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TT's Premier Picks: United shaky at back

Sunday 21st October 2012 19:23

United: Problems in defence

United: Problems in defence

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TEAMtalk highlights Manchester United's defensive frailties and Liverpool's strike issues in our review of the weekend's action.

Tottenham v Chelsea

Much of the pre-game chat surrounded the absence of Gareth Bale from the Spurs starting XI, and it showed throughout the first half.

Without him, the home side were forced to deploy Clint Dempsey on the left and not only did he fail to truly get involved, but his inclination to drift in field in search of doing so created further problems. The excellent Jan Vertonghen tried his best to fill the void but was too often stranded, in turn allowing Chelsea's dynamic attacking midfield trio to get in behind, while the Belgian's deeply-delivered crosses proved bread and butter for Gary Cahill and David Luiz.

The game was won, though, by a superb Juan Mata display. While Eden Hazard deservedly gained all the plaudits during the opening weeks of the season, Mata's influence - and the goals that have come with it - has taken Chelsea to the top of the league. Intelligent enough to spot Spurs' weaknesses in defence and gifted enough to take advantage, the little maestro was in unstoppable form and could well have scored three.

Indeed, when Andre Villas-Boas reflects on this game, he'll realise that the gap between Chelsea and Spurs can be found in midfield. Even without Mata, Chelsea can call on Hazard and the hard-working Oscar, whereas without Bale, Spurs clearly lose much of their attacking potency.

Chelsea might look to lack width on paper, but they stretched Spurs from side to side to gain a North London double having previously beaten Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. The last time they did that, Chelsea went on to win the league, and on this performance a repeat is very much a possibility.

Chelsea made light of the absence of suspended captain John Terry with his replacement Gary Cahill on target.

The Blues confirmed prior to the clash at White Hart Lane that Terry would retain the captain's armband on returning from his four-match suspension despite being found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.

The moral ambiguity of that decision requires deeper debate, but in purely footballing terms, Roberto Di Matteo had the perfect replacement for the former England skipper immediately to hand.

Cahill, who will also benefit from Terry's decision to quit the international scene, slotted in seamlessly alongside David Luiz and opened the scoring with a blistering volley which gave Brad Friedel no chance.

Terry is almost certain to be back in action in the UEFA Champions League against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday to keep him sharp during his domestic ban, and the decision for Di Matteo will be whether it is Luiz or the more dependable Cahill who makes way.

Ben Coley & Rob Parrish

Manchester United v Stoke

Having described the pre-international break victory over Newcastle as Manchester United's finest performance of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson will have been irritated to see his side revert to bad habits and concede the opening goal of the game.

The defence looked shaky throughout but goalkeeper David de Gea, challenged to stand up to Stoke's aerial threat, again demonstrated his shot-stopping ability with a couple of superb saves, and perhaps it is a risk worth taking for Ferguson to be so open when his attacking players can be so devastating.

The United manager certainly seems to have figured out a way of accommodating Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck in the same team, with the three forward men showing great movement and linking up well as they all scored.

The clash of styles made for an exciting encounter, although it would be unfair to label Stoke as being too physical at Old Trafford as a couple of the clumsiest tackles on the day came from Paul Scholes, who was perhaps lucky not to see red.

It could have been worse for the Potters as there were periods when United looked like running riot and notching a cricket score, or at least a tennis score, but there were still plenty of positives for Tony Pulis to take from the game.

Crouch posed problems throughout and Charlie Adam produced one of his best performances in a Stoke shirt, bringing to mind Ferguson's quote from a couple of years ago when he said the midfielder's set-pieces alone were worth £10million.

Pulis was understandably frustrated by his own team's defensive lapses after the final whistle but he should not be worried about their position in the bottom eight at this stage as Stoke have now faced most of the Premier League's heavyweights and only suffered a couple of defeats, so with some kinder-looking fixtures to come in the next few weeks they should be pushing up the standings.

Lewis Rutledge

West Brom v Manchester City

West Brom have had a fine start to the season and performed admirably again against City, but Steve Clarke may be rueing a missed opportunity to take three points from the champions.

The dismissal of James Milner with only a quarter of the game played presented the Baggies with a real opportunity to climb above their opponents in the Premier League table. For the next half of the match, however, Clarke's side failed to seize their numerical opportunity and appeared content to stick with a point .

