Gunning for glory
We dissect a weekend that saw Arsenal grind it out against Crystal Palace to return to the Premier League summit, whilst elsewhere Stoke served up yet more woe for David Moyes as Mark Hughes' side became the eighth this season in league action to defeat the champions...
By Matt Stanger, Pete Fraser and Adam Bate
Last Updated: 03/02/14 6:56pm
Premier League Team of the Week
In Wenger we trust
A fixture that gave both Arsenal and Arsene Wenger everything to lose, and very little to gain. After another frustratingly quiet transfer window, anything other than a victory over Crystal Palace would have been diagnosed fairly swiftly as the beginning of the end for Arsenal's title challenge. As it is, Arsenal once again (temporarily at least) sit atop the pile.
That is not to say that the result was comfortable. Palace arrived with the Pulisian mantra of 'thou shalt not pass', and frustrated the Gunners for long swathes of the game. Santi Cazorla lacked sharpness (particularly during the first half), while Olivier Giroud was having one of those days. Lacking the option of an impact forward to bring off the bench is exactly what supporters fear will undermine Arsenal's title ambition.
That said, they now have just 14 games remaining, and there they sit. Only eight teams have ever won more than Arsenal's current record of 17 wins in 24 games, and it is a record that the club themselves have never bettered, matched only by the Invincibles season of 2003/4.
"In the last seven years you have ingrained that in your brain and it's very difficult to get it out now," was Wenger's response to questions as to why the club's title hopes were being written off. "Manchester City have scored over 100 goals, so everybody thinks 'can you beat these teams?' I say yes and that is what we have to show."
With Arsenal's next four fixtures being Liverpool (a), Manchester United (h), Liverpool (h) and Bayern Munich (h), Wenger's justification in placing his faith in his side's excellent form is about to be severely examined.
Reasons to be cheerful
Out of negativity and farce came reasons for optimism for both player and club. Wenger explained why he chose to sign an injured Kim Kallstrom following the match, but whatever the merits (and the manager reiterated that in a choice between the Swede or nothing, the Swede came out on top) of Kallstrom's presumably limped arrival, Wenger was left with very few options in central midfield.
In the absence of Matthieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey (sadly we've stopped including Abou Diaby in these lists), the conservative approach may have been to select Tomas Rosicky alongside Mikel Arteta in central midfield, but the gamble represented by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's presence in the role paid off spectacularly, with the midfielder scoring his first Premier League goals since December 2012.
Given that Chamberlain's only other three league goals for Arsenal have come in victories in which his side have scored seven goals, it is apparent that this was very much cometh the hour, cometh the man. His first was a delightful touch and lift over the on-rushing Julian Speroni, whilst his second was a powerful drive following a run from the left wing (after Rosicky had been introduced). It should have been saved, but should take nothing away from a match-winning display.
Arsenal supporters may have been surprised to see Chamberlain given a central brief, but it is here that Wenger believes he will become most effective. First picked in central midfield in the 3-0 second-leg consolation against AC Milan two years ago, Wenger hinted last month that the Ox's future lies in the engine room. "He will play deeper [in the future] as he has a good long ball, penetration from deep and good quality to distribute," was Wenger's summation just last month, but he was called into action slightly ahead of schedule.
Chamberlain is by no means the finished product. Of the 14 players used by Arsenal on Sunday, only Giroud had a lower pass completion rate, and he lost possession an alarming 21 times. That's more than lone striker Giroud and, compared to Arteta's eight, it paints a worrying picture.
However, improvements will clearly come with time and experience, and this was very much a job well done. Chamberlain may not be picked in the role when Flamini, Ramsey or Wilshere return, but demonstrating versatility and adapatability may prove vital to his progression. In a World Cup year, such opportunities must be grasped with both hands. And let's not forget that Roy Hodgson is a big fan, starting the then-18-year-old against France in England's first match at Euro 2012.
Praise for Palace
It may be one of the shorter away journeys of their season, but that should not detract from any deserved praise for the magnificence of Palace's away support at the Emirates on Sunday.
Not only did fans sing and chant for the entire 90 minutes, but they stayed behind after the final whistle in order to express their gratitude to players and manager for their efforts. If this is a set of supporters headed for relegation, that is to the Championship's gain and the true detriment of the Premier League, where sterile atmospheres have become worryingly commonplace.
There was nothing of the sort at Goodison on Saturday, though, as the Toffees recovered from their midweek derby defeat and a 1-0 deficit against Aston Villa to triumph 2-1. It was a result that lifts Everton back into fifth and just two points behind Liverpool, and a performance to suggest that their thrashing by the Reds was merely a bad day at the office.
Not only does this team possess great determination and resilience - traits originally instilled by David Moyes - but they now have a splash of style and greater ingenuity. Roberto Martinez is a problem solver, pushing the boundaries of expectations this season, and his decisions to replace Ross Barkley with Steven Pienaar at half-time - and John Stones with Steven Naismith 25 minutes later - proved pivotal in Everton's fight-back.
Special praise should also be reserved for Kevin Mirallas, who has a strong claim to being the Toffees' most important player at the moment. Having moved into a centre-forward role in Romelu Lukaku's absence, the winger led by example, injecting purpose into Everton's performance before stepping up to curl home a wonderful winner. It was the Belgian's fifth goal of the campaign and his third in four matches. If he continues to brim with confidence, the loss of Lukaku may not be felt so severely.
