Gerrard and Rooney holding back Liverpool and Manchester United

The two captains both appear untouchable but have been partly to blame for their sides’ disappointing starts to the 2014-15 season

Gerrard and Rooney holding back Liverpool and Manchester United

One of the perks of being captain of a leading Premier League side is that it means you are likely to start and play for 90 minutes in most matches even in an age of rotation where top internationals are often left on the bench.

Yet there were signs over the weekend at the two most decorated clubs in the country that the armband on certain players is more like a weight around the team’s neck.

Liverpool and Manchester United started the season full of optimism but the form of their two skippers – Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney – has come to represent horrible starts to the new campaign.

Louis van Gaal said on Friday that Rooney, as captain, can expect to enjoy “privileges” by starting most games in a season and staying on the pitch when the time comes to make substitutions.

It provides a position of great comfort for a player who many would suggest does not deserve a place in United’s new-look starting XI.

 The startling 5-3 defeat against Leicester on Sunday was just one example of why.

One of the abiding images from the match will be the sight of Rooney furiously screaming at his team-mates after the Foxes had equalised to make it 3-3, showing a complete lack of self-awareness given he had conceded possession in the first place in the build-up.

It was not the mark of true leadership but an angry vent from a player who has never been considered a natural leader and has already let his selfishness and greed shine through at United on at least two occasions with contract stand-offs.

Funnily enough, the man he appeared to single out for the most criticism for that third goal – 20-year-old rookie Tyler Blackett – was later sent-off after conceding a penalty. It’s hard to imagine Rooney’s rant did much good for his mental state.

 Rooney would have been better off worrying about his own game. Save for a simple pass to set up Angel Di Maria’s stunning goal, the United and England captain was clumsy, clunky and predictable.

While Juan Mata started on the bench and Di Maria and Radamel Falcao ended on it, Rooney enjoyed the ‘privilege’ of staying on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.

 There are now legitimate questions over whether Rooney deserves a place alongside the likes of Falcao, Di Maria and Robin van Persie. His tendency to slow the game down does not fit in with Van Gaal’s instincts to play fluid attacking football.

Rooney, Blackett and goalkeeper David de Gea are the only players who have started each of United’s five Premier League matches so far, but it is time for Van Gaal to reconsider his position on his captain. He needs to build around players like Di Maria, not Rooney.

The England striker slammed United’s shambolic defending in his post-match interview, but equally concerning for Van Gaal will be how he can fit an undroppable player into a team that is now bursting with better attacking talents.

United’s conspiracy to throw away a 2-0 lead for the first time ever in the Premier League came less than 24 hours after Liverpool slumped to their third defeat from their opening five matches.

The 3-1 loss at West Ham on Saturday was a disaster for Gerrard. 

It was not so much that the Liverpool captain was terrible. It was even worse – he was anonymous.

The 34-year-old retired from international football after a dreadful individual World Cup in order to preserve his legs and provide his best for Liverpool.

 But the Reds’s injury problems and Brendan Rodgers’s commitment to his captain meant Gerrard played a third game in a week at Upton Park.

Sitting in a defensive midfield role away from home, the statistics make grim reading. Making zero key passes is bad, but can be overlooked, however, finishing the game without a single tackle successfully completed is very worrying.

As Morgan Amalfitano raced away from Gerrard to score the Hammers’ third goal, Gerrard must have known that he’d had a stinker. 

His attempts at defending provided a timely reminder as to why there was always so much debate over whether he could play alongside Frank Lampard for England. Gerrard is not very good defensively, it goes against all of his instincts.

Gerrard has dropped deeper and deeper as his legs have become slower and slower, but we are nearly at the stage where the Premier League is just too quick for him.

 West Ham copied the trick used by Aston Villa last weekend by putting a man near the Liverpool skipper – this time Stewart Downing – and he simply didn’t have any time or space to operate. He couldn’t cope.

While Gerrard still has something to offer, his seemingly guaranteed place is starting to weigh Liverpool down. Their start has been unacceptable, especially after finishing second last season and vowing not to ‘do a Tottenham’ following the sale of Luis Suarez.

