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The positives and negatives to take from Stoke City’s opening day defeat at Everton

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke City

It may be a new season, but at Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon it felt like a case of ‘same old, same old’ for Stoke City supporters as The Potters fell to an opening day defeat against Everton.

The game itself was a relatively uninspiring affair with few chances created by both teams and little action at either end of the pitch. This contest will only be remembered for Wayne Rooney’s winning goal, on his homecoming for the Toffees, which was a little sprinkle of romanticism that elevated a dull opening day fixture.

Whilst Everton supporters will accept a one-goal victory with open arms the travelling Stoke contingent will have left Goodison Park with mixed emotions. Despite the hosts having spent £100 million on new personnel in the summer, The Potters certainly were not outclassed or outperformed. In fact, they looked pretty solid defensively and will feel disappointed at not having come away from the game with at least a point.

However, Mark Hughes’ side have failed to score in seven of their previous nine away fixtures in the Premier League and it took until the 93rd minute for Stoke to force Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford into a genuine save worthy of note. Whilst the Welshman appears to have solved Stoke’s defensive issues from the previous campaign, a lack of creativity in the final third still remains the most prominent issue.

Here, The Boot Room looks at the positives and negatives that Stoke will take from their opening day defeat.

Positive: A solid defensive performance

Mark Hughes deployed a 3-4-3 formation at Goodison Park with Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and new loan-signing Kurt Zouma making up the three central defenders in front of Jack Butland in the Stoke City goal.

The trio produced an impressive defensive performance and very rarely looked troubled by the Everton attack, although their only lapse in concentration resulted in Wayne Rooney drifting into space and cushioning a free header into the far corner of the net to secure the three points for the home side.

However, The Potters never looked like crumbling and supporters will be hoping that the days of regularly conceding three or four goals that have characterised the last eighteen months are long gone.

Stoke are expected to further strengthen their defensive unit by signing Bruno Martins Indi later this week and, on paper at least, a back three of Shawcross, Zouma and Martins Indi looks impervious. Mark Hughes has certainly built a solid foundation this season and The Potters will be much harder to break down than in previous seasons.

Negative: Impotent attack

Whilst Stoke City produced a solid defensive display on Saturday afternoon the lack of creativity and threat in the final third of the pitch will be a major cause for concern.

It is hard to recall the last time that Saido Berahino produced a performance worthy of note and he was completely ineffective once again against Everton. The 23-year-old has now failed to score in any of his 14 appearances for The Potters since signing from West Bromwich Albion in January and he has found the net just once in 41 league appearances over the last two years.

They are damming statistics yet the gravest concern for Stoke supporters will be that Berahino is not missing chances – he simply is not getting into goal scoring positions.

Part of the blame must also rest on the shoulders of Mark Hughes. The Stoke manager continues to play Berahino as a lone striker and it is abundantly clear that the forward simply does not possess the attributes to be able to lead the line effectively.

The 23-year-old needs to be played in a pair, where he can use his pace and movement to work opportunities off a target man, or potentially as an inside forward, with the freedom to drift into central areas from a wider starting position.

The Berahino conundrum is something that Mark Hughes needs to resolve – and sooner rather than later.

Positive: Impressive performances from new signings

There were three new debutants on show for Stoke City at Goodison Park and it is safe to say that all of the new faces produced impressive performances.

Kurt Zouma looks every inch the complete central defender and it is clear to see why Chelsea continue to rate him so highly. The 22-year-old was defensively imposing and yet equally as adept in possession on Saturday afternoon and he may turn out to be a shrewd piece of business by Mark Hughes, even if he does return to Stamford Bridge at the end of the season.

The Frenchman oozes class and he will only get better week by week as he gets regular game time.

Former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher arrived at the Bet365 Stadium at the start of the summer after agreeing a free transfer from Midland rivals West Bromwich Albion and the 33-year-old was solid, if not spectacular, in the middle of the park.

His experience and leadership qualities will undoubtedly be a huge bonus for The Potters and on Saturday he rolled back the years, constantly biting at the ankles of Eevrton’s midfield, shielding the three central defenders well and setting up fresh attacks with quick, simply passes.

Fletcher is a direct replacement for Ireland international Glenn Whelan, who joined Aston Villa earlier this month almost ten years in The Potteries, but certainly looks like an upgrade on his predecessor.

Ghanaian winger Eric Maxim Choupo Moting came off the bench for the final 20 minutes at Goodison Park and looked lively on his debut in English football.

