CORRESPONDENT COLUMN: Three games down, 35 to go - on deadline day, some of the Premier League's chief contenders have work lots of work to do to keep pace with Chelsea
By Peter Staunton
Three games into the Premier League season and it's now the last chance for teams to fortify their squads.
Other than Chelsea, there isn't one team in the league who you can say look ready to challenge for the title. Of the rest of the contenders, there is work to be done. Some minor adjustments for some, drastic overhauls for others. A combination of a strategic deadline day and modifications from within the squad is required.
Arsenal and their travails in front of goal continue and the Gunners are now in dire need of reinforcements. Arsene Wenger did not give much away in his post-match press conference on Sunday in regard to specific targets but he did not deny outright that they would attempt to sign a striker on deadline day.
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A move for Carlos Bacca would be the right one for a number of reasons. Not only is he more mobile and tenacious than both Sanogo and Olivier Giroud, he is also a better finisher. Arsenal will lack for a bit of physicality with Bacca as opposed to Giroud but he is more clever in his running and would give the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla a moving target to hit with their passes.
Too often against Leicester, Arsenal worked the ball to the edge of the box with nowhere left to go. It became compressed and static. The signing of Bacca, a willing runner into space, will give them the option of an earlier pass and help turn opponents around.
One or two more players to cover midfield positions might not be a bad idea if Wenger can source them at this late stage. He is not adverse to working late into the window.
For Liverpool, Steven Gerrard looked past his prime on Sunday and Brendan Rodgers can only indulge him for so long. From the current ranks, one of the new boys must demonstrate his capabilities for replacing the captain. It's the perfect season for Rodgers to do that. Liverpool will be busy and he does not have to 'drop' Gerrard as such, he can rotate him. When you consider that Esteban Cambiasso is seen as somewhat of a punt for Leicester City although he is younger than Gerrard and has played his career at an equatable level, the folly of building the team around the Liverpool captain becomes apparent.
It's been a difficult week to judge Liverpool based on their two performances. Their displays against Manchester City away and Tottenham away were like night and day. Their summer spending looks most definitely over given that Mario Balotelli arrived last week, so the main task now for Brendan Rodgers is bedding in the players he's got. While some of the acquisitions will be used primarily to bulk out the squad with 60-odd matches to play the likes of Lazar Markovic, Adam Lallana and Balotelli represent the future of the club and need time to integrate.
There will be aberrations along the way as team-mates new and old become acquainted with each other, such as the City game, but Rodgers will expect that the talent in his ranks will do the business more often than not. The defeat to City was a setback in the sense that it played out much worse than last year's fixture, but they reacted well against Spurs.
Where to start with Manchester United? It will of course take time for them to emerge as a force under Louis van Gaal but if the Dutchman is given a mandate to re-make the club in his image then emerge they will.
It is not, however, the fact that he is blooding young players and facing matches with his fringe men at the back and in midfield that is United's chief worry at the moment - it is at the other end that the starkest problems lie.
Wayne Rooney may have scored against Swansea on the opening day of the season but he has played far beneath the standard expected of a £300,000-a-week captain. With United so light on experience and quality elsewhere, Rooney is supposed to be the one leading from the front. He, however, looks sluggish. It seems a major exertion for him to attempt runs for his team-mates' passes and his first-touch is bouncing away from him. He has in the past displayed a proneness to start seasons slowly but that is unforgivable at this stage of his career. United and Van Gaal cannot afford to ease him in, especially not with the older Robin Van Persie still very much feeling his way back to full fitness.
Van Gaal's 3-5-2 has been implemented not only to cover large cracks at the back and the signings of World Cup stars Marco Rojo and Daley Blind will improve that particular situation. It has also been deployed as Van Gaal's weapon of choice to maximise the impact of his forward players. He used a formation at the World Cup to facilitate Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Van Persie - his three biggest stars. With Juan Mata, Rooney and Van Persie expected to lead the charge for United this season, he has done the same again.
It's time they started repaying that faith. That, of course, leaves Angel di Maria very much as a central midfielder. He could play on the left side and improve that sector but it is through the middle he is needed. A superstar he might be but there is no lack of responsibility and work-rate in the Argentine. He can turn away from trouble in the centre of the field and is rarely exuberant.
It would appear at this stage late stage of the window that Manchester City are busy overhauling their striking options. Financial Fair Play restrictions inhibited their summer business and the limitations within their current frontline were exposed against Stoke City on Saturday.
The champions pushed the ball from side to side without causing Mark Hughes' team too much danger. There was too little in the way of purposeful runs from Sergio Aguero and Stevan Jovetic and the midfield had no answer to Stoke's sturdy and disciplined defending.
What worked so well for City against Liverpool on Monday was met with stiff resistance on Saturday, illustrating the tough time they are going to have against teams who dig in. Defending for defending's sake goes against Liverpool's natural inclinations so there was always going to be space to make goals.
Alvaro Negredo did contribute to City's title win last season but the goals dried up alarmingly at the turn of the year. He does not figure largely in the plans of Manuel Pellegrini, the injury notwithstanding, and the ability of the club to ship him out on loan would free up the necessary funds for a loan move for Radamel Falcao.
Both of are a similar age but the Colombian is of a much higher pedigree. It would be a smart transaction for City to bring him in on a loan deal from Monaco for the season provided his knee can be proven to stand up to the rigours of regular football.
Their business elsewhere is more or less complete with that £49 million spending limit reached with the reinforcements in the shape of Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando of Porto.
Chelsea, meanwhile as mentioned, are the finished article, squad wise. There is not one position now in the squad in which Jose Mourinho feels his group is vulnerable. They have the best starting XI in the league and also boast a frightening array of options and strong cover.
Goals and hunger from the top were missing last season and Diego Costa has come in and remedied all of that. There was a puzzle in midfield too where Oscar had gone dramatically off the boil. He could no longer be relied upon as that central creator and Mourinho knew it. Cesc Fabregas has hit the ground running and, along with Costa, has probably been the best player in the league so far.
Further back they impressed against Everton. Nemanja Matic was born to play that position while Ramires - a goal and three assists - was the muted star on Saturday night. Chelsea, with their power, look the early season favourites for the title and Mourinho will be expected to lead from the front.
They are not going to drop a lot of silly points this time around and if the others keep shedding them it won't be long until Chelsea are out in front setting the pace.