And how Rodgers uses his captain will be one of the urgent issues he needs to resolve.

LAMPARD’S BITTERSWEEET CHELSEA GOODBYE

Steven Gerrard may have dropped so deep he is playing virtually as a centre-back, but Frank Lampard popped up on Sunday in the position in which he scored so many of his record 211 goals for Chelsea.

Lampard looked genuinely upset to score against Chelsea for Manchester City, and for once a player’s decision not to celebrate a crucial strike is understandable.
ON TARGET | Lampard’s stats for Manchester City against Chelsea
The 35-year-old is a model professional and a Chelsea legend. Even though his legs have slowed, he still showed classic timing to make his run and finished ruthlessly.

It was not the goodbye he would have wanted as he applauded the visiting Chelsea supporters at full-time, but it was still rather fitting as a goal that summed up much about his fantastic career.

Poleaxed: Bayern won’t see the real Lewandowski unless Guardiola changes his system

The former Borussia Dortmund forward made his dream move to the Allianz Arena this summer but his first couple of months have proved a disappointment

Poleaxed: Bayern won't see the real Lewandowski unless Guardiola changes his system
Robert Lewandowski’s signing could not have come at a better time for Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola’s relationship with the incumbent No.9, Mario Mandzukic, had broken down over his role in the team and many of their attacking talents were battle weary from the World Cup.

Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller had gone the distance with Germany, Arjen Robben was involved until the final weekend and Franck Ribery was injured during France’s preparations and has struggled for fitness ever since.

Lewandowski’s Poland, on the other hand, were not involved and, with a full summer programme behind him, he would be able to pick up where he left off last season with Borussia Dortmund and lead them through the first part of the season.

With just one goal and a string of anonymous performances in his seven first games for the club, though, Bayern’s new star is yet to show the form he came across so easily in yellow and black.

Questions were immediately raised when it was announced that Lewandowski, a classic No.9, was signed to a Guardiola team. For all of his great work-rate, finishing and teamwork, the Catalan coach’s chequered history with traditional forwards – players very much in the Pole’s mould – meant that success was by no means a guarantee.

Mandzukic is not the only No.9 to have struggled under the former Barcelona boss, with both Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic falling at the wayside by the time Lionel Messi was installed as an unorthodox forward.

The Croat was adamant that he did not fit with the system when he announced his desire to move on. “Let’s be honest, the style Guardiola wants at Bayern doesn’t suit me. I definitely understood, no matter how much I try, I can’t get the best of myself with this style.”

And Lewandowski, whose striking talents are similar to those of the now Atletico Madrid forward, is suffering due to the same system.

Though he went through his footballing education in his homeland, his finishing school was under Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, where he thrived under the eccentric coach’s self-styled “heavy-metal” football.

After some initial struggles, he formed a telepathic understanding with the creative players around him. First Shinji Kagawa, then Marco Reus, gave him the space he needed with their incisive running, Mario Gotze knew best how to pick out his runs, while his Polish compatriots Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek could break at speed down the right and cross perfectly for their countryman.

Though he has former BVB sparring partner Gotze for company in Bavaria, he must learn to play to a more orchestral tune now.

Perhaps because teams are more afraid of Bayern and less willing to attack them, perhaps because Guardiola employs a more patient style of football based on suffocating opponents with passing in their own half, he has struggled to adapt.

Friends Reunited | Gotze and Lewandowski formed a great partnership at BVB

The tireless Muller’s impeccable movement has seen him link up with his new team-mate effectively on several occasions, but Gotze is clearly exhausted after his exploits with Germany, while Ribery and Robben have struggled to stay fit.

The extra pace the Dutchman and the Frenchman provide would be to Lewandowski’s benefit, but they are not here and Guardiola must raise the pace of Bayern’s game to get the most use out the players at his disposal.

Gotze and Lewandowski were a formidable duo when the German played behind the Pole at Signal Iduna Park and they can certainly have the same impact, but Pep has admitted that his new striker is suffering from a lack of room up front.