The 28-year-old certainly possesses the pace and strength to excel in the Premier League whilst he was calm and composed in possession, producing a number of clever passes and driving runs as The Potters attempted to grab an equalising goal in the closing stages of the game.

It is widely accepted that Choupo Moting is lacking in match fitness having missed out on pre-season but the winger showed glimpses on Saturday that he has the potential to be a big player for Stoke this season.

Negative: Square pegs in round holes

Mark Hughes deployed a 3-4-3 formation on Saturday afternoon but it is questionable if Stoke City currently possess the personnel to make the system work.

Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, was shoehorned in as a makeshift right wing back against The Toffees whilst Dutch defender Eric Pieters played on the opposite side. Neither player looked completely comfortable in their new role and, although they stuck to their defensive duties admirable, they offered very little attacking threat.

Diouf is blessed with an abundance of energy, pace and power but is bereft of technical ability when in possession of the ball whilst Pieters is fundamentally a solid defensive full-back.

Throughout the entirety of the contest at Goodison Park the pair failed to provide a consistent attacking outlet in wide areas and very rarely ventured into the final third of the pitch, leaving the front three of Saido Berahino, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri shouldering the responsibility of trying to create goal scoring opportunities.

The only offensive input worthy of note that they produced was when Pieters produced a fantastic low cross across the edge of the six yard box – but it was a rare moment of quality.

If Mark Hughes is to persist with a 3-4-3 formation then he undoubtedly needs to purchase natural wing backs for both sides of the pitch.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Manchester United

Manchester United 3-0 Stoke City: Three talking points from Old Trafford

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Manchester United
Photo: Reuters

Newly-announced Stoke City manager Paul Lambert watched on from the stands as two stunning first-half strikes helped Manchester United condemn the Potters to defeat at Old Trafford on Monday night.

The former Norwich and Aston Villa manager was named as Mark Hughes’ successor in charge after his sacking following the Potters’ FA Cup defeat to League Two Coventry City last weekend and he was at Old Trafford to see his new team in action for the first time ahead of taking over officially on Tuesday.

But it wasn’t to be a winning start for Lambert, who watched his side go behind early on when the returning Antonio Valencia fired a thunderous left-foot strike high into the net to put United ahead.

The visitors had chances to get themselves back into the game, with Stephen Ireland – making his first Premier League start since April 2015 – twice spurning clear-cut chances from inside the penalty box.

Stoke’s wastefulness came back to haunt them when Anthony Martial doubled the hosts’ lead before the break in fine fashion, meeting Paul Pogba’s pass with a first-time finish high into the net.

David de Gea was forced into a fine reaction right save on the brink of half-time to push Xherdan Shaqiri’s effort away and keep United’s two-goal lead in tact and from that point on United completely turned the screw and dominated, with Romelu Lukaku’s shot saved at the front post.

The Belgian got his rewards shortly after though when he held the ball up and fired low past Jack Butland, before Marcus Rashford came close to a fourth when his deft heel-flick was held.

The hosts then comfortably saw out the remainder of the game to close the gap on leaders Manchester City to 12 points, whilst Stoke City remain a point adrift of safety down in 18th.

Lambert watches on as Stoke fall to defeat

There are no illusions that this job will be easy.

Paul Lambert – arguably Stoke’s third or fourth choice of manager in their pursuit of a replacement for Mark Hughes over the past week – was well and truly thrown in at the deep end on Monday evening as he travelled to Manchester with the Potters to see his new side in action for the first time as manager.

Earlier in the day Lambert’s arrival on a two-and-a-half-year deal was announced to a somewhat muted reception from Stoke fans, with his managerial CV not one containing too much Premier League pedigree other than respective spells at Norwich City and Aston Villa.

It may not be the most eye-catching move from Stoke’s board of directors but the same has been said this season about David Moyes and Roy Hodgson – and those two have started in fine fashion and completely turned the tides for their respective sides.

The sole objective for Lambert will be to haul Stoke away from any relegation trouble, and he’ll know the magnitude of the job at hand with the Potters sitting in the relegation zone in 18th place.

In truth, there’s not a lot he would have learnt in defeat to Manchester United.

It was never the sort of game that Stoke were expected to get anything from considering their current predicament and neither will it be the sort of game that will help them avoid relegation.

Instead, it’s the upcoming run of games against Huddersfield, Watford, Bournemouth, Brighton and rivals at the bottom Southampton – all of which take place in the next six league games – that may well define Stoke’s season and Lambert’ll know the job really begins when 15:00 comes on Saturday.

