The Premier League came back to full-blooded life this weekend after a relaxed couple of internationals for the English national side. The top four were in action in what was anticipated to be a fantastic cut-and-thrust weekend of football, full of action, incident and drama. It did not fail to live up to expectations.
One of the main focuses was Liverpool’s game against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. After a series of dreadful results away from home questions were being asked about Rafa Benitez’s side and their title credentials. With Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard ruled out through injury, could Liverpool’s squad cope? The answer was no, as they succumbed to another bitterly disappointing away defeat. Many doubts will have crept into Liverpool fans’ minds. Can Rafa Benitez ever give them the Premiership crown? Is their squad good enough to cope with the top four, or even the likes of Spurs and Manchester City?
The strength of Sunderland was too much for an inexperienced Liverpool side that looked like a team full of strangers. The visitors’ lack of experience in midfield was to the fore as the two sides were quickly separated by a gulf in class. Lucas and young Jay Spearing were the central-midfield pair given the task of matching the hard, committed strength of Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana. However, the Liverpool duo’s lack of experience and the absence of the toughness required to succeed in the Premier League was evident as the Sunderland midfield dominated throughout. There is no doubt Lucas has the potential to play in the Premier League – he is a good passer with sound technique – but, at 22, he lacks the experience and know-how to play a significant role in a title chase, like quite a few members of the Liverpool squad. Meanwhile, with Sunderland having been in superb form over the last three games, Spearing was thrown into a very tough match for his first start of the season. Perhaps Rafa Benitez should be starting the youthful Merseysider in games at Anfield against sides in poor form, to ease him into the Premier League, so that he might blossom into a confident player.
Ryan Babel is another player on the fringes of the Liverpool squad who seems to perform poorly when given a chance in the first team. With only a handful of starts, a lack of intensity and perhaps a feeling of pressure could be the reasons for the under-performances of a player who is very highly rated in the Netherlands. Benitez needs experience in his squad for Liverpool to win the Premier League title, players who excel in pressure situations and can meet the toughest and hardest tests in the Premier League, especially away from home. The mental strength needed to succeed on the road is the key to any title chase, which is why Manchester United continue to do so well, with players such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Gary Neville moulding a winning mentality within an excellent squad of players.
After an incredible start to his reign at Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti is also starting to feel the Premier League pressure bite. On Saturday his team followed up their disappointing performance away to Wigan with a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa. It is perhaps the manner of the defeat that will have angered the Italian more, coming as it did from two set pieces in which the Londoners were cut open after showing a distinct lack of organisation within the defensive unit. Chelsea played fluent football throughout and probably deserved a point, but their inability to defend a couple of simple set pieces cost them.
Given his nationality, it seems likely that organisation was something that Ancelotti drummed into his players from day one. However, it was a lack of that very thing, as well as poor communication between the back four and the goalkeeper, that lead to Chelsea losing a game in which they had taken control. Zonal marking is becoming a major talking point within the Premier League because Chelsea and Liverpool are employing the system with a conspicuous lack of success. A major difficulty with that strategy, compared to man-to-man marking, is knowing how to pinpoint the problems within the system. When defenders go man-to-man, it is easy to identify the problem and then, say, swap your best players around to mark those opponents who possess more threat in the air.
Chelsea and Liverpool are among those teams helping the Premier League to average nearly three goals a game in what is turning out to be a truly remarkable season. The top four do not seem as invincible as they once were and, with sides such as Sunderland, Spurs and Manchester City possessing fantastic squads and great form, this season looks set to be a memorable one.
Premier League analysis
Week 1 – August 15/16, 2009
Week 2 – August 18/19, 2009
Week 3 – August 22/23, 2009
Week 4 – August 29/30, 2009
Week 5 – September 12/13, 2009
Week 6 – September 19/20, 2009
Week 7 – September 26/27, 2009
Week 8 – October 3/4, 2009
Week 9 – October 17/18, 2009