“He doesn’t have as much space here as he was used to at Dortmund,” he said prior to the 0-0 draw at Hamburg on Saturday, with he started on the bench. “They played on the counterattack more often.”

The former Spain international insisted, though, that he remains happy with how his new signing has fared, pointing out that he “has had two or three chances in each game. He always finds himself in the right position”.

For now, though, Bayern are misfiring. The stalemate against lowly Hamburg was the second time they have dropped points in a Bundesliga match from which they would ordinarily emerge with a handsome victory, after they let a lead slip at Schalke a fortnight ago.

Lewandowski remains a great signing. Not many teams can bring in such talent for free and, to weaken a direct rival so significantly was a masterstroke. But so far he has failed to show his quality in a red shirt and Guardiola must move away from his patient passing doctrine to let his main striker shine.

Barcelona will always be bigger than Bayern, says Cruyff

The iconic Dutchman says his former club are a bigger global draw than the Bavarians, while he also believes Pep Guardiola is a better coach than Jose Mourinho

Barcelona will always be bigger than Bayern, says Cruyff

Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff feels the Catalans will always be a bigger team than Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.

Bayern and Barcelona have been two of the dominant forces of European football in recent years, with Bayern reaching three Champions League finals in the past five seasons, yet Cruyff believes the Camp Nou side will always be the bigger draw.

“Globally, Barcelona are a bigger club than Bayern Munich,” the former Blaugrana player and coach was quoted as saying by Bild.

“In South America for example, everybody is watching the Primera Division. Barcelona are much bigger than Bayern over there and that will always be the case.”

Former Bayern star Franz Beckenbauer has backed the Dutchman’s opinion as he feels Barcelona have a greater history than the Bundesliga champions.

“I agree with Cruyff,” the German admitted. “Barcelona are traditionally a leading team worldwide. Barcelona already had some legendary teams back in the 30s and 40s. Bayern only really came to the fore from 1965 on.”

Cruyff then argued that current Bayern boss Pep Guardiola is a better coach than Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

“Pep’s ability to turn a con into a pro is typical for him as a coach,” the Ajax legend stated. “He is one of the best coaches in the world for me.

“I have no doubt about it that Pep is better than Mourinho. Pep’s aim is to improve football and get his team to the next level.

“Unlike Mourinho, he played in front of 100,000 fans. The game in general is important to him. For Mourinho, all that matters is his team, his qualities and his mentality.”

Messi marvels in playmaker role for five-star Barca

The Argentine shone in a deeper role as Luis Enrique’s side thrashed Levante to extend their impressive winning streak in 2014-15

Messi marvels in playmaker role for five-star Barca
It was Lionel Messi, but not as we know him. The Argentine forward has got everybody used to expecting the unexpected with his fantasy football in recent years, yet his newest version is still somewhat surprising. Against Levante on Sunday, the world’s best player took on the role of playmaker once again – and it worked wonderfully.

The system seemed to stifle Messi early on at a ground that has proved problematic for the Blaugrana in seasons gone by. With no centre-forward in the starting line-up for the first time this season, with Munir El Haddadi left on the bench, the 27-year-old struggled to find forward runners as he dropped deep in the opening exchanges. But, as usual, he found a way.

A delightful through-ball pìcked out Neymar for the all-important opening goal and meant Messi had set up three in a row for the Brazil forward, having also assisted his two strikes in the recent 2-0 win at home to Athletic Club. It also saw Neymar reach three goals for the season, one more than the Argentine himself. Early days, of course, but it had been years since anyone at Barcelona led Leo in the scoring charts.

Messi missed a golden chance to draw level with his team-mate as he missed the target from the penalty spot later in the first half, but was always involved in Barca’s best football and later assisted another goal for Sandro before scoring the fifth himself with a delicate chip with his “weaker” right foot to round off a highly satisfactory evening.

It was further proof that Messi’s role is more about assisting than it is scoring this term, as Luis Enrique looks to make Barca the best team at home and in Europe after the Catalan club endured a difficult season in 2013-14.

