Chelsea's Eden Hazard: I will have some bad games after injury layoff
Take a quick glance at the top of the Premier League table, and all seems roughly as you'd expect: Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are filling six of the top seven positions.
There's one exception, however. Burnley -- expected to finish somewhere in the bottom half -- find themselves in sixth position, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.
This represents a truly remarkable start to the campaign for Sean Dyche's side, particularly considering the nature of their fixtures. Their seven matches have featured four away trips to Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. Somehow, Burnley have recorded two victories and two draws from those matches, and eight away points is already more than they collected on their travels throughout 2016-17.
Inevitably, Dyche has been linked with bigger jobs. Burnley's 1-0 victory at Goodison Park prompted suggestions he could replace Ronald Koeman at struggling Everton, while a couple of pundits have suggested he could succeed at Arsenal. But Dyche's Burnley are playing an entirely different brand of football from the big boys, and therefore it's almost impossible to forecast how he might perform with a considerably more talented squad.
Dyche's achievements at Burnley are unquestionably hugely impressive; two promotions from the Championship, sandwiching a Premier League season when Burnley took few risks in the transfer market, meaning Dyche was competing with a substandard squad. He focused on defence, and 10 clean sheets was a fine record.
Burnley went down, regrouped and upon their next attempt at the Premier League, last season, were rarely in danger of a second demotion. It was a simple approach: 4-4-2, deep defending and direct attacking.
This season's approach remains largely similar, albeit in a 4-5-1 system. Various statistics from Burnley's campaign provide a fair summary of their strategy: they're in the bottom five Premier League sides in terms of possession and pass completion, but win the most aerial duels in the division.
Defensively, they've conceded more shots than any other side -- and while they don't make many tackles or interceptions, they're recording huge figures in terms of blocking opposition shots -- 61 so far, 20 clear of their nearest challengers.
This Premier League campaign is only seven games old, of course, and these statistics are skewed by Burnley's tough fixture list so far, making them seem unreasonably rudimentary. Burnley are a well-organised, defensive-minded side with good defenders in fine form and the midfield protecting them solidly. But this is a team based around heading and blocking.
This works perfectly well for Burnley, but recent history suggests Dyche's approach would be incompatible with a big club. Look at the experience of Roy Hodgson, who worked wonders with Fulham but found his safety-first, negative strategy -- and demeanour -- hugely unpopular from the outset at Liverpool, and ultimately unsuccessful too. David Moyes, who established Everton as a regular top-half side with a largely reactive, structured system, was similarly unable to adjust to the attacking demands of coaching Manchester United. His new side adapted to Moyes' Everton blueprint, and recorded Everton-esque results.
Two success stories, meanwhile, have seen forward-thinking coaches enjoying success at bigger clubs, having previously impressed with positive football. Brendan Rodgers based his Swansea side around relentless possession play, and after moving to Liverpool, he took them to the brink of their first Premier League title with attacking football -- albeit more direct play than he initially intended. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side were all about heavy pressing, and the Argentine has taken Tottenham to their two highest Premier League finishes since joining in 2014.
It's worth considering that, in pure results terms, Hodgson and Moyes had performed better than Rodgers and Pochettino. Hodgson had taken Fulham to seventh and then the Europa League final, Moyes regularly finished in the top seven too, peaking with fourth place in 2005. In comparison, Pochettino's much-vaunted Southampton side only finished eighth. Rodgers' Swansea side came 11th; a fine debut campaign, but hardly threatening the big boys. The style of their coaching, however, was more immediately transferrable to a big club, which explains why managers like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, despite recording impressive league finishes, are eternally overlooked for big jobs.
Is Dyche in that category, alongside Pulis and Allardyce? Well, Burnley have evolved slightly. The summer signing of the underrated Jack Cork means Burnley deploy a reliable passing midfielder in every game, while they've played some neat passing combinations down the flanks. They've mixed patient build-up with direct play; there was plenty of focus upon the "24-pass move" that resulted in Jeff Hendrick's winner against Everton, but these 24 passes included a booming 50-yard crossfield ball followed by a hopeful cross, with Burnley inevitably winning that aerial battle to keep the move going.
There's little evidence, though, that Dyche's system is compatible with top-class technical players. He hasn't attempted to recruit an explosive centre-forward who might lack defensive discipline, but contributes outstanding moments in the final third. He seemingly has little interest in playing an outright playmaker to roam between the lines.
Yes, Burnley's budget is relatively limited, but Dyche has spent more than £10 million three times since Burnley's promotion 18 months ago: buying bustling forward Chris Wood, technical utility man Robbie Brady and scheming box-to-box player Hendrick. All three have fitted in excellently, all are good footballers, but a manager with Champions League ambitions would be a little braver.
