Every EPL Team's Biggest Flaw
Every Premier League side has a weakness. Some have clear deficiencies that every opponent tries to exploit, while others have more subtle blemishes that fluctuate in severity.
Most issues evolve over time and can involve personnel, positions, tactical trends or certain in-game scenarios.
With just three Premier League games gone this season, it's still hard to gauge exactly which teams have erased previous frailties and which may be struggling to conceal new ones.
Here's a look at each side's major concern, as things stand. Many of these issues are fixable, and how well some of these weaknesses are negated may determine a side’s overall success this season.
Lack of Depth
Arsenal have an extremely strong starting XI and an excellent youth system, but lack much substance in between. The growing gap separating Premier League and academy structures means they are short of sufficient cover, having spent much of the summer offloading fringe players.
Defensive midfield and centre-back are both areas that should have been reinforced with better quality, and their forward options look especially sparse.
The likes of Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton have all named stronger benches so far, despite finishing below the Gunners last season.
While this close-knit environment may aid the unity of the squad, it puts additional pressure on the starters and limits Arsene Wenger’s manoeuverability during games.
Alternatives to the Counter
Having survived relegation with an exceptionally young, inexperienced squad, Aston Villa have begun this season with a fast, fluid system that has already troubled three top teams in Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.
With Christian Benteke holding up play for Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann to surge past, they have become experts at the counter-attack.
Away from home and playing the very best teams, this will continue to eke out results, yet against lesser sides a more controlled, patient approach must be taken.
Last season Villa had the fourth-worst home record but were eighth best on their travels, which reflects this exciting approach. If they can find a way to be more dominant at Villa Park, this could prove an exciting season for Paul Lambert’s squad.
Of the three newly promoted sides, Cardiff seem the best prepared to extend their Premier League stay. Instead of recruiting hordes of new players, Malky Mackay sensibly opted for quality over quantity, and made a handful of expensive, but clever buys.
Andreas Cornelius, Gary Medel and Steven Caulker have certainly bolstered the spine of the team, but the one area barely added to was the creative ranks, with the failure to land Thomas Ince looking especially critical.
So far the Bluebirds have created just 16 chances this season, the second-lowest haul in the Premier League—only above Hull’s 14. To put that into context, several sides are already close to trebling that tally and average close to 16 chances in every game they play.
At this very early stage, it seems the Premier League's new boys will struggle to provide their strikers with sufficient service.
Who Plays up Front?
Chelsea have the best manager in the Premier League and arguably the leading squad, so finding obvious flaws isn't as straightforward as with other teams. However, there is one glaring question hanging over their starting lineup—who starts up front?
Having loaned Romelu Lukaku to Everton, Jose Mourinho has four options, none of which—as yet—brings any guarantee of goals.
The continual decline of Fernando Torres is well documented; Demba Ba is yet to display his best form in West London and, at 32, the state of Samuel Eto'o's game remains unclear.
Andre Schurrle was even used against Manchester United, and it seems Chelsea's first-choice striker and Mourinho's regular source of goals is yet to be established.
Lack of Overall Quality
This may seem especially harsh, but Crystal Palace lack anywhere near enough Premier League quality to feel safe this season. They have invested poorly over the summer, with a wild, scatter-gun approach that even left one new signing—Florian Marange—out of their final 25-man squad.
Were they to go down, very few players would be targeted by other clubs, and the Eagles must rely on additional ways to compete in this league.
They have a strong academy set-up, which could help, as well as an inspirational leader in Ian Holloway. If he can knit together enough team spirit and camaraderie, and possibly mix it with a bit of siege mentality, they may yet be able to surprise a few superior squads.
Inability to Kill off Opponents
A lack of firepower has been Everton’s Achilles' heel for a number of years. Last season this was the main reason their European challenge faded, as the rest of the Premier League’s top seven scored at least 11 goals more.
A lack of potency left them seldom able to finish off an opponent and make their dominant phases count. Only nine of their 38 games were concluded by more than a single goal last season, and no other Premier League side drew more.
In short, Evertonians sat on the edge of their seats for the entire season, and the trend has already continued into this campaign, with the three games played mostly dominated but all drawn.
Romelu Lukaku will hopefully aid their fragile striking core, but the Toffees must start capitalising on periods of supremacy. They have already registered more shots (55) than any other team this season and kept the most possession (64 percent), but are yet to win and have scored just twice.
Increasingly Accommodating Defence
Fulham’s biggest issue is the sheer volume of shots they allow their opponents.