It was only when Peter Odemwingie replaced Graham Dorrans that the hosts had a go. Odemwingie drove at City and was the first Baggie to draw depleted City out of their shape. The Nigerian set up the opening goal with a strong run and scuffed shot. Could he have been introduced earlier?

Perhaps the hosts' ambition cost them in the end, with Edin Dzeko's winner coming as a result of West Brom being caught short after a corner. But some earlier bravery and ambition on the part of Clarke's side might have seen them finish the day with more than a first home defeat of the season.

For City, this was the win of champions and, for that, Roberto Mancini must take credit. The boss wasted little time in introducing Dzeko after going behind, but held off the trigger when Mario Balotelli was acting the fool. The safe thing to do would have been to withdraw the Italian at half-time as he flirted with a second yellow card, but Balotelli was City's main danger in the first half and continued that threat for almost 20 minutes before he was replaced by Sergio Aguero.

Dzeko's brace now gives Mancini a real dilemma ahead of the Champions League meeting with Ajax. With all four main strikers fit and firing - Carlos Tevez was impressive here- the manager must decide who to keep in reserve as City look to get their European campaign on track.

Ian Watson

Liverpool v Reading

Liverpool may have picked up their first home win of the season, but again it was clear for all to see they need to bring in a striker in January.

The Reds are short of options in attack with Luis Suarez the only recognised striker in the side with the Uruguayan being supported by teenagers Raheem Sterling and Suso.

Liverpool were guilty as they have been for most of the campaign as they wasted opportunity after opportunity to put Reading to the sword and they were almost made to pay as the Royals staged a late rally.

The Reds are making progress in how they play under Brendan Rodgers, but unless they can find someone who can put the ball in the back of the net all their hard work could go to waste.

Suarez could have helped himself to a hat-trick but his wastefulness in front of goal is a major problem for Rodgers.

The Liverpool scouting staff will be working overtime to find a new forward in January and help ease some of the burden on Suarez.

Reading will be thinking if only they had started the game like they finished it.

Brian McDermott's men showed Liverpool too much respect in the first half, but they improved in the second half and could have got something from the game.

McDermott will have to be more adventurous away from home with his selection otherwise Reading could find themselves making a speedy return to the Championship.

Pete O'Rourke

Fulham v Aston Villa

Fulham boss Martin Jol openly admitted after the match he was 'relieved' to secure all three points because in truth, a point would have been a fair result.

However, the Dutchman's tactical nous certainly put him up against his opposite number Paul Lambert who opted to set up with a diamond formation in the middle of the park.

After a pretty uneventful first half, Jol cleverly saw the opportunity to push his full-backs Sascha Riether and John Arne Riise further forward. And that seemed to do the trick as the visitors found themselves pushed back and were soon struggling to cope.

Despite the only goal of the game from a set-piece and an unlikely goalscorer in Chris Baird, Jol was happy enough to accept the plaudits.

The Cottagers' home form has been exceptional with five wins from their last six games now and they proved in this encounter that they don't have to play well to win matches, which is the sign of a top Premier League team.

Only 12 months ago, these sides were seen as pretty even, but how times have changed, with Villa heading down the table and Fulham looking upwards.

Lambert clearly has a dilemma, because it's obvious to see that Darren Bent looks completely lost up front at the moment and is in desperate need of some help.

The Scot felt Christian Benteke needed to put his feet up on the bench while he gave Gabby Agbonlahor another opportunity to impress.

Sadly, his tactics failed to pay off and, although Villa kept the ball well enough at times, they really didn't look like scoring.

Supporters will be calling for the B&B partnership to get going in their next Premier League clash - funnily enough against Lambert's former club Norwich - at home next weekend.

Razwan Mirza

West Ham v Southampton

Andy Carroll's performance against Southampton threw his absence for England against Poland into sharp relief.

Of course, we will never know how the striker would have fared in Warsaw as he never got the chance, but he looked wide-awake when he returned to action at Upton Park against Southampton.

When you have the height and build Carroll possesses, you are always likely to be the centre of attention and so it proved on Saturday. Jos Hooiveld was never too far away from Carroll, and if the Dutchman was away from the scene then Jose Fonte or anyone else in a yellow shirt would be all over the on-loan Geordie like a cheap suit.

Credit Carroll for keeping his temper - compare and contrast with Mario Balotelli when defenders try to get too close to him. Carroll was a happy man when Hooiveld eventually went into the book, but by then he had done his job in terms of his hold-up play.