Ultimately, it would be a huge leap of faith for a big side to appoint Dyche. Even Everton, for example, have a squad overloaded with No. 10s; what would Dyche do with them? We simply don't know, and while Dyche would doubtless make the Allardyce-esque claim that his sides would play better football if he had better players, until we see evidence, he can't reasonably have a claim to one of those jobs.
A switch to a midtable club remains a realistic goal, but it's worth considering how many of these clubs demand "good" football too; Dyche wouldn't fit in at Stoke, who have deliberately moved away from Pulis' approach, or West Ham, still peculiarly fixated upon the idea their club traditionally play good football. Even Bournemouth and Swansea have built themselves around positive play.
There seems only one obvious option: Leicester, whose defensive-minded, counter-attacking mentality would fit nicely. Otherwise, Dyche might be better staying put; for as long as Burnley remain in the top half, his reputation will continue to grow.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.
Tottenham have been boosted by the return of long-term absentees Erik Lamela and Danny Rose to team training.
Lamela has not played for nearly a year due to persistent problems in both hips, while Rose has been sidelined since January with a knee injury.
Both players have undergone surgery since they last played but the duo joined group training on Wednesday, with the club confirming that they were continuing their rehabilitation alongside the rest of the first-team squad.
Danny Rose and @ErikLamela train with the rest of the team at Hotspur Way today as they continue to progress with their rehabilitation. pic.twitter.com/d1WMnKfXLz
Since featuring against Liverpool in last season's League Cup fourth-round defeat on Oct. 25, Lamela has spent time in his home city of Buenos Aires on compassionate leave after his brother was injured in an accident, as well as in Rome, where he was treated for his hip problem at his former club Roma.
Rose, meanwhile, is now a controversial figure at Tottenham after giving an interview on the eve of the current season in which he questioned the club's ambition, said he should be earning more money and admitted he was open to offers from other sides.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.
Dani Alves has opened the door for Alexis Sanchez to join him and Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain in the future after Brazil ended Chile's hopes of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A youthful Brazil side, captained by Alves' current PSG teammate Marquinhos and featuring Neymar, beat Sanchez's Chile 3-0 in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
Alves, who has scored two goals and assisted two more across all competitions since joining PSG in the summer, was asked after the match if Sanchez could join him in Paris once his Arsenal contract ends next summer.
"He is wanted by many teams," Alves told reporters in the mixed zone. "It would be good if he came with us. I will always appreciate him. I want what is best for him wherever he goes."
When asked if he had spoken with former Barcelona teammate Sanchez, Alves added: "I didn't want to speak much because I know how tough it is and also because I didn't want for people to interpret things in a way that would have put my professionalism in doubt."
Reigning Copa America champions Chile finished sixth in the South American qualification zone behind Peru, who now face a playoff to confirm their World Cup spot.
Alves, Neymar, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, who missed the game against Chile because of injury, will now all return to France and all will be assessed before Unai Emery picks his squad for Saturday's trip to face Dijon.
Silva injured his right thigh during the 0-0 qualifying draw away at Bolivia in La Paz and had to be substituted after 29 minutes.
Although he decided to remain with the national team until the end of the international break, he could be rested by PSG this weekend with an Anderlecht double header to come in the Champions League and then Le Classique away at Marseille and Nice at home before the end of the month.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.
The nominations for the Ballon d'Or served as a healthy reminder that David De Gea is still at Manchester United.
Well, perhaps that's a ridiculous exaggeration -- it's just that a casual observer, looking at the regularity with which United are running up 4-0 scorelines, might think that being their goalkeeper is not the most challenging of jobs. To some extent, they might have a point -- De Gea's workload is significantly less than that of, say, Everton's Jordan Pickford. But it's notable that De Gea is the club's only nominee for the award, which shows how high he kept his standards during Jose Mourinho's first season.
That season, some might point out, was one where he found himself under particular pressure, and so he had more opportunities than most to prove his worth. Yet in a season where Mourinho and United just about emerged with credit, his contribution was vital. This was a campaign, after all, where his forward line again struggled for pace and goals, and his defence struggled for consistency -- so much so that Marcos Rojo eventually ended up as a crucial member. Though Rojo's efforts in central defence were superb, his prominence was a sign of how makeshift United's backline had become.
And behind them all was De Gea. Even though Sergio Romero did very well under Mourinho, even keeping goal in the Europa League final win over Ajax, De Gea again played almost 50 matches. During that time, he turned an immeasurable number of moments of panic into safety, and helped his goal-shy team to salvage draws. It is possibly easy, as he begins his seventh season for United, to understate his importance to Mourinho's team, to become complacent about it. If so, that is because De Gea has become so good in his position that he is no longer someone United have to worry about.
