Falling Behind

Jordon Ibe

2015/16: 27 games, 1197 minutes, 1 goal, 2 assists, 60 dribbles won, 20 chances created, 85% pass success, 33% shot accuracy.
2016/17: 24 games, 1035 minutes, 0 goals, 0 assists, 40 dribbles won, 18 chances created, 83% pass success, 20% shot accuracy.

A little over a year ago, Jordon Ibe has been scoring against Rubin Kazan in Europa League and setting up his teammates’ chances against the likes of Chelsea or Stoke. As Raheem Sterling was packing his bags and booking a taxi to Manchester, his year younger colleague has shown promise, using both blistering pace and decent technical abilities to establish himself as a potential Premier League regular in the future. “He’s a skilled player. He’s a really big talent. Fast, strong, good at dribbling…” – Jürgen Klopp described him after a 1-0 win in Russia, back in November 2015. Even despite the typically tight competition for Liverpool’s starting spots in a 4-3-3 system, Sterling’s departure seemed to open doors for Ibe just at the right moment.

It’s now the middle of the May 2017. Liverpool, led to the battle by a powerful right-wing asset, have fruitfully battled for a ticket to 2017/18 Champions League group stage – but that asset’s name wasn’t Ibe. The goals of a big-club reject have just secured the EPL survival for Bournemouth – but that reject’s name wasn’t Ibe. A promising, young talent has recently penned a gargantuan, £100k per week contract at a Merseyside club – but that talent’s name wasn’t Ibe. Oh – and also, in January, Cherries’ boss, Eddie Howe has called one of his players ‘a disappointment’ after an embarrassing, FA Cup, 0-3 defeat to a League One side Millwall. Yes: unfortunately, this time, that players’ name was Ibe.

AFCB’s record signing won’t remember this campaign fondly. After completing a £15 million move to the south coast, he’s been either the first man to be subbed off or the last substitute to enter the fray. Once his manager has discovered the ability of Ryan Fraser (unveiled first in a 4-3 win over… Liverpool), he didn’t look back and combined the Scottish lad with either Marc Pugh or Junior Stanislas up until the lucky conclusion of Cherries’ survival. He had good reasons for that: apart from 6-1 demolition of Hull, his ex-Liverpool man did not have a single good game at Vitality Stadium. “He’s only 20 years old and given time he will make a real difference.” – said Bournemouth boss in December. We’re waiting…

Mark Noble

2015/16: 37 games, 3196 minutes, 7 goals, 4 assists, 74 tackles won, 83 interceptions, 28 clearances, 50 chances created, 86% pass success.
2016/17: 30 games, 2389 minutes, 3 goals, 0 assists, 32 tackles won, 40 interceptions, 15 clearances, 24 chances created, 86% pass success.

Does anybody remember that West Ham were destroying bets and breaking records last season? Not only did the Hammers finish their run with a sensational, 62-point loot; no, they’ve also picked up ten points from the away matches against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United! It’s them, who defended like lions; it’s them, who provided their creative mastermind, Dimitri Payet, with more than enough passes to boost both his massive ego and his footballing stature. And in the other drivers’ seat of this dangerous side, just between Payet and Slaven Bilić, it was WHUFC’s captain, Mark Noble, who’s been taking care of their midfield with competence – if not with grace.

It’s all gone with the wind. Earlier this season, Bilić’s lads suffered four, utterly embarrassing defeats to Manchester City, Watford, West Brom and Southampton. Those unbelievably abysmal games, marked by 14 conceded goals, have set the tone for the rest of the current campaign. Coincidentally, in all of them, it was the skipper Noble, who disappointed the most, getting substituted off after the first half at Hawthorns and only picking up few bookings (as we speak, he’s on ten yellows). Even his trademark ability to convert the penalties eluded him: against Burnley, Tom Heaton parried his spot kick and only a lucky spilling of the ball from Clarets’ goalie has allowed Hammers to score anyway.

“On a bright side, I don’t think it can get any worse for us”. – said the man in question after a 0-3 home disaster against Southampton – “We’ve faced eleven goals in three games… that’s just… it’s laughable, really. It’s not good enough”. A painful awakening continued in 2017: in January, rebellious Payet has forced his transfer back to Marseille, depriving the team of quality going forward; in March, Noble entered an argument with some of his clubs’ most frustrated fans, who were calling for him being dropped from the starting eleven. In May, that request will finally be fulfilled: the captain of a team freshly massacred at home by Liverpool shall miss the remaining two EPL games due to an abdominal injury.

Riyad Mahrez

2015/16: 37 games, 3037 minutes, 17 goals, 11 assists, 131 dribbles won, 67 chances created, 74% pass success, 64% shot accuracy.
2016/17: 33 games, 2572 minutes, 6 goals, 2 assists, 69 dribbles won, 42 chances created, 77% pass success, 64% shot accuracy.

Only the most deluded fans out there came into this season expecting that Mahrez will sustain the level of performance from the miraculous 2015/16 days; but also, only the most pessimistic ones expected this. After scoring on an opening day against Hull, the Algerian needed over three months to have a hand on another Premier League goal. His utterly inept league performances contrasted greatly with the Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when he’s been busy scoring and assisting against Copenhagen, Porto and Brugge in the Champions League. Just like his teammates, the reigning PFA Player of the Year showed up in Europe and discarded everything else – leading Foxes to a long spell in the EPL’s abyss of relegation.