The link-up with Neymar is a huge plus for the Asturian coach, who must also be licking his lips at the prospect of those two combining with summer signing Luis Suarez when the Uruguayan returns from his biting ban at the end of next month.

“Messi is unique, he’s special,” the 44-year-old said afterwards. “I love that the other players are connecting with him. He had a complete match.”

And aside from the Argentine’s fine form in his new role, Luis Enrique has plenty more reasons to be cheerful after his side racked up their fifth win out of five this term to stay top of La Liga, six points clear of title rivals Real Madrid and four ahead of champions Atletico.

“This has just started,” the coach added with a note of caution. “There will be many ‘dances’ in the standings yet.”

That may be so, but five games in, he has seen his side score 12 goals, concede none and win them all (four in La Liga and one in the Champions League) so far – inspired from deep by playmaker Messi. The future looks bright.

Chelsea ace Cesc: I know Arsenal fans unhappy with me

Cesc Fabregas knows there’s many of his former Arsenal fans seeing him in a Chelsea shirt.

as_fabregas1

After Arsene Wenger failed to move for him during the summer, Fabregas signed for Chelsea in a £27m deal.

The midfielder told The Sun on Sunday: “I can understand some people at Arsenal are sad, some people are upset, some people are even angry.

“But changing clubs is part of the game and people must remember it was Arsenal who didn’t take up the buy-back option for me.

“So what am I going to do – retire? No way!

“I have to look after myself. I had to make a decision.”

Balotelli taunts Manchester United after Leicester loss

The Liverpool striker, who played a key role in Manchester City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford three years ago, revelled in the Red Devils’ second-half collapse on Twitter

Balotelli taunts Manchester United after Leicester loss

Mario Balotelli has taunted Manchester United following Sunday’s shock 5-3 loss to newly-promoted Leicester City.

Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria gave United a 2-0 lead inside 16 minutes, with Ander Herrera restoring the margin just before the hour-mark.

However, goals from David Nugent, from the penalty-spot, and Esteban Cambiasso saw Leicester fight back before Jamie Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa’s second claimed a stunning victory.

United’s collapse marked the first time in Premier League history they have seen a two-goal lead slip on the way to losing a game.

And Balotelli, who recently joined Liverpool and includes Manchester City among his former sides, took to Twitter to broadcast his post-match reaction soon after the final whistle.

Mourinho: I can’t believe Barca let Cesc leave

The manager has revealed he was surprised by the Catalan club’s decision to sell the midfielder but not he didn’t seal a return to former club Arsenal

Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho says he was left shocked in the summer when he discovered that Barcelona were ready to let Cesc Fabregas leave the club.

The Spain international was hotly tipped for a return to former club Arsenal as Barca began a summer shake-up that also saw Cristian Tello, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Song leave Camp Nou, but the midfielder instead joined the Blues in a €36 million deal.

And Mourinho says that while, he did not expect the midfielder to leave the Liga giants, he was not at all surprised that he did not return to the Emirates.

“I thought he was going to stay at Barcelona,” Mourinho is quoted as saying by The Mirror.

“I was looking at him as the natural successor of players that were getting older, like Xavi. The surprise for me was not that he didn’t go to Arsenal, but that he was leaving Barcelona.

“He’s 27 and it’s the perfect age. Physically, he’s on a high, mentally, he’s very stable, he has tactical education. Cesc’s stats are fantastic, the number of assists, the qualities he brings.”

Fabregas scored his first Chelsea goal against Schalke in the Champions League in midweek and has thrived in a an attacking midfield role under Mourinho, leading the Premier League assists table after creating six goals in just four matches.

He is once agian set to operate in an advanced midfield role against Manchester City on Sunday and Mourinho says Fabregas’ versatility is a major strength of his game.

“One of the reasons Cesc is so important is because he can play in any position,” the Portuguese continued.

“Even in Barcelona, he was playing many times as a No.9. He sometimes played on the left wing too.”

Chelsea arrive at the Etihad Stadium top of the table after four matches as the only team in England with a 100 per cent league record.