There was a time when this might have been unthinkable -- when he first arrived at Old Trafford, say, and looked less than comfortable under high balls. But then he grew, in both muscle mass and self-confidence, and was soon seen getting the best of some of English football's most physical forwards in their aerial duels. Now, he is routinely regarded as one of the top five goalkeepers in the world, and may one day go on to be viewed as one of the game's greatest.
The fact that he still only has 26 caps for Spain is due to the brilliance of his predecessor, Iker Casillas, more than anything else; the good news for him is that he looks set to wear that shirt for years to come. At United, too, it looks like he once again has the elite team that his talents deserve, and which he was -- recently and perhaps understandably -- looking to join at Real Madrid.
This season, De Gea is not so often under a barrage of shots from the opposition, but he continues to make exceptional saves at key moments. Of course, there is far more to him than keeping the ball out, but it remains his key strength. We can see this by comparing his performance every 90 minutes with that of the goalkeepers from some of United's closest rivals in the Premier League -- Manchester City's Ederson, Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris. At first glance, he seems most confident in coming to claim high balls. Ederson punches the ball 0.62 times per 90 minutes, followed by Lloris (0.43), then De Gea and Courtois (both 0.14). By comparison, De Gea catches the ball the most (2.86 times per 90 minutes), compared with Ederson (2.15), Courtois (1.71) and Lloris (1.14).
In terms of passing statistics, Ederson stands out, which you would expect from a coach with Pep Guardiola's attacking philosophy. Ederson has so far completed 85 percent of his passes, some way ahead of Lloris (77 percent), Courtois (69 percent) and De Gea (64 percent). In De Gea's defence, it could be argued this is because he is expected to pass over greater distances -- Mourinho being a greater fan of the pragmatism of the long ball. Whatever the case, De Gea and Courtois both have an average pass length of 42 metres, with 32 metres for Ederson and 29 metres for Lloris.
Where De Gea distinguishes himself, though -- and where you can see the clearest evidence of the form that saw him nominated for the Ballon d'Or -- is in the category of shots saved per goal conceded. Here, per 90 minutes, Lloris makes 1.4 saves for every goal he concedes; Courtois, 2.8; Ederson, 4.5 and De Gea, 7.5. This is a statistic which suggests United's large margins of victory are not as convincing as they look. It also suggests that De Gea is remarkably good at remaining a high level of concentration even though he is not occupied for long periods. This recalls the old anecdote about Peter Shilton, who was so focused during one particular game that when he left the field, though not having made a single save, he was drenched in sweat.
Though De Gea may not be catching the eye as much as he was last year, he is still a crucial foundation of any success that United promise to enjoy. It is his consistently outstanding play that has helped Mourinho to rebuild his squad's confidence so quickly -- and, should he ever be pursued by Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, they would most likely have to offer a fee more commonly associated with an elite centre forward.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.
Barcelona have said they are in a position to pursue their interest in Philippe Coutinho in January after having bids for the Liverpool playmaker rejected in the summer.
In a long-running transfer saga, Barca did not give up their pursuit of the Brazil international until deadline day, when sources told ESPN FC they claimed to have been asked for €200 million.
Liverpool turned down three Barcelona offers but denied asking for €200m and said Coutinho was never for sale.
However, Mundo Deportivo reported on Wednesday that Coutinho has an agreement with Liverpool that will allow him to leave Anfield in the winter window.
"We are [financially] prepared to sign Coutinho or any other player in January," Barca CEO Oscar Grau said at a news conference on Wednesday.
"What we want is to have the most competitive squad possible. We will look at [signing players], even if there aren't any sales.
"The club will remain sustainable, we don't want losses and we have to continue to look for ways to generate income."
In the days leading up to the August transfer deadline, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde said he wanted more quality to be added following the sale of Neymar.
Although the club did not make any signings following his comments, Grau said they would back him in the January market.
"The club is in a position to give them the best team possible, which is what we want," he added.
"The club is in a very solvent, positive position. We are doing things sensibly. What we want -- and what we are achieving -- is for our teams to be as competitive as possible."
Grau announced a predicted record revenue of €897m for this season, an increase of €189m on last season, partly thanks to Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain.
"We're presenting figures for this season which are the highest of any club in the world," he said. "No other teams -- not even in the NBA or the NFL -- reach these numbers.
"The club is on track to reach its target [of generating €1bn a year] by 2021."
Grau stressed that he did not want to answer questions about the political situation in Spain and the consequences an independent Catalonia could have for Barcelona and their revenue.
However, he confirmed that the club wanted to remain part of La Liga regardless of the outcome of Catalonia's push for secession.
"The budget is done on the basis that we continue in La Liga," he said. "I believe that Barcelona and La Liga have to go hand in hand."
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.
