Five World Cup players who were doing fine but have gone to sh*t since coming back

Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez Credit: Alamy
Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez Credit: Alamy

There are a few to choose from at Man City but the post-World Cup regression has been clear from previously sparkling forwards at Arsenal and Liverpool.

Some players improved on indifferent form after returning from Qatar. This lot did not.

 

Joao Cancelo
The five Manchester City players who are reportedly a little p*ssed off at Pep Guardiola almost all share something else in common: a hardly coincidental post-World Cup reimagining of their playing time. Ilkay Gundogan was used roughly as much as before the tournament but Joao Cancelo, Kyle Walker, Aymeric Laporte and even the once-unimpeachable Bernardo Silva seem to have lost an element of the manager’s previously unshakeable trust.

Guardiola has made no attempt to mask his frustration at a perceived drop in standards across parts of his squad, calling out a lack of “passion, fire, desire, to win from minute one” from players who have become “comfortable”. Yet more Cancelo culture in 2023 has seen the Portuguese full-back largely consigned to the bench as Rico Lewis and Nathan Ake have stepped up.

The 28-year-old’s club appearances in chronological order since returning from Qatar tell a story: 22 substitute minutes against Leeds; taken off at half-time against Chelsea; 31 substitute minutes in another game against Chelsea; a full 90 minutes in defeats to both Southampton and Man Utd. There had been a sustained drop-off for a few months but that is stark.

 

Thilo Kehrer
Perhaps ‘doing fine’ is a generous assessment of Thilo Kehrer’s first few months as a Premier League player. Thrown straight in at the deep end that is West Ham’s defence, the 26-year-old made high-profile mistakes in defeats to Everton, Man Utd and Crystal Palace, struggling to settle in a disorderly team. But there was at least an element of patience and understanding for a player asked to perform in difficult circumstances.

Any hope that a major international jaunt might engender some consistency, reliability or just general improvement was misplaced. Kehrer collected his 24th Germany cap at right-back in an engaging draw with Spain, picking up a booking before being substituted. Back under the wing of David Moyes earlier than he had anticipated, Kehrer started at centre-half in defeat to Arsenal and at left-back in a 2-2 draw with Leeds, watching the other four Hammers games from the bench despite being almost ever-present before the World Cup.

 

Brenden Aaronson
That game against Chelsea feels like a lifetime ago. Leeds pressed their way to a watershed victory at Elland Road in August, inspired by the hard miles and tireless excellence of their new American boy. The following month, Brenden Aaronson expressed his desire to “keep getting better and better” before achieving his ultimate goal to “hopefully be a legend for the club at some point”.

It seems even further off than the Chelsea victory. Jesse Marsch was heartened by Aaronson’s “more confident” display in the goalless draw with Brentford but the manager admitted his £25m summer signing was feeling “a little down” and “physically struggling to insert himself into matches” after a costly mistake in the draw with West Ham. The effort is not lacking but pretty much everything else has been .

 

Darwin Nunez
Even at his apparent floppiest
, Darwin Nunez is a hilariously effective whirlwind of havoc. The inevitable Erling Haaland comparisons, his generally chaotic aura and the transitional nature of this Liverpool season meant a pre-World Cup record of eight goals and two assists in 17 appearances was painted as failure. A goal contribution every 85 minutes? Nice one, Andy Carroll.

Scoring twice in Liverpool’s final game immediately before the tournament, a 3-1 victory over Southampton, seemed like the perfect launchpad for Nunez to inspire something special from a Uruguay side many predicted to shine in Qatar. Yet they remain his most recent Premier League goals after a frustrating group-stage exit was the precursor to more difficulty for the Reds. Darwin’s theory of evolution should probably not involve him going backwards

 

Gabriel Martinelli
‘Gone to sh*t’ is an undeniably harsh description of Gabriel Martinelli since the World Cup, the winger having scored in wins over West Ham and Brighton to put disappointment in Qatar behind him. But January has brought four games, no goals and a solitary assist against Oxford United.

There has been a downturn in form, happening to coincide with the absence of Gabriel Jesus. Eddie Nketiah has done phenomenally as the Brazilian’s replacement but that shift in attacking dynamic and focus has impacted Martinelli the most. No longer does he rotate positions or even interlink with the centre-forward – he and Nketiah exchanged no passes with one another against Man Utd – and playing on Oleksandr Zinchenko’s flank means there is no overlapping full-back to help apply pressure. It is a heavy burden to carry alone.

Martinelli still plays an integral role for the league leaders and his output has been deliberately and successfully sacrificed for the ultimate benefit of a brilliant team. But Leandro Trossard offers a viable alternative who the Gunners might lean on more regularly, which in turn should help a fresher, sharper Martinelli.

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