The tipping point’s been reached in February. Mahrez was on zero goals and just two assists in thirteen appearances in all competitions; his team lost eleven out of eighteen matches, including a 0-5 slaughter in Porto and two, heavy, 0-3 home crashes against Chelsea and Manchester United. Enough was enough; the crown-wearing, title-winning head of Claudio Ranieri rolled on the pavement immediately after his return from an away, UCL game at Sevilla. However, even with a new boss in charge and sub-par Liverpool team in front of him, Mahrez had a negligible impact on the momentum-swinging, 3-1 victory that allowed Leicester to finally end the terrible slump. Where were his goals?

I’ve been checking Foxes’ closets repeatedly and the goals have not returned to this day. One against Hull, one against West Ham, one against Watford: that’s all Mahrez had to offer in the year 2017. It would’ve been fine if we were talking about just a leading winger from one of the small Premier League sides – but after the title-winning run and the subsequent interest in him from clubs like Arsenal or Liverpool, he should’ve done much better. Especially since he’s just 25 and seemingly still has his best years ahead of him. Compared to Jamie Vardy (ten goals and three assists since February, at the age of 30), the Algerian has been nowhere else than back into obscurity. Or was his previous season just a weird dream?

Hector Bellerín

2015/16: 36 games, 3240 minutes, 1 goal, 5 assists, 47 tackles won, 66 interceptions, 105 clearances, 22 chances created, 86% pass success.
2016/17: 31 games, 2338 minutes, 0 goals, 4 assists, 20 tackles won, 37 interceptions, 54 clearances, 26 chances created, 85% pass success.

The world was simple back in June 2016. Dani Alves has been departing Barcelona, leaving a vacancy in Blaugrana’s right-back position. Meanwhile, Hector Bellerín has just completed his first, full Premier League season, becoming a right-back revelation and entering his first-ever PFA Team of the Year. With a job opening being created at Camp Nou, with the players’ La Masia origins and the history of Cesc Fàbregas, who returned to the Catalan giant after some world-class performances in the Gunners’ shirt – it only seemed logical that Luis Enrique will reach out for another emigre; emigre, who, by the way, displayed many of much-needed attacking abilities Alves used to provide since his transfer from Sevilla in 2008.

However: no such thing happened. Lucho has chosen an utterly different direction, hiring Aleix Vidal and eventually, handing the right-back role to a midfielder, Sergi Roberto. Better man-managing decision have been made in the history of football: however, this one had the benefit of keeping Bellerín out of the club just when the Spaniard in London has hit a low point of his short career. Starting the 2016/17 odyssey as as Philippe Coutinho’s victim in a disappointing, 3-4 home defeat to Liverpool, the Arsenal lad had obvious problems with his notoriously weak, defensive abilities and pacey players like Bayern’s Douglas Costa, Man City’s Leroy Sané or Chelsea’s Eden Hazard took full advantage of that.

Well… at least unlike other players in this section, the lad has an excuse. In one of the first training sessions after the New Year’s eve, Bellerín has received a nasty kick in the ankle – the same one he’s been occasionally struggling with last season. After that, the nasty fixtures like Bayern, Liverpool and Chelsea followed; the Spaniard took part in all of them and his less-than-ideal performances have culminated in a 0-3 visit to Crystal Palace. Gooners’ chants ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ followed; which was a bit ironic, as the player indeed was not fully fit to just do that. On a positive note: it’s been a bit better for him after Arsenal’s switch to 3-4-3, as he’s just assisted two goals in his clubs’ resounding, 4-1 victory at Stoke.

Anthony Martial

2015/16: 31 games, 2632 minutes, 11 goals, 4 assists, 84 dribbles won, 37 chances created, 77% pass success, 56% shot accuracy.
2016/17: 23 games, 1419 minutes, 4 goals, 6 assists, 41 dribbles won, 22 chances created, 81% pass success, 60% shot accuracy.

The tale of ‘new Thierry Henry’ continues. It still belongs to a very young, very talented, very quick forward from Monaco; but it’s not Anthony Martial anymore. On September 12, 2015, the £58-million has stunned Liverpool with a brilliant, individual goal, making a roaring debut in Manchester United shirt. His confidence blossomed; his place in Red Devils’ starting eleven was secure; his abilities were, at very least, encouraging. Despite Louis van Gaal’s heavily negative tactics, the French forward has completed that campaign with 11 Premier League goals and 4 assists to his name: “He has had an excellent first season in England and he can only get better with age and experience. He can improve further.” – said LvG.

Today, the eccentric Dutch manager is retired. The times have changed and it’s José Mourinho, who rules Old Trafford. Whenever he’s fit, Zlatan Ibrahimović fills the centre-forward slot. Down the left flank, there’s place for either Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard or Henrikh Mkhitaryan. United’s long-lasting problems with putting ball in the net and avoiding draws continue. And Martial? He’s been watching the action from sidelines, entering games as a substitute and making starts in the Europa League, where the reserve players usually come out. According to his boss: “Anthony is a player with great potential (…) but he needs to give me things that I like.” The Special One did not specify what things.

It might get even worse. In the days, when Lingard receives an outrageous contract compared to his ability, the Frenchman is already on course to become the fifth wheel in Red Devils’ bus. With just six league goals scored against Stoke, West Ham, Boro, Watford and Burnley, with potential transfers of Antoine Griezmann and Yacine Brahimi around the corner, with more and more pressure from English fans and media to play Lingard or Rashford… Things are getting grim for the young man. He’s already been reduced to the role of a last-ditch helper during the injury crisis; what’s going to happen when the fitness levels get back to normal? After all, two, big-money ex-MU wingers have already been shipped to Ligue 1 recently…

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