Liverpool's task in putting a disappointing September behind them got harder when it was announced Sadio Mane would miss six weeks' action with a hamstring injury suffered on international duty.
Focus inevitably fell on the upcoming "difficult" games he'll miss and there are some real challenges against Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea in the Premier League and Sevilla in the Champions League.
For the first of those matches on Saturday, Jurgen Klopp must also hope his Brazilian pair Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino return from South America in good shape to face United.
Fans recall the last time Liverpool played after an international break; the ignominious 5-0 defeat at Manchester City. Mane was sent off, which exacerbated the Reds' usual problems whenever players return from international duty.
If anyone's in the mood to clutch straws, Mane's absence gives Klopp a chance to put his ideas about squad-building to the test.
Klopp has been criticised for focussing on midfield and attack rather than buying much-needed defenders. His predicament hands a previously peripheral figure like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance to show what he can do.
Daniel Sturridge may also get a chance to prove regular selection is more advantageous to his efficiency than the current routine of one game in, two games out. That's if his fitness can hold out, and few would expect that.
Klopp has claimed flexibility for his forward options, and he's right to an extent. Firmino does often move out to Mane's left-wing position, but rarely with satisfactory results.
Coutinho has played there too, yet with recent success in a traditional midfield role -- he's scored in Liverpool's last three games -- Klopp may be reluctant to move him.
One option is for Mohammed Salah to go left and Oxlade-Chamberlain to play in a more comfortable right-wing role. That also risks disrupting one of Liverpool's few successful players this season. Any way he chooses, Klopp will be gambling.
However he tries to fix it, the German knows the loss of Mane is a crucial blow to his chances of restoring order and getting Liverpool's season back on track.
The Senegal forward missed a lot of football last season too. A month away at the African Nations Cup almost derailed Liverpool's season entirely.
His next absence came after injury in the Merseyside derby last April. Klopp's remaining squad managed to grind its way to fourth place in the Premier League.
They, and also Arsenal in fairness, took advantage of several opponents having little or nothing to fight for at the end of their season. This injury comes far too early to expect anything similar.
The news triggered the usual social media complaints about international football -- understandable when it seems to affect your club's fortunes so often.
Expecting players not to want glory for country as well as club is futile in the extreme. Perhaps there is a case for reducing the amount of games footballers face at every level, but given the sport is so indebted to television and sponsorship that idea hits a brick wall quickly. Football clubs rarely turn down money, no matter the inconvenience.
It also needs reiterating that the reasons for Liverpool seeming to suffer more than most may lie closer to home than fans care to admit.
The Klopp style has been debated so often it's almost boring now. A quick glance at his record proves there's more to him than simply winding up players like clockwork mice and sending them scurrying around for 90 minutes.
There's no point denying he depends a lot on dynamism and energy, though. When his team are fit and firing, there are few more exciting sights. When it begins to break down and it becomes obvious players can't operate at that level for an entire season, pessimism begins to stir.
Adopting a more pragmatic, thoughtful approach could take months, maybe years to implement. As with the team's defensive eccentricities, fans just have to accept Klopp's Liverpool as it is and cross their fingers.
Discontent always emerges after an international injury, but telling that to Salah isn't worthwhile. Taking Egypt to their first World Cup since 1990 or an equaliser against Burnley? He would take little time in deciding which the bigger achievement was.
In all such arguments it's up to clubs to provide the challenges, excitement and success which top footballers crave. Even Steven Gerrard, often voted No.1 in polls for Liverpool's greatest modern player, desperately sought wins and success in 114 appearances for England, too. It's the mark of a truly great player to want both.
That means managing fitness and rotation better, and it's clear Liverpool have been poor at doing so -- since well before Klopp arrived at Anfield, in fact.
Being forced to work without integral players like Mane, Coutinho and Lallana for such long spells ties Klopp's hands. A solution for such regular absences is in his own best interest.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.
Eden Hazard has told Chelsea supporters that he will "play bad for some games" as he works his way back into a regular starting role after recovering from a broken ankle.
Hazard made his first Premier League start of the season in the home defeat to Manchester City on Sept. 30, three days after producing a Man of the Match display in the Champions League win at Atletico Madrid.
The 26-year-old enjoyed a productive international break for Belgium, scoring twice in their win over Cyprus, but when asked whether he was back to his best he told reporters: "I don't know.
"I will see at the end of the season. I missed football for three months... it's not easy to come back after a big injury, but I did.
"I worked out during the summer. I just want to play football. I will miss some games, I will play bad for some games. I just want to play football and try to bring the best of me."
Hazard's return to full fitness is a boost to Chelsea coach Antonio Conte, likely to be without first-choice striker Alvaro Morata and midfielder N'Golo Kante for Saturday's trip to Crystal Palace.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.