Monday Verdict: Time to lay off Stoke, but Arsenal…?

Date published: Monday 21st August 2017 12:59

Manchester United’s ‘power game’ is to the fore again, Chelsea come out fighting, Liverpool CAN win ugly and it’s the same old, same old Arsenal – all discussed in the Monday Verdict.

 

MANCHESTER UNITED’S POWER GAME LOOKS UNSTOPPABLE

One thing really stood out when watching Manchester United’s thumping of Swansea on Saturday – the spine of that team is so, so strong.

There wasn’t much dazzling football on display at The Liberty but United’s sheer ruthlessness and cutting edge, especially when the game opened up, was evident for all to see.

Jose Mourinho’s men struggled in the first half but that goal from Eric Bailly just before the break made life virtually impossible for Swansea thereafter.

Yes the home side saw lots of the ball in the second period but that was only because United let them have it, knowing full well that Swansea were fairly toothless in attack but also recognising that the more desperate Paul Clement’s men became the more opportunities it would provide on the break – and boy did United take advantage in that last 10 minutes.

But when all was said and done it was the power in that United side that was the most impressive aspect.

Phil Jones and Eric Bailly were about as no nonsense as you can get at the heart of a defence, both dominant in the air and at times thunderous in the tackle. If only the former could stay fit for more than a few weeks at a time, what a player he could be.

Then there’s the man that Chelsea didn’t need, Nemanja Matic. Much has already been said about the stupidity of the Blues to sell to a title rival but the lanky Serbian was immense once again as he sought out and destroyed opposition ball and then kept things nice and simple when he had it – so far a masterstroke of a signing from Mourinho.

Matic’s addition to that midfield has allowed Paul Pogba to push a little further up the field, and the club’s record signing is playing with a swagger and intent in his game that he only showed very rare glimpses of last season – and that’s only two games into the new campaign.

United also needed a focal point after Zlatan’s summer exit and Romelu Lukaku is already looking like a steal.

Given the transfers that have taken place since the Belgian quit Goodison Park for Old Trafford you have to say that an initial fee of £75million looks like outstanding value for money Рtwo Premier League games in and already three goals to his name.

Lukaku’s hold-up play seems to be improving at a fairly rapid rate and his undoubted connection with Pogba is a huge bonus for a United side that already look like they could be the team to beat this season.

So now to reality. Yes it’s just two games in, and they’ve only played West and Swansea, so the real test will be how United shape up when they take on their fellow big hitters.

On the evidence so far, however, you have to say that if the spine of that team stays injury and suspension free (they do like a tackle after all) then it will take some effort to stop them.

TOTTENHAM GET SUCKER-PUNCHED BY CHELSEA AGAIN

So Chelsea aren’t in a crisis after all, what a shock that is!

Sunday’s game against Tottenham at Wembley is the exact one they would have wanted to answer their critics after the nightmare against Burnley and a week of continued public spats with wantaway striker Diego Costa.

White Hart Lane would have almost certainly been a different kettle of fish but to play Spurs at Wembley, having beaten them there so demoralisingly in the FA Cup semis last season, was always going to be a perfect way to show their unity and what a master tactician Antonio Conte really is.

Spurs dominated on Sunday, as they did in the cup semi too, but Chelsea sat in and sucker-punched them and you have to give Conte all the plaudits.

Playing David Luiz in the holding role in a midfield diamond didn’t give Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli the space they like in the pockets and meant Tottenham had to try and go wide to get any joy, almost certainly the weakest part of their team – particularly with Danny Rose not available and Kieran Trippier still nursing a bit of an ankle knock.

That said, Spurs will be right to feel a little hard done by. They have been the better side in their last two outings against their London rivals and have nothing to show for it, which should really be a lesson in itself.

More possession, countless shots and a magnitude of corners counts for nothing if you don’t do anything with it/them.

Mauricio Pochettino’s men really did need to get something out of the game to try and put this Wembley hoodoo to bed at the very earliest opportunity.

But to try and vanquish something like this, the very last team you want to face is the one you have only beaten twice in your last 17 games. Let’s not even talk about Tottenham’s record at Stamford Bridge in the last 25 years! Ending one hoodoo against another nemesis – that combination was never going to go well.

For Tottenham to even finish in the top four this season would be an achievement, let alone trying to challenge for the title, given that they are effectively playing at a neutral venue every other week that will inspire every opponent and not strike fear into them as White Hart Lane did last season (17 wins and 2 draws in their 19 games).

They cannot play their normal pressing game, because the pitch is too big, and they don’t have the out and out pace in their side to take advantage of those bigger dimensions. In other words Pochettino will need to come up with plans B and C, particularly when it comes to going up against the more canny operators like Conte.

As for Chelsea, you wouldn’t exactly say that they are back but this will most certainly give them a huge lift.

SAME OLD ARSENAL BUT TIME TO LAY OFF STOKE

Criticised for their summer business and handed an tough opening 10 games of the new season, Stoke were an easy target for many pundits but Saturday’s battling win against Arsenal will have given Mark Hughes’ men so much confidence going forward.

Yes it was backs-to-the-wall but that’s how the old Stoke used to love it and their commitment and attitude was never in question as they humbled Arsene Wenger’s men thanks to a debut goal from Jese Rodriguez.

The former Real Madrid winger, who is on loan from PSG, looks like a real difference maker and took his goal really well after good link-up play with Saido Berahino. He could yet prove to be one of unheralded signings of the season.

As for Arsenal, what can you say?

They had 77% possession and 18 shots on goal, but only six on target, and could not find a way through Stoke’s rearguard.

They were perhaps unlucky to see Alexandre Lacazette’s goal ruled out for offside but it is once again their inability to win games that they dominant that could see them struggle to earn a top-four place for a second season in a row.

A trip to Liverpool this coming Sunday will give us a good idea of what shape both teams are in at this early stage of the new campaign.

As for Jurgen Klopp’s men, on to them next…

LIVERPOOL FIND A WAY

Last season’s clash between Liverpool and Crystal Palace at Anfield ended in a 2-1 late April victory for the visitors in a game that was dubbed ‘Christian Benteke’s revenge’, but the Reds were having none of it this time around.

Despite making a number of changes to his starting line-up, with a view to Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Hoffenheim, Liverpool still dominated and eventually got over the line thanks to Sadio Mane’s late strike.

So comparing both game’s against Palace, which came in the space of just seven Premier League outings overall, you have to say that there was an improvement in Liverpool’s concentration levels – something that was not in evidence in the 3-3 draw at Watford the week prior.

Their desire to keep pushing for the winner, when they could easily have felt that nothing was happening for them and turned their focus to Hoffenheim, is also a big plus point for Klopp.

Indeed, last season’s struggles against the so-called lesser sides will perhaps now become a thing of the past, now that this particular mental hurdle has been overcome.

There is obviously a long way to go but this was a good result for Liverpool and one that would, and indeed did, get away from them on countless occasions last season.

By Rob McCarthy

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