Potters defence in need of tightening up

That said, he’ll be fully aware that it’s the defence that’s in dire need of tightening up.

In conceding another three goals on Monday night Stoke have the unwanted title of having the Premier League’s worst defence – and by a long margin – after conceding 50 goals in 23 matches.

It may have been two fine strikes in the first-half that got United up and running but the defending leading up to the goals was questionable at best. For the first, Antonio Valencia was allowed the time to shift the ball onto his left-foot before putting an unstoppable effort into the top corner, whilst for the second nobody in a Stoke jersey tracked the run of Anthony Martial to the edge of the area before he fired home.

And after the break they were fortunate to keep it to just three – largely indebted to Butland for making some smart stops – as Pogba, Lukaku and Martial found regular space far too easily.

Their attacking play showed signs of positives during the first-half in a much-changed side under caretaker boss Eddie Niedzwiecki, and they arguably should have scored at least one before half-time had both Stephen Ireland and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting found the back of the net.

There are more than enough attacking options in the squad, who have enough proven prowess in front of goal, to avoid the drop this year, but they need help from their worryingly leaky back-line before things start to get truly ugly for the Potters.

Mkhitaryan left out as Sanchez waits in the wings

What a roller-coaster week it’s been for Manchester United.

For a side that rarely does its business in the mid-season transfer window shockwaves were sent through the Premier League when their interest in Arsenal’s talisman Alexis Sanchez was first reported by Sky Sports Italia, and it seems increasingly likely that they’ve hijacked Manchester City’s proposed move for the Chilean.

In fact, as Monday’s match was going on against the Potters fresh reports suggested that Pep Guardiola is out of the race for Sanchez – leaving the door wide open for an Old Trafford switch.

And, despite comfortably winning on the night, it was clear to see where he will slot in.

Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were the designated wide outlets for Monday’s clash but neither pride themselves on being out-and-out wingers, and at times United were crying out for an attacking player that can hug the touchline and deliver consistent balls into the box.

At times Romelu Lukaku went out onto the right-wing himself to try and get in the game such was United’s lack of crosses into the area, and as a striker he shouldn’t be the one forced into delivering.

Ultimately it mattered little as a result of two top-class individual strikes but, going forward, the looming arrival of Sanchez could not only add quality on the flanks but improve Lukaku’s play too and enable him to rekindle the sort of prolific form he showed at Everton last season.

But whilst one player looks to be moving ever closer to arriving, one looks equally close to an imminent exit as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was once again left out of Jose Mourinho’s matchday squad.

The Armenian’s fall from grace has been well-documented this season – despite starting the year firing – and reports claiming that he could be included as part of the deal to bring Sanchez to Manchester will only gain traction after comments made by the United manager prior to kick-off.

Asked about Mkhitaryan’s omission on Monday, he told Sky Sports:

“I would lie if I said it was just a tactical decision. Just a choice of the players that we know in this moment they have 100% their heads in Manchester United and no doubts about the future.”

Should Sanchez indeed arrive before the end of the month then there’s a very high probability that Mkhitaryan won’t be a United player come February, and he’ll be hoping that his next career move will help re-ignite the form that attracted Mourinho in the first place back in 2016.

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Liverpool

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City: Three talking points from Anfield

Rob Meech

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Liverpool
Photo: Reuters

Liverpool ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League record and climbed to third spot after breathtaking encounter at Anfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fabulous early strike was cancelled out by Leroy Sane as the two teams went into the half-time break level-pegging. Three goals in nine second-half minutes looked to have given Liverpool an insurmountable advantage, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all striking.

However, City mounted a late comeback and set up a grandstand finish thanks to goals from Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan. Liverpool, though, held on for a deserved victory as Pep Guardiola’s men suffered their first defeat of the campaign. Here are three talking points…

Rampant Liverpool turn on the style

If any fixture was going to prove City’s undoing, it was this one. Liverpool are unpredictable but when on top of their game, few teams can live with them. They were respectful of City but undaunted by the challenge they faced, taking the game to their opponents right from the kick-off.

In their first match since Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona, Liverpool showed the Brazilian is not irreplaceable. The Fab Four may have been reduced to three, but each of Mane, Salah and Firmino found the net. The movement and pace with which they attack is frightening, as City found to their cost.

Record signing Virgil van Dijk was ruled out of the clash and Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies were magnified in his absence, with recalled goalkeeper Loris Karius also unconvincing. The Reds are still a work in progress in that regard, but under manager Jurgen Klopp they are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

City succumb but remain in the driving seat

Many believed it was City’s destiny to become only the second Premier League team to go through a season undefeated, following Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04. But such talk can now be consigned to the rubbish bin. Despite their sensational form, it would have been a monumental achievement not to lose a single fixture.

