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A mighty arsenal

The English Premiership is hotting up with Manchester United among the early pace-setters. But can the team maintain its momentum?

Tony Cascarino, 27 Sep 2006

It was a huge weekend in the Premiership, and in their first real test this season, Man United got a right beating against Arsenal. Arsene Wenger will be delighted that even without Thierry Henry, they took it to United from the start, completely dominated possession, and came away with the points. Too much has rested on Henry’s shoulders for too long: that might be about to change.

Even in the first three games, where Arsenal took two points from a possible nine, they were playing some lovely stuff and passing opponents off the park. They overdo it sometimes, but you could watch them all day. They’re a very young team and if they convert their chances, they’ll destroy most teams they meet. Adebayor was fantastic, though he’s still hit and miss. He’s got all the attributes to be a top, top player, but sometimes he comes up with real lower-division play, giving the ball away unnecessarily, and he doesn’t get a huge return of goals.

What the game showed was how lightweight United are in midfield, where Arsenal played 4-5-1 and totally overran them. There’s been no real nasty, no-nonsense physical presence since Roy Keane left: physically, they seem too easy to play against. Fletcher found it difficult, and Rio Ferdinand keeps losing concentration: he’s a talented player, but he needs a kick up the backside every now and then. He needs to be kept on his toes, and I think Fergie will get on his case in no uncertain terms and tell him to buck his ideas up and perform. Rio’s biggest problem is himself.

Also, there’s no real back-up to Rooney and Saha at centre-forward. Ronaldo is sometimes exciting, sometimes brilliant, but he tends to overplay and take too many touches. He gets away with it against weaker opposition, but against a well-organised team it can be very costly. John O’Shea just isn’t suited to central midfield, though he’s a good left-back and all-round utility player. They need a Hargreaves or a Scotty Parker, a domineering type: O’Shea is too placid. The best thing about United right now is Paul Scholes: he’s a nasty little bugger, puts his foot in, finds the right pass and can score. But they need another midfielder urgently.

As far as Chelsea-Liverpool, I thought Liverpool did the business and Chelsea got away with it. The result was a mystery. I’ve never seen Chelsea give away so many chances, except against Barcelona. The two new boys, Ballack and Shevchenko, look off the pace. They’ve got to get it right soon: Chelsea won’t win the league without those two performing.

Liverpool probably should have put Crouch on earlier, but they looked a very good side and carved out tons of chances. Dirk Kuyt played well: he just couldn’t find the net, which is what strikers are for. But his overall play was impressive: he held the ball up well and brought other players into the game. If the goals start flowing, he’ll be fine.

Pool are now eleven points behind, but it’s too early to say their title hopes are finished. They’re sure to put a winning sequence together. It’s possible that Benitez rotates the squad too much, though. If you look it up, it’s now ninety games since they played the same line-up two games in a row, which is astounding. I can understand rotation for certain reasons, but there’s no way that kind of uncertainty can be positive.

The title race itself looks more open and exciting than it has in a couple of years. All the top teams have some weaknesses, which is brilliant for the Premiership. Chelsea are defensively the strongest, so they’re still probably the ones to beat. It is fantastic to see what’s going on at Portsmouth, where Harry Redknapp has worked absolute miracles, mainly with free transfers who other clubs didn’t want. Six months ago they seemed finished; look at them now. Sol Campbell and David James have settled in very quickly, and there’s a solid base at the back.

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