Liverpool wins, but struggles to create chances; Five EPL thoughts

Saturday August 24th, 2013

Daniel Sturridge has scored eight goals in the last seven games for Liverpool.
Stu Forster/Getty Images

1. Liverpool's One-Shot Deal: Liverpool fans will have journeyed home from Birmingham on Saturday evening happily checking the Premier League standings on their mobile devices. Their club is where they believe it should be. For the first time in five years, Liverpool has won its first two games. It sits second in the standings, behind Chelsea only on goal difference.

Of course, goal difference could be a problem. Liverpool followed a 1-0 home victory over Stoke last week with a 1-0 victory at Aston Villa on Saturday. The formula was the same: a first-half goal by Daniel Sturridge and a dramatic late save by Simon Mignolet.

Sturridge's goal, chipped cutely with his left foot when it might have been more natural to shoot with his right, was Liverpool's only shot on target. Over the whole 90 minutes, Liverpool only managed five goal attempts. There were highlights: Sturridge once again showed he is developing into a ruthless finisher, and Philippe Coutinho was cleverly creative again -- his step-over set up Sturridge for the goal. But still, for long stretches, Liverpool barely mustered a threat.

Of course, Liverpool is without its most dangerous and inventive attacker, Luis Suárez who is banned. Sturridge has scored eight goals in the last seven games; six of them matches that Suárez was suspended for. Suárez won't come back for another four games -- if he comes back at all.

Yet this victory only increases a surprising statistical disparity. Since Suárez joined in 2011, Liverpool has won just under 1.5 points per league game when he plays and more than 2 per game when he doesn't. It might have something to do with the balance of attack and defense.

One reason that Liverpool created so few shots on Saturday was because the team was set up to defend rather than attack. Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, was unconcerned. The result, he said, was what counted. The mentality for his team, he told Sky TV, is "to win every game."

2. Not At Home In Their Villa: Last season, Aston Villa won only five league games at home. It picked up more points on the road than it did at Villa Park. It opened this season with an impressive away victory at Arsenal. It followed that by giving Chelsea a scare at Stamford Bridge in a game that even the notoriously one-eyed José Mourinho said Villa was unlucky to lose.

Then on Saturday, it could barely muster a first-half threat against Liverpool. Villa only posed a consistent threat as it grew increasingly desperate in the second half. Yes, Villa, unlike Liverpool, had played in midweek, but it didn't look tired. It simply looked to be completely out of creative ideas.

Villa's attacking threat is based almost entirely on the pace of Christian Benteke, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Wiemann. That works well on the road. But at home on Saturday, the road team lay deep and gave Villa nowhere to run.

Christian Benteke is going to be a great, great striker. He can create his own chances from nothing. He showed that at the end of the first half from a harmless position outside the penalty area. His sharp spin and quick shot forced a flying save from Mignolet. Benteke had Villa's other genuinely dangerous strike on goal near the end, but was stopped again by his fellow Belgian.

By then, Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, had gone to Plan B and tried height. He had thrown Nicklas Helenius, a 6-foot-5 Dane, on alongside the hulking Benteke. As backup plans go, it's not very sophisticated, and it clearly caused Liverpool no problems.

3. Crisis? What Crisis?: In the wake of Arsenal's opening-day home defeat to Aston Villa, Arsène Wenger, the manager, insisted that while he had money to spend, and intended to spend it, his team had plenty of good players already.

Arsenal finished fourth last season. Saturday's 3-1 victory at Fulham suggested that perhaps Wenger has a point. Arsenal crushed the home team. The five-man midfield, even with Jack Wilshere resting on the bench, dominated. When Arsenal had the ball, its midfield found space, and when it didn't, the midfield denied Fulham space. Olivier Giroud again proved an effective lone striker as he scored for the third straight game. Lukas Podolski finally did what he was bought to do. For most of the match he was an anonymous but hard-working midfield cog, but he pounced on two half chances and finished both with deadly certainty.

The victory means that the defeat to Villa is Arsenal's only loss in its last 13 league games. The 3-0 victory over Fenerbahce in Istanbul last Wednesday has two benefits. Wenger can rest players for the return leg on Tuesday ahead of the North London derby next Sunday. He can also offer potential recruits the carrot of playing in the group stages Champions League.