Last season—aside from an especially porous Reading—no other team conceded more than the Cottagers’ 638 shots, and they are already the early pace-setters this year, somehow allowing 16 more shots than any other team.
They haven't faced an especially daunting trio of opponents and, considering their total of 64 has come from just the three games, it seems a particularly alarming return.
Recruiting the likes of Darren Bent and Adel Taarabt for an old team, which is already carrying unenthusiastic defenders such as Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz, hardly seems the best remedy. A lot may depend on the energy reserves of Scott Parker, and it seems the loss of Mark Schwarzer may prove bigger than many imagine.
Limited Attacking Threat
What may eventually cost Hull their Premier League status is an alarming lack of cutting edge in attack.
Steve Bruce has molded together an industrious side who seem far more secure at the back than many imagined. However, finding success at the other end of the field looks like it's proving the Tigers' major issue.
His side were hardly prolific in the Championship last season, scoring just 61 goals, a tally 13 other teams surpassed.
Looking through the squad, there's a distinct lack of recognised firepower. Having registered the fewest shots so far (21) and creating the fewest chances (14), there's much work to be done in the final third.
Luis Suarez's Role
Last season Liverpool were an infuriating side to watch, consistently dominating games without wrapping up nearly half the results they should have.
For now, three impressive 1-0 wins have put that issue on the back burner, and attention turns to exactly how the much maligned Luis Suarez can slot back into a winning side.
In the Uruguayan's prolonged absence, Daniel Sturridge has found the form of his career, thriving with the responsibility of leading the line. When Suarez's ban is over, accommodating two players so desperate to be the attacking focal point could well prove problematic.
One will have to switch to a flank, or play behind the striker, which—despite what's said in public—won't be well-received. The only consolidation for the Reds is that this is a far better problem to carry than their issues last season.
The thought of Joe Hart being anywhere near a weak link at Manchester City was inconceivable a year ago, but England's current No. 1 has endured a wretched year between the sticks.
Last season he committed five individual errors that led to a goal—a category only Wigan's beleaguered Ali Al Habsi fared worse in—and overall he finished up as the fifth-most error-prone goalkeeper in the Premier League.
His form hasn't been much better for England, and he looked hesitant during City's recent loss at Cardiff, flapping at several in-swinging corners.
As prodigiously talented as Hart clearly is, this run of gaffes has to end soon. Should they continue, he may well face a prolonged spell on the sidelines.
Central midfield has long been Manchester United's chief area of concern.
During the crunch games last season—despite some fine results—United were often overrun through the middle both on and off the ball, relying on their wing play to provide the bulk of their chances.
Michael Carrick has been in need of a partner for several seasons and looks to have finally found one in Marouane Fellaini. On paper, the Belgian's energetic, obtrusive style complements the subtleties of Carrick's game well, and there is certainly reason to think this weakness has its resolution.
However, that's all for the coming weeks. Right now, the success of this pairing remains unknown. Fellaini has spent the best part of a season playing as a second striker for Everton and will need time to locate his best form in midfield while forming the necessary chemistry with Carrick.
From the outside, Newcastle appear a side with too many people pushing in different directions. There seems a lack of unity off the pitch and that seems to translate into their play.
The Magpies often rely on individual brilliance to overcome an opponent, and such emphasis on singular components makes them a frustratingly inconsistent side to watch. One week they can look outstanding, and the next, simply shambolic.
Last season their 39 individual errors—11 of which led directly to a goal—were the most of any Premier League side and is related to this general lack of cohesion. Too often a player tries too much on his own, reluctant to involve a team-mate.
Individually Newcastle have a side that should finish far higher than 16th in the table, but until Alan Pardew finds that balanced formula they will remain hot and cold.
Away Day Blues
Carrow Road has become something of a fortress under Chris Hughton. At home, the Canaries only lost four of their 19 league games last season, beating the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton, as well as Tottenham in the Cup. They picked up 31 points and conceded just 20 goals in those 19 matches.
In complete contrast, their away form has been hideous. With just a pair of wins (including a stunning final-day victory at Manchester City), Norwich ended the season in the relegation zone in terms of away form.
They conceded a colossal 38 goals at a rate of two per game and only took 13 points, highlighting the obvious attention this problem needs.
With teams perhaps more prepared to visit Carrow Road with caution now, home wins may become harder to find, and Hughton must find a way of remedying this before it gets critical. Having already lost away at Hull this season, it seems the solution is still being developed.
