Under the microscope
It's another big weekend of Premier League action with some intriguing games ahead. Will Arsenal show their mettle at Manchester City? Can Manchester United bounce back at Villa Park? And who will get the points as Tottenham host Liverpool? Sarah Winterburn looks at the key issues...
By Sarah Winterburn
Last Updated: 13/12/13 1:12pm
Andre Villas-Boas probably wishes he never uttered the words "negative spiral" as those five syllables started to sound pretty stupid around the time that Arsenal completed an 11-match unbeaten run to secure their habitual place in the Champions League. But AVB was merely voicing what many were thinking: Three defeats in four games to Blackburn, Bayern and Spurs had left Arsenal looking shambolic. Shorn of confidence, defensively suspect and creatively defunct, they looked like a dwindling, if not entirely spent, force. That's the last time that Arsenal lost two consecutive matches.
This season they have reacted to every disappointment like potential champions - humiliation to Villa was followed by annihilation of Fenerbahce, a bump back down to earth against Borussia Dortmund became victory at Crystal Palace and nervous defeat at Old Trafford was wiped out by four consecutive victories, starting with a highly fancied Southampton side.
Unfortunately, it's not Fenerbahce, Crystal Palace or Southampton who await a wounded Arsenal but Manchester City at the Etihad, where they have shown no mercy to any Premier League visitor. Ordinarily, it would not be a complete disaster if Arsenal lost the toughest fixture of the season and allowed City to halve the six-point gap between the sides - after all, there's no shame in losing to City at the Etihad - but two defeats in a week with Chelsea looming next at the Emirates? That's the stuff of negative spirals.
Three days on from a draw against Everton did not seem long enough before the Napoli trip and two-and-a-half days from Napoli to a lunch-time kick-off at the Etihad seems scant enough to be ridiculous, but nine days between facing City and then Chelsea will be the toughest gap if they lose on Saturday. That's an awful long time to hear talk about Arsenal's latent frailties; that's an awful long time for doubts to find purchase in the minds of fans and players.
It's been six weeks since Arsenal played truly brilliantly (with contrasting tactics) against Liverpool and then Dortmund in a phenomenal week. They will need to be that good again, and possibly that disciplined, just to take a point from the Etihad.
As for Manchester City...
Ask Arsenal what a seemingly fruitless victory in Munich can do for your confidence. And this was a side that had already recovered magnificently from their annual Sunderland humiliation. Their home record means that nothing less than victory should be acceptable, but imagine the waves that a goal-laden cruise would create. The mathematical gap would still be three points in Arsenal's favour but psychologically, Man City would be streaking away.
They're sixth with the second-best points total of the Premier League era but it's pretty damning that the best team they have beaten so far are Swansea, and that was in that spell when they turned up, toiled and then scored with a penalty. They need a victory which screams 'yes, we are actually half-decent' and that opportunity comes on Sunday against a Liverpool team that does not travel well. The extra incentive for Tottenham is that victory would see them go level on points with the vanquished side. Oh and it would take their goal difference out of the humiliating negative.
Can Reds do it away?
About that away form - it isn't good. Four games on the road have brought no wins and a massive ten goals conceded. Even Crystal Palace have been less leaky on their travels. It's impossible to know why but they average 21 shots per game at Anfield to 12 away, and 11 conceded shots at home to 16 away. The difference is pretty stark.
Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho are both on this list from WhoScored of players whose performances vary greatly between home and away and, in the absence of Daniel Sturridge, the burden of open-play creativity lies heavy on their shoulders. And Coutinho really doesn't have the shoulders for that kind of weight. At the moment the two biggest barriers to Liverpool maintaining a top-four place are a) their lack of depth and b) their away form. Both will be severely tested this weekend.
Key run of games for United
We all tittered at Moyes' four-point plan this week (to recap: Play better, pass better, create chances and defend better) but there were at least signs of improvement on Tuesday night against Shakhtar Donetsk. It helped that the Ukrainian side eased off for reasons unknown but there were indications that Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones could be a viable midfield partnership while their strike duo remains one of the most potent in the Premier League regardless of the dearth of creativity elsewhere on the pitch. That partnership has won six of the eight games they have started this season and they are likely to be reunited from kick-off on Sunday against an Aston Villa side who are pretty bobbins at home.
We've been here before (in September) but this is the start of a very favourable list of fixtures over Christmas with West Ham, Hull and Norwich following Aston Villa. If Manchester United are to rescue this season - and by that we mean finish in the top four - then 10 points from those four games is a realistic target.
Pressure on Big Sam
Talk of Sam Allardyce being for the high jump (we're thinking Fosbury Flop) if they lose to Sunderland this weekend is said to be wide of the mark but Allardyce will be in a very, very lonely place at 4.52pm on Saturday if West Ham contrive to lose to the Premier League's bottom club. Restlessness abounds at Upton Park, where they have never quite taken to their manager's needs-must brand of football.
"I can only say when I look at their history that they've always shown a level of patience to try and overcome a difficult situation," said Allardyce when asked about the security of his job. But therein lies the problem, Sam: they showed 'a level of patience' they came to regret with Avram Grant. Manchester United and Arsenal are next for Allardyce and Sunderland have not won away since April. Needs really must now.
Rene Meulensteen revival?
Is it possible to 'mastermind' a victory over a pretty rotten Aston Villa side? We're not sure there was a whole lot of 'masterminding' needed but Meulensteen did somehow manage to make a middle-aged midfield trio of Giorgios Karagounis, Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell look vaguely mobile. There has definitely been a different, more motivated air about Fulham, and in particular Dimitar Berbatov, under Meulensteen, giving credence to the theory that Jol had been phoning in his management for some time.
There will need to be rather more 'masterminding' as Fulham travel to face an Everton side who have not lost a Premier League game at Goodison Park in the whole of 2013. Somehow that midfield must find a way not to find themselves chasing the shadows of Ross Barkley, James McCarthy and Gerard Deulofeu, who are all significantly younger and more skilful than Fulham's key players.
Expect Everton to dominate possession but expect Fulham to follow Arsenal's lead in staying compact and disciplined enough not to concede too many chances. Meulensteen is certainly not naive enough to think that he can outplay this Everton side. Can the Cottagers be expected to win at Goodison? Probably not, but a draw is both a) possible and b) potentially season-changing.
Saints on the slide?
It seems a tad ridiculous to use the word 'rot' here as this time last year Southampton were in the relegation zone, but there was a sense that the rot had been stopped with that deserved draw against Manchester City after three consecutive defeats. What awaits now is a tricky trip to face a Newcastle side who have picked up 15 points from the last 18 available. At this point in the Saints' season, a home game against Norwich or Cardiff would have been nice.
The Saints have already been overtaken by Newcastle in the table and there is now a danger that they will be pulled into the mediocrity of mid-table and even, and this is embarrassing, fall below Manchester United. It's been a lot of fun watching both Southampton's high-pressing game and the media's joy at the Englishness of their personnel, but upcoming fixtures against Newcastle and Tottenham could decide whether they are a serious contender for a top-six place or just this season's West Brom - the best of a pretty rotten rest.