He is yet to open his account for West Ham, but no-one at the Boleyn Ground seemed too concerned on Saturday, least of all Sam Allardyce. "He is a nuisance to defenders, to try to win the ball, to try to play the ball out. While he did not get a real chance today, his hold-up play allowed us to start to spring off and get into the game more."

It was not a case of Carroll wasting chances that came his way - Southampton came to contain and instead of getting frustrated, the striker used his attributes to bring team-mates into the game. His persistence allowed Yossi Benayoun to latch onto a loose ball that eventually found its way to Kevin Nolan for the second goal.

Carroll would love to be in the goals right now, but he seems to have latched on to Allardyce's liking for all-round effort from all his players, whatever their stated trade. You can't help but feel that once the first goal comes, more are sure to follow.

Tim Oscroft

Swansea v Wigan

The first half showed that both sides were out of form. Scrappy, bitty and without meaningful opportunities on goal. Swansea had more of the ball and forced a few corners, and Wigan looked happy to frustrate.

In the second half the game changed markedly. Swansea began to piece the ball together in the attacking third, with Michu, Ki Sung-yueng and Wayne Routledge in particular causing a threat, Routledge the man of the match.

The main talking point again for Wigan was a refereeing decision. Arouna Kone was level when he headed home Jean Beausejour's cross, but was flagged offside. Roberto Martinez was fairly philosophical, but you have to feel sorry for the manager. Despite his claims that his side played well, another relegation battle looks as if it is looming.

Daniel Storey

Norwich v Arsenal

Arsene Wenger had spoken optimistically in the build-up to the game about how October could be the start of the 'moment of truth' for his team as he targeted maximum points from games against Norwich and QPR. Instead he saw his side beaten in the Premier League for the second time in three games with old problems emerging again.

While rivals Tottenham have the France captain Hugo Lloris on the bench, the Gunners had Vito Mannone on the pitch and the Italian was culpable for the only goal of the game at Carrow Road - spilling Alexander Tettey's effort into the path of Grant Holt.

At the other end of the pitch there was plenty of possession but no cutting edge as Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud struggled to shake off their markers and brought to mind the number of points Robin van Persie had helped salvage for Wenger's men last season.

For Norwich this was much more like it and their high tempo approach thoroughly merited all three points. Chris Hughton has had to wait for his first win as Canaries boss and he will hope that it doesn't require a two-week break for his team to produce this sort of high energy display.

Adam Bate

Sunderland v Newcastle

Since the start of 2010/11, Cheick Tiote has been yellow carded 27 times in 55 Premier League appearances. He has the worst disciplinary record in that period and his latest red card epitomised the problems with his game. The midfielder can be rash and irresponsible and cannot continue to keep letting his side down.

Sunderland managed only one shot on target against Newcastle, which took their tally for the league season to date to just 12. Other than Steven Fletcher, they again looked completely toothless. Martin O'Neill's greatest worry will be the ineffective performances of Adam Johnson and James McClean, who failed to provide any service.

Fabricio Coloccini was a class act of composure for Newcastle on his return to the starting XI after a hamstring injury. Alan Pardew had discussed before the game about the importance of his captain and it will be a worry the Argentine had to come off before the final whistle. Newcastle will be nervously waiting to discover if Coloccini has suffered an injury recurrence or just suffering fatigue.

Pete Fraser

QPR v Everton

Some had predicted that Sunday would be the day that QPR's summer cascade of signings all clicked together and recorded their first win of the season. Phil Jagielka wasn't having any of that.

In the end, neither Everton or QPR will be too disappointed with their 1-1 draw, especially the Toffees. In Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, heroics were performed at Loftus Road as Everton battled valiantly for nearly 30 minutes with 10 men. In the process, they prevented QPR's waves of late pressure having any effect, and the Hoops still remain winless with eight games of the season gone.

This was, though, a much improved performance from Mark Hughes' side. Defensively, they looked stern, limiting Everton's strikers to half-chances at best. Going forward, Junior Hoilett, Adel Taarabt and Samba Diakite (their supposed centre-back of the day) looked incredibly lively, and surely, one day soon, all the money poured into the club by Tony Fernandes will begin to start being paid back.

For Everton, though, their incredible start continues. David Moyes recently hailed his squad as the best he's ever worked with during his 10 years at the club, and if they continue to perform in the manner they have started, the future could be extremely bright for the blue half of Merseyside.

Jack Woodfield

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