Southampton produced some curious form during their first season back in the Premier League. Installed as favourites and they would often stutter to defeat, yet classed as an outside hope and they would rouse themselves and provide a stern challenge.
This trend became even more prominent under Mauricio Pochettino, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool the only sides he's beaten in his eight home games in charge.
Having splashed out on some notable new signings, such as Pablo Osvaldo, Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren, many expect Saints to push into the top 10 this season, regardless of their recent promotion.
Pochettino must find a way of dispatching lesser sides and ensuring these raised expectations don't leave his side struggling with second-season syndrome.
Inability to Score in Open Play
Mark Hughes has a huge job on his hands at Stoke, altering their identity and the way they play without reducing their strengths and subsequent chances of scoring.
It's their imposing, physical approach that sees them feared as the master of set pieces and, without that avenue to goal, the Potters seldom pose a threat.
They scored 15 goals from dead-ball scenarios last season, one of the best returns in the division, but were truly abysmal at finding the net from open play. Their embarrassing tally of 14 goals is the fewest by five, way behind QPR's next-worst return of 19.
For a side so inept at scoring from build-up play, there's a real danger Hughes tweaks too much before his side become secure with change. This seems a delicate task to balance, and one that has the potential to turn sour.
Paolo Di Canio
This is another slide that may seem overly harsh, but Paolo Canio is a volcanic liability at Sunderland, capable of erupting at any moment.
Motivational coaches with disciplinarian ways can often prosper in the lower leagues, but highly paid Premier League stars will be far less inclined to accept his controversial methods. He's already shown he struggles during tougher times of management, regularly belittling and criticising players in public for fun.
His excessive passion and intense match-day demeanour surely cause more harm than good and, having already endured a disappointing start, surely it's time he tried a less regimented approach?
If he remains as volatile, this marriage won't last.
Swansea have to amend a poor run of form dating back to their League Cup win, as well as experience a Premier League campaign punctuated by frequent Europa League fixtures.
However, on the pitch, a primary concern will be the ease with which so many teams continue to trouble them at set pieces.
By the start of March last season, Michael Laudrup's side had not only conceded 14 goals from dead-ball situations—the second highest in the league—but only scored from three set pieces themselves, by far the top flight's poorest return.
No side suffered anywhere near as much difficulty in this department and, quite simply, work needs to be done at both ends of the field.
Lack of Chemistry
Following Gareth Bale's protracted move to Real Madrid, Spurs have formed a squad crammed full of elite talent—the only problem being that so many new names will need considerable time to bed in.
The only unit not in transition is the defence—where arguably the most reinforcements were needed—but ahead of them, the midfield and attack will be occupied by several fresh faces throughout the season.
The front four players are all likely to be new personnel, meaning Spurs will face a tricky period as all these signings not only acclimatise to the Premier League, but also to each other.
In time, they will make Spurs one of the most exciting sides to watch and will surely propel them back to the Champions League, if not higher. For now, however, they need several games to gel.
Limited Attacking Intent
An issue for West Brom is how overly defensive they are. In Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley, Steve Clark has two uncompromising, underrated centre-backs who enjoy the protection of two more spoilers—Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob—playing just in front of them.
With no naturally attacking full-back, the Baggies rely on just four players to launch most attacks.
Last season this conservative approach was masked by Romelu Lukaku's impressive form. The Belgian proved a revelation during his loan spell, scoring 17 Premier League goals and thriving in the counter-attack.
The fact he's gone and that his powerful, explosive qualities haven't been replaced leaves West Brom appearing far too negative to prove a consistent threat in the final third.
Unsurprisingly they are the only Premier League side yet to score this season and, with no Lukaku, Clarke may need to revise his ultra-defensive methods.
Dearth of Strikers
Sam Allardyce's preferred approach has always been transparent. Recruit big, bruising front men and pepper the final third with crosses. Last season his side averaged the most (27) in the Premier League and also delivered one of the largest proportions of long balls.
With Matt Jarvis, Joe Cole and Stewart Downing all recent additions to boost the flanks, the Hammers possess the ideal weapons to implement this style. The only problem is, with Andy Carroll increasingly injured, there's a lack of those big, bruising front men.
Modibo Maiga has looked short of Premier League class this season and re-signing Carlton Cole, one of the Premier League’s most ineffective performers from last season, was never the answer—although neither is Mladen Petric.
A lot will depend on the scoring form of Kevin Nolan until Carroll can be nursed back to full health.