Three mysteries of the early Premier League season

Nicholas Mendola
·6 min read

Sometimes managers can flummox us, making decisions that lead us to believe what we’re missing and what’s happening behind the scenes.

This is especially true this early Premier League seasons when it comes to three of the more exciting young(ish) prospects in Europe over the past few seasons (as well as one of the best finishers in the world).

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Adama Traore, Nicolas Pepe, and Donny van de Beek have either been major money transfers or lived in the rumor mill. All three are not playing regularly for their clubs, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is in a brutal stretch when it comes to goals.

Let’s dig into their situations, which feel quite mysterious after two months of the 2020-21 Premier League season.

Arteta’s attacking quandary

Arsenal has scored one goal in its last four Premier League matches, that goal coming from the penalty spot when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored his second goal of the Premier League season.

Yeah, you read that right: The Gunners’ captain and author of 74 goals in 119 appearances for the North London outfit has two in eight early this season.

Aubameyang was held without a goal or an assist 28 times in his first 66 PL appearances (43 percent of games). Aubameyang’s longest Arsenal league run without a goal or an assist was three, which happened four times prior to Mikel Arteta’s appointment.

It’s happened 16 times in 27 appearances since Arteta was hired (59 percent), including two barren four-match runs and another three-match stretch without a goal or assist.

Throw onto the pile the problems with Nicolas Pepe, who has not gained the full trust of Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg, and now Arteta but is undoubtedly a terrific attacking talent.

Pepe spoke out on his situation at Arsenal on Wednesday and the creative Ivorian is clearly hungry for a chance to prove himself..

And if Pepe, Willian, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang aren’t delivering the goods, shouldn’t the question be directed to the man orchestrating the attack?

Consider this, too: Pepe’s first season in North London was better in shots, key passes, dribbles, and fouls drawn per game than both what he’s done early this season and what his struggling teammates are producing as well.

Arsenal
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Pepe was one of the most productive playmakers in Ligue 1 during his final season with Lille, playing 80 or more minutes in all but the season finale as the club finished second under Christophe Galtier.

An idea to fix it? An extended run for Pepe on his preferred right side, with Auba in the middle.

Aubameyang has produced 1.428 goals per game at left wing during his time at Arsenal, and he’s averaging 1.62 goals per game at center forward.

Arsenal has played a front three in all eight of its PL matches this season. Pepe has featured once.

Fulham (W 3-0): Aubameyang-Lacazette-Willian
West Ham (W 2-1): Aubameyang-Lacazette-Willian
Liverpool (L 1-3): Aubameyang-Lacazette-Willian
Sheffield United (W 2-1): Aubameyang-Nketiah-Willian
Man City (L 0-1): Aubameyang-Willian-Pepe
Leicester City (L 0-1): Saka-Lacazette-Aubameyang
Man United (W 1-0): Aubameyang-Lacazette-Willian
Aston Villa (L 0-3): Aubameyang-Lacazette-Willian

This has to change, if only to put some sort of value back on Pepe in the transfer market. Barcelona and Liverpool reportedly wanted him, too. He’s 25 years old. It’s worth a shot.

What, if anything, is wrong with Adama Traore?

This is one area where we’re willing to entertain conspiracy theories. Did Barca’s sale of Nelson Semedo come with a “Chill on Traore. We need to free up salary and then we’re going to bring him home for big money?”

That’s all we can guess. Traore’s third in the PL in successful dribbles (24) and is completing 75 percent of his (the players above him are at 65.12 and 65 percent).

After going 90, 90, and 62 minutes in Wolves’ first three matches, he’s gone 8, 25, 22, 14, and 30. His passing numbers are not good. His defensive acumen is better than Daniel Podence but the latter has been better in attack.

Semedo is a better all-around wing back than Traore, so that option is gone, too. Nuno Espirito Santo has tried him at center forward over the years including against Fulham this season but the Spaniard has one goal in 604 minutes.

A blip?

What is Ole Gunnar Solksjaer doing with Donny van de Beek?

Van de Beek was one of the most wanted young midfielders in the world during his time at Ajax, and the midfielder proved he wasn’t simply a product of a team of stars when he drove the Eredivisie side in the year after it sold Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, and Kasper Dolberg.

Ajax sold Van de Beek to Manchester United this summer, giving the Red Devils a versatile center midfielder who can play advanced or box-to-box.

Van de Beek has played in five of six Netherlands matches for 343 minutes since the start of the Premier League season. He’s played in 10 of 12 United matches but only 30 minutes more.

So far we’ve seen him play bench-to-cameo in the Premier League, scoring on debut but playing 23, 1, 22, 14, 0, 15, and 0 minutes in his seven league matches with United.

It’s fairly clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer feels most comfortable playing a 4-2-3-1, and that has recently meant Scott McTominay and Fred in the center of the park with the middle of the ‘3’ is Bruno Fernandes.

The only departing from this in league play was a 4-3-1-2 with Paul Pogba on the left side of Fred and McTominay.

We could write about how Van de Beek’s expected goals/90 is third on the team behind Edinson Cavani and Fernandes, but that would be almost disingenuous because the kid doesn’t play so the sample size is silly small.

But with Pogba’s xG/90 at a paltry .04, McTominay’s at .03, Anthony Martial’s at .11, and Daniel James at .14, we have to wonder what United’s attack could possibly lose by letting Van de Beek some prolonged opportunities to produce goals for a team yet to find its prime recipe for success.

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Three mysteries of the early Premier League season originally appeared on NBCSports.com