Wilson: Much to ponder for BPL titans

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson looks back at the opening Premier League weekend that saw Manchester United and Liverpool lose and Arsenal held to a draw.

Football News: Luis Suarez, Liverpool

One game into the season and already there is talk of Premier League teams being in crisis. It's ridiculous, of course, in that a team that loses one game in August is no more in crisis that a team that loses one game in December or April - in fact is arguably less so in that new signings are still bedding in and so a team isn't fully formed, while further players can still be sbought until the end of the month.

But in the modern age in which 90 points is almost standard for teams winning the title, every dropped point matters and, even beyond that, for three of the sides who would expect to be challenging for Champions League places come the end of the season, there are significant reasons for concern.

The most shocking result of a surprising opening weekend was Liverpool's defeat at West Bromwich Albion. Twenty-two years on from their last league title and after the turmoil of the Hicks and Gillett regime, the departures in quick succession of Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish and suffering their worst league finish in half a century last season, confidence and morale is fragile at Anfield. Pre-season seemed to have gone well and there was measured optimism about the possession-based approach favoured by Brendan Rodgers.

For 40 minutes at the Hawthorns, Liverpool played relatively well. And then, in quick succession, Zoltan Gera thumped in a superb volley from just outside the box, Daniel Agger was sent off in conceding a penalty and, when that was missed, a dozing Martin Skrtel conceded another one. By the end, West Brom thoroughly deserved their win, but there was something slightly freakish about the way the game went. Liverpool will have very few, if any, goals scored against them as good as Gera's this season and Skrtel endured an uncharacteristically nightmarish game.

So it may be that this was a one-off (albeit a badly timed one-off with Manchester City and Arsenal next up), but equally there are issues that must be addressed. It will take time for Rodgers's radical insistence on passing to be assimilated but there are certain players to whom it looked entirely alien, most notably Skrtel. 

The former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen was scathing of the side, criticising them for failing to put the ball out when under pressure; that, though, is the whole point of what Rodgers is trying to instil. His game plan is to have 70 per cent possession as standard and that does mean playing risky passes at times.

Luis Suarez, again, wasted chances. His goalscoring record in the Netherlands with Ajax was exceptional, with Uruguay is very good and even with Liverpool is decent. But he does seem to miss an awful lot of chances. If it is simply a matter of luck or confidence, then he's in a blip that has gone on a weirdly long time. 

And then there is the perennial issue of Steven Gerrard. Possession football is not really his thing. He is a dynamic, driving player, somebody who instinctively looks for the 50-yard defence splitting pass rather than the five-yard sideways pass. There is a place for that, of course, but it's hard to see how Gerrard can fit comfortably in Rodgers team where the premium is always on ball-retention.

Arsenal seem stuck in an eternal loop. Every year they sell their best player. Every year they play attractive passing football. And every year they struggle to break down doggedly organised sides. Sunderland, as many sides at the Emirates will this season, packed men behind the ball, defended deep and, for the most part, watched in relative comfort as Arsenal passed the ball back and forth in front of them.

Santi Cazorla was a threat and looks a bargain at £15million, but aside from him there was a lack of edge.

Only when Olivier Giroud came on for Lukas Podolski after 64 minutes did Arsenal build anything like consistent pressure. That may have been down to Sunderland tiring on what was a hot and humid afternoon but it was also evident that Giroud's aerial presence forced Sunderland to play a little higher so as not to risk letting him attack crosses in the box. That in turn meant there was space behind the defence for Cazorla to try to exploit and, sure enough, with eight minutes remaining the Spaniard laid in Giroud, who shot wide.

To say that Robin van Persie would have scored is pointless, so too would Giroud the vast majority of the time; all forwards miss the odd chance. 

The bigger worry is how ineffective Podolski looked. He is a player who has always seems most comfortable when he has space in front of him and as such may turn out to be most effective against teams who take Arsenal on. He has proved devastatingly effective on the break for Germany but he struggled in the Euros against packed defences and on the evidence of Saturday he will in the Premier League. It may be he is better playing on the left rather than at centre-forward where his lack of physical presence or close technical skills mean he struggles to hold the ball up.

Manchester United's problem in their defeat to Everton was twofold.

Most obviously, they struggled to deal with the aerial threat of Marouane Fellaini which in part was explicable by the defensive injury crisis that left Michael Carrick playing at centre-back. To lose Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling simultaneously is desperately unfortunate. More puzzling is United's continuing refusal or inability to buy a dynamic central midfielder. 

Shinji Kagawa and Van Persie are both fine players but they surely weren't priorities in terms of the make-up of the squad. The problem was there last season and United muddled through, but the lack of midfield presence was a contributory factor in their defeat to Athletic of Bilbao in the Europa League and the major reason for the defeat to Manchester City that ultimately cost them the title.

Crisis is far too strong a word, but all three clubs must enter the final week of the transfer window feeling concern.

comments powered by Disqus

Most Popular News

News & Update