Similar to Martinez, Solskjaer's changes on Saturday proved crucial in Cardiff earning their first league win in eight attempts and doubling their goal tally in the last five matches. It was a bold decision to replace the usually dependable Peter Wittingham with Wilfried Zaha after only 38 minutes, but the switch paid off. "He (Zaha) gave everyone a lift, that's for sure," said Solskjaer at full-time. "It maybe frightened Norwich. He is such a great and exciting talent. Going forward, he is one of the best I've seen."
Perhaps Manchester United could have benefited from Zaha's spark had Moyes shown more faith in the club's £15million signing.
Poyet purrs as Black Cats maul Toon
Sunderland were simply superb in their Tyne-Wear derby victory, thrashing Newcastle 3-0 at St James' Park for the second time in as many matches. Phil Bardsley continued to impress in what has been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the right-back, while Gus Poyet also lauded new signing Liam Bridcutt, who acquitted himself well in perhaps the most difficult of debut tests.
"If there is one player in the world that I want to play that role it is Liam," said a slightly giddy Poyet.
Fabio Borini also excelled in attack, proving that Man United are not the only club in the race for the top four to have loaned out a player who could have been quite useful. Would you rather have Iago Aspas or Borini? Perhaps the Italian should have been given another chance to prove himself; Liverpool's failure to insert a January recall clause is befuddling at best.
In-form Adam Johnson has boosted his World Cup hopes with his mature performances in recent weeks, and certainly offers infinitely more end product than England's autumn saviour Andros Townsend.
"Two months ago I had given up on going to the World Cup, but now you don't know," said Johnson on Saturday.
Saints march on
Possibly blocking Johnson's path are Southampton's England trio, who all netted in the 3-0 stroll at Fulham. The Daily Mail accused Saints owner Katharina Liebherr of being a 'dreamwrecker' following the departure of Nicola Cortese, but the Italian's exit has done nothing to dash the World Cup hopes of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez.
Rodriguez has been particularly impressive since his England debut in November, bouncing back from an underwhelming appearance in the defeat to Chile to remind Roy Hodgson - who was present at Craven Cottage on Saturday - exactly why he picked him in the first place. Before his call-up, Rodriguez had scored four goals in 14 matches; since his debut he has notched eight in 15, including his Thierry Henry-esque curler at the weekend. He's changed.
Yet more Moyes misery
The fact that many media outlets were referring to it as the champions' 'latest defeat' underlines just what a mess the club have got themselves into, and they were fortunate that Kolo Toure exists to help them avoid a nine-point gap to fourth with only 14 games remaining.
If it were not for his six-year contract and United's waffle about stability, Moyes' quotes on Saturday could almost have been taken as the manager tendering his resignation. As soon as a coach at any club admits "I don't know what we have to do to win", his position should be near-untenable. And this isn't the first time that Moyes has come out with that suggestion.
Is it time to talk about change? What has Moyes done to deserve such self-harming patience from his employers? He inherited several problems from Sir Alex Ferguson, of that there is no doubt, but the transition should not have been this troubled. That the manager continues to praise below-par performances while failing to alter his approach reinforces the belief that he is out of his depth. Moyes is not a terrible manager - far from it - but there was no evidence to promote him to this level and there is no evidence to support another five-and-a-half years of his reign.
Five defeats in eight matches in 2014, including a semi-final exit to Sunderland, is simply unacceptable. One wonders whether Manuel Pellegrini or Jose Mourinho would still be in their jobs had they experienced similar starts this season, but the main problem at United is that they lack an understanding of how to proceed in such fraught situations.
Preaching stability may sound admirable and the right thing to do, but it is a flawed outlook. Various club alumni have claimed that United stand by their managers and give them a fair crack of the whip, but it is easy to say that in the afterglow of one of the finest managers the game has ever seen. Would Ferguson have enjoyed 27 years in charge had he not been so successful? Of course not.
Ferguson was and still is United's identity, such was his force of personality that shaped the club during his tenure. It is impossible to extricate his influence in the short-term, regardless of his new role as club ambassador and whether he attends matches or not. This is the reason United are seemingly unwilling to consider Moyes' position, even if he steers them outside the Champions League and along this course long into the next season. United simply don't know what they are supposed to do, and maintaining the status quo is seen as the right approach because the last manager turned out to be pretty bloody good. But the last manager didn't take over the champions.
Trouble ahead for Lambert
Villa recorded just 29% possession in their 2-1 defeat to Everton, with Paul Lambert blaming the result on fatigue from the midweek win over West Brom. With Crystal Palace the only team to average less possession and a worse pass completion rate this season, Villa might need to start playing some football in order to avoid another relegation scrap.
Booed onto the pitch by the visiting supporters, it had to be Victor Anichebe. The former Everton striker seizing upon a Kolo Toure howler to ram the ball home soon after coming on. It was enough to cancel out Daniel Sturridge's first-half opener and earn Albion a point in a game that Liverpool had threatened to turn into a Sunday afternoon stroll.
A need for goals from midfield and better passing out from the back are just some of the issues raised from this mixed bag of a Liverpool performance, writes Adam Bate here