Liverpool's Potential Achilles Heel
After Liverpool's 1-0 victory on Saturday, Brendan Rodgers said that his side's 'defensive steel was excellent.' Rodgers' uber-positivity in the face of glaring contradictory evidence is not exactly a new development and Liverpool struggled to cope with the Stoke's threat from set-pieces throughout. Despite completely dominating the first half, Liverpool were fortunate not to concede after a Stoke player made the first contact with the ball on five occasions from dead ball deliveries.
Simon Mignolet looked visibly nervous on his first competitive appearance at Anfield as he flapped at a couple of crosses and even looked uncomfortable with the ball at his feet. The Belgian goalkeeper showed last season that he is excellent in the air as well as being a superb shot-stopper so one would not expect that uncertainty to continue and he should take confidence from his match-winning penalty save from Jonathan Walters. Although it must be said that Walters' unreliable technique of hitting the ball into the ground from the spot must make every 'keeper's eyes light up, not just top-class operators like Mignolet.
However, there is not the same recent body of work from either of Liverpool's two starting centre-halves to suggest that Saturday's performance was merely a blip. Rodgers was typically effusive in his praise of Kolo Touré after signing the Ivorian on a free transfer from Manchester City, "I saw him play at Aston Villa and in a lot of other games and I thought he was Manchester City's best player." There weren't that many 'other games' though, as the 32-year-old only played 15 league matches last term for Roberto Mancini and his most memorable moment in 2012/3 probably came off the pitch. Touré has looked like a player in decline for a couple of years and a team with serious aspirations for a Champion's League place shouldn't be relying on him as a first choice centre-half.
In theory, Daniel Agger is the perfect modern central-back as he combines being comfortable on the ball with his primary duties of defending. The problem is that Agger has been failing to fulfil his primary duties for some time now and carried his lacklustre form of 2012/13 into last Saturday. He gifted Stoke their penalty with a ridiculous hand-ball by putting himself in a bad position.
With Martin Skrtel out of favour and Coates seemingly out of sight and out of mind, Rodgers would seem to be relying heavily on Agger and Touré and this seems foolish. When (it appears not to be an if any more) Luis Suarez returns to the side, Liverpool will have one of the most potent forward lines in the league and it may yet be supplemented by the very highly-rated Willian from Anzhi Makhachkala. Iago Aspas continued his promising start to his Liverpool career as he floated menacingly between the lines (space between the midfield and defence) and looked for combinations. Fitness permitting, both Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge appear to be set for very productive seasons and the midfield also looks strong.
On Saturday, Lucas Leiva returned to the excellent form he showed before suffering serious knee injury in December of 2011. Steven Gerrard has quietly adapted very well to playing as a deep-lying playmaker and while the depth of the squad is questionable, the huge potential of that 'front six' is not in doubt. Given that, not bolstering his squad with at least one experienced centre-half before the transfer window closes could prove to a very costly mistake for Rodgers. Despite his never-ending stream of bullshit, he has moulded a side which aren't far away from being ready to move up a level and seriously compete with Arsenal and Tottenham for fourth place.
Different Manager But The Same Old Manchester United
With Wilfried Zaha so far the only significant new addition to Manchester United's squad, the strengths and weaknesses of the Manchester United squad remain the same for David Moyes as they were for Sir Alex Ferguson. A 4-1 scoreline flattered United on Saturday evening with Swansea having more shots (17 to 14) and more possession (54% to 46%) than the Premier League champions. As Gary Neville pointed out in commentary, Michael Laudrup's side consistently found space between the lines with their wide players in the first half and then Michu was left unmarked for large parts of the second period when he dropped deeper to play off half-time substitute Wilfried Bony.
Darren Fletcher was never exactly Claude Makelele in his prime but he developed into an admirable holding midfielder who was pretty mobile and could break up the play. Since his misfortune at being diagnosed with Ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease) in November 2011, the Scot has only played 10 matches for United and has never looked like the same player. That has left United without that type of player for effectively 18 months and they always look vulnerable to being overrun in midfield by good opposition.
Moyes' pursuit of Marouane Fellaini would indicate he has pinpointed this weakness and while the Belgian has his limitations such as a lack of class in possession, he is certainly a great athlete and is effective in making dispossessions when played in a deeper role. He should be able to plug some of the gaps that were all too apparent at the Liberty stadium alongside Michael Carrick.
That United were able to win the League last year by 11 points without a holding midfield player was due to their huge strengths in other areas of the team. Swansea were never really able to penetrate a defence lead by the imperious Nemanja Vidic and three moments of brilliance from Robin Van Persie put United three nil up without ever really hitting top gear. His two goals were obviously outstanding but as Neville highlighted, his movement in the box which befuddled Ashley Williams played a crucial part in United's second goal. If they can sign a holding midfield player like Fellaini and the key men like Vidic and Van Persie stay fit, which is obviously far from guaranteed given their injury history, this United team will prove to be formidable opposition, regardless of the manager in charge.