke’s winner didn’t follow the same pattern against Newcastle, Hughes’ counter-attacking approach remained. This time, Stoke lined up in a five-man midfield with the industrious Charlie Adam breaking into tackles, whilst adding physicality to Hughes’ midfield. Moses, however, was the most important player on the pitch, as he ignited quick breaks from his own half with his mazy runs through midfield — in fact, it was the Nigerian’s cross that created Crouch’s opener.
The football isn’t comparable to the unappealing Tony Pulis era, but Stoke’s attempt to become a possession-based side has stagnated. Hughes possesses players that are tactically disciplined and devastating in transition, and he should continue to build his side around a counter-attack system.
Burnley’s headed down the wrong path
Burnley supporters have had very little to cheer about following their return to the Premier League. Sean Dyche’s side have yet to score a goal in all competitions since their opening day loss against Chelsea, nor have they recorded a win in the Premier League.
The Clarets currently sit at the bottom of the Premier League table, and have provided no signs of possibly overcoming their early slump. Although they maintain a solid defensive record — that took a blow at West Brom last weekend — their attacking options offer little room for optimism.
Perhaps the absence of midfield pair Michael Duff, Dean Marney, and forward Danny Ings has led to Burnley’s attacking profligacy, but that is definitely an indictment on the depth throughout the squad. Teams fighting for safety must find a fair balance of defensive solidity and goals, and at the moment, Dyche’s side lack both.
Dyche’s side is too open without the ball, and mount minimal attacks due to their inability to retain the ball. We’re only three months into the Premier League season, but if Burnley fails to win their home games and score goals, their fate may be sealed sooner rather than later.
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