Yet Saturday's victory does not disguise the problems. The Fulham midfield trio of Scott Parker, who seems to have lost his pace, Steve Sidwell, who never had it, and Adel Taarabt who doesn't deign to defend, could have been ordered up by Wenger to make his midfield look good. And midfield is what Wenger seems to care most about.

That would explain why Arsenal is so short of attackers and center backs. Whatever Theo Walcott might think, Giroud is the club's only proven central striker. Bacary Sagna, a 5-7 fullback, played in the middle of the defense because the club only has three center backs and two are absent.

Those are the areas Arsenal needs to strengthen. Yet in the aftermath of the Villa loss, Wenger reverted to form. Arsenal launched low-ball bids for two midfielders: Yohan Cabaye, of Newcastle, and, according to the British media, Sebastian Capel of Sporting Lisbon. Cabaye might want to move, but it's not clear why Wenger thinks for a minute that Newcastle will accept just £10 million for a French international who is its pivotal creative player.

There is a pattern here. Two years ago, facing similar criticism at the start of the season, Wenger went out and bought Mikel Arteta as well as Per Mertesacker and the now departed André Santos.

Wenger might alleviate some problems with solid veterans of the ilk of Arteta and Mertesacker, but that won't satisfy the fans. The departure of Robin van Persie last summer meant that, for the first time since long before Wenger's arrival in 1996, Arsenal does not have a single player who could be remotely described as great. There are a few eternally promising youngsters, but they remain, frustratingly, only promising. Wenger needs to pull off the difficult trick of finding a world-class player in the dying days of the transfer window. (Of course, if he does unearth a world-class player, Chelsea will probably hijack his bid).

4. Are You Wigan In Disguise?: Last season, Wigan frequently outplayed opponents, created a host of chances, failed to take them and failed to win. After games, its manager, Roberto Martínez, would face the cameras calm and unruffled and explain how well his team had played. Despite its good play, Wigan was relegated. Martínez moved to Everton.

The Spaniard has brought his stoic dignity to the touchline where, for 13 seasons, David Moyes cavorted and raved. Perhaps he has also brought something else.

On Saturday, Everton had more than 60 percent of possession against West Brom. It had 22 shots at goal. Marouane Fellaini hit the inside of the post. Ben Foster and then Luke Daniels made a host of good saves for West Brom. Everton was "magnificent," Martínez told Sky. He called it "a performance that probably deserved three points." Yet Everton did not get three points. The game ended in a 0-0 draw.

Every team has days like that, and maybe Everton will soon start turning possession into goals. But Wigan under Martínez had an awful lot of days like that.

5. One To Watch: The arrival of Pablo Osvaldo at Southampton created the sort of frisson of excitement among English soccer fans that accompanied Liverpool's signing of Suárez. Osvaldo is an exciting attacker but that's not what has aroused interest. Like Suárez, Osvaldo brings a considerable reputation as a soccer bad boy.

Suárez was most infamous for biting an opponent. He has not disappointed those English fans who were salivating at the thought that he would show his teeth. Osvaldo is famed for hitting Roma teammate Erik Lamela. So when he came on at half time with Southampton trailing at home to Sunderland, the possibility of a memorable strike was in the air.

Sunderland, which seemed to have surprised itself by taking a second-minute lead and holding it to half time, massed in defense. Even Jozy Altidore saw more action around his own penalty area than near the opposing goal.

Osvaldo looked lively, but could make no headway against the yellow swarm. It took 35 minutes for him to start to boil. He directed his ire not at teammates but at opponents and the referee, Lee Mason. Denied a penalty, Osvaldo argued vigorously with Mason. A couple of minutes later he clattered into Modibo Diakite, remonstrated angrily when Mason gave a free kick and received a yellow card. Two minutes after that, Osvaldo lunged into Adam Johnson. The tackle could have earned a yellow. So could the arm-waving protest. Mason, probably as aware of Osvaldo's reputation as everyone else, chose instead to call the player aside for a calming chat. He stayed on the field.

With a minute to go, José Fonte, a defender, headed the goal that gave Southampton a deserved 1-1 draw.

He might not have hit the decisive goal, or anything else, but Osvaldo's debut offered great promise.

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