In one respect, Guardiola will be glad it has happened. Their advantage at the top of the table remains 15 points, albeit perhaps only for 24 hours, and there is no indication this result will spark a poor run of form. City fought back valiantly after the shock of conceding three times in quick succession, which will please the Spaniard greatly.

Guardiola was philosophical in defeat and recognised his side had played their part in a magnificent contest. Sometimes, a reality check is a good thing. City may no longer be invincible, but they are still the overwhelming favourites to be crowned Premier League champions in May.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is proving his worth

His Liverpool career did not start the way he would have imagined after completing a summer switch from Arsenal. In a quest to play regular football, Oxlade-Chamberlain moved to pastures new and hoped he would be rejuvenated. Initially, he struggled for game-time and his brief performance were often derided. As a result, he lost his place in the England squad.

However, Oxlade-Chamberlain is growing in stature and produced arguably his best display in a Liverpool shirt against the runaway Premier League leaders. Nothing builds confidence like a goal and his long-range strike that gave the Reds a ninth-minute lead did just that.

Playing in the central role he had coveted, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a dominant figure, using his strength and pace to great effect. His transfer to Liverpool was greeted with scepticism, but it’s clear to see that working under Klopp is having a positive impact. The former Southampton man will hope it’s enough to help him regain his place in the national team.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 0-0 Leicester City: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech

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Chelsea
Photo: Reuters

Chelsea remain winless in 2018 after Antonio Conte’s misfiring charges recorded their third successive goalless draw.

Despite having a numerical advantage for the final 20 minutes following Ben Chilwell’s red card, the Blues could not find a winning goal against a Leicester City side that enjoyed prolonged spells of dominance.

Chelsea have now played more than 270 minutes of football in all competitions without scoring and have dropped to fourth place in the Premier League table as a result of Liverpool’s victory over Manchester City. Leicester remain eighth and continue their good form since Claude Puel’s appointment as manager.

Here are three talking points…

Chelsea’s goal scoring problems are mounting

Much has been written about Alvaro Morata’s goalscoring drought, which extended to five matches after he failed to register a single effort in this clash, but Chelsea’s goalscoring issues go much deeper.

Since the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on January 3, the Blues have failed to find the back of the net. None of the top six clubs have scored fewer than Chelsea’s current tally of 41 Premier League goals for the season.

There is no doubt the burden has rested heavily on Morata and when he was in fine form during the first few months of the campaign, Chelsea were often rampant. But the Spaniard’s barren spell has coincided with a downturn in the Blues’ effectiveness.

The problem for Conte is he has little faith in back-up striker Michy Batshuayi. There is no other obvious candidate to act as the focal point, although the Italian has previously experimented with a false number nine.

Defensively, Chelsea are very solid, but that counts for little when they fail to score.

Leicester grab a point despite Chilwell’s red

It’s not often a player receives two yellow cards in a matter of minutes, but that’s exactly the fate that befell Leicester’s Ben Chilwell.

After being cautioned for a foul on Willian, the Leicester man then received a second booking only five minutes later for bringing down Victor Moses.

Both fouls were fairly innocuous and Chilwell’s dismissal disrupted the Foxes’ performance, which had threatened to claim all three points at Stamford Bridge.

Leicester boss Puel was critical of Mike Jones’ decision to send off Chilwell, which may have come under more scrutiny had Chelsea gone on to win the game.

As it was, the visitors held out for a point, which was the least they deserved. Jamie Vardy twice went close to breaking the deadlock and Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois had to be alert throughout.

This was definitely not a rearguard display – Leicester created numerous chances and were keen to take the game to their high-flying opponents.

Tiredness to blame – Conte

Chelsea boss Conte blamed tiredness for his side’s failure to win for the fourth game in a row. This fixture came just three days after their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal, amid a run of seven games in 21 days.

The Blues return to action again against Norwich City for an FA Cup third round replay on Wednesday night. In total, Chelsea will play eight games in January after playing nine in December.

There’s no doubt it is a punishing schedule, but Chelsea are not alone in that regard. A club with their squad depth should be able to cope. Conte has rotated his squad, particularly for the cup games, and is sure to field a much-changed side for the Norwich replay.

Of course, if the Blues were winning matches there would be no need to raise the fatigue element as an excuse.

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