Gunning for glory?
Arsenal maintained their lead at the top of the Premier League with a convincing win at Cardiff and they head up our weekend review. Matt Stanger also reserves praise for Newcastle and Hull but wonders about the credentials of Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham among others...
By Matt Stanger
Last Updated: 02/12/13 2:33pm
Gunning for the title?
Ramsey has embodied Arsenal's resilience this season - and indeed since the 2-1 defeat to Spurs in March - but it is too soon to determine whether the Gunners' improvement can truly be called a renaissance when only a third of the season has passed. It is becoming more difficult to suggest an imminent implosion, but much depends on what happens in January. It seems likely that Manchester City will fix their leaky defence and Arsene Wenger must surely respond in kind by recruiting the additional striker Arsenal require. There were reports in September that the manager was furious at Chelsea pulling the plug on a last-minute loan deal for Demba Ba, and it would be foolish to forget that frustration so quickly simply because Olivier Giroud has coped well on his own.
It will be impossible for Arsenal to silence those who doubt their title credentials before the bitter end, owing to their late collapses in the past, but the element of surprise provided by Ramsey, a superb recovery from the opening-day defeat to Aston Villa and the hard-fought 1-0 win away to Borussia Dortmund is enough to send a message to their rivals. A message that is intensified by Arsenal not yet playing at their peak on a consistent basis. There is still room for improvement, and improve they surely will as Theo Walcott returns and Mesut Ozil continues to adapt.
At present, Ramsey is Arsenal's clutch, underlined by his brace in the 3-0 win at Cardiff. But there are others who can take on the mantle when needed - Ozil's two assists on Saturday emphasise his importance, Jack Wilshere's brace saw off Marseille in midweek and Giroud did the same to Southampton. Combine that with a goalkeeper who has shown a great appetite for learning and a defence that has conceded only one goal in the last six matches - a run that includes games against Dortmund, Manchester United, Liverpool and a Cardiff side who scored five against United and Manchester City - and it's clear that Arsenal are not about to relinquish their claim to top spot any time soon.
AVB bites back
Although I would vehemently disagree with anyone who questions Villas-Boas' right to defend himself from pernicious treatment by the press, it must be said that the manager is struggling without those concerns and should not allow himself to become preoccupied by whether the Daily Mail may or may not have an agenda. Villas-Boas has bigger problems on which to focus at present.
While the change in approach against United - which saw Mousa Dembele thankfully return in midfield and Paulinho push forward alongside Roberto Soldado in what appeared at times to be a 4-4-2 formation - suggested Villas-Boas is not as stubborn as we feared, such a radical switch raises further questions over his long-term vision for how he wants his team to play. Was this approach tailored specifically to a tough test against the champions, or a desperate measure to somehow and from somewhere find a goal for Soldado?
The striker showed great awareness to create a good chance for Aaron Lennon, who was brilliant in the first half but absent after the break, and a neat flick to Paulinho resulted in another opportunity for himself that he blazed high and wide. "He just needs one goal," said Villas-Boas last week. But the longer the wait goes on, the more that £26million outlay will tighten like a noose around the manager's neck.
Time up for Jol
Martin Jol had the demeanour of a man resigned to his fate long before Shahid Khan called time on his reign at Craven Cottage. It took a dismal sequence of six consecutive defeats for the Fulham owner to finally act and the identity of his replacement was no surprise. Rene Meulensteen, introduced as head coach earlier this month, will now seek to turn things around. But given he's had little impact in his initial role, there must be doubts about his ability to coax much more from an imbalanced and ageing squad. Good luck, Rene.
Liverpool slip up
An embarrassing defeat to a Hull side who were seemingly on the slide following a 4-1 thrashing at Southampton and a 1-0 home loss to Crystal Palace in their last two outings. If the Eagles could go to Hull and win, then surely Liverpool were capable of the same even without Daniel Sturridge? Liverpool have now won only one of their last four matches and one in six on the road; the aim was to harmonise impressive results with better performances, but it seems the opposite has occurred.
Add to that the news that Daniel Sturridge could be out for eight weeks and the manager is forced to quickly re-think his plans for the busy festive schedule. For all Rodgers' talk of a 'philosophy' last season, his approach in this has very much boiled down to a reliance on two strikers in superb form. With one now out of the equation for long enough to include trips to Spurs, City and Chelsea - plus the visit of the dreaded Hull City on New Year's Day - things suddenly look a lot bleaker. The next two at home to Norwich and West Ham this week are more important than ever.
United unbeaten but underwhelming
A decent point against a Spurs side full of beans that ticked off a 12th match on one of the most underwhelming unbeaten runs in history. The combination of Rooney's form in his preferred position and Shinji Kagawa's in his against Bayer Leverkusen should have convinced David Moyes to keep the same set-up against Spurs, but the latter was disappointingly subdued as he played predominantly on the left. With Rooney in such a ruthless streak as the man charged with leading the line, it almost seems that Robin van Persie's return from injury could be to the team's detriment. Unless Kagawa can truly apply himself on the left, then United's creative issues are set to continue.
Do Chelsea have the strikers?
A much-needed victory for Jose Mourinho after he owned up to his 'mistake' in midweek, with Chelsea sitting only four points behind Arsenal despite struggling to click into gear. As encouraging as Chelsea's fight-back against Southampton may have been, that the Blues relied on headers from Gary Cahill and John Terry to get them out of jail continues to highlight the paucity of convincing strikers at the club. Demba Ba's late finish only serves to reacquaint us with his record of three goals in 19 Premier League appearances since joining in January, while Fernando Torres, who was back and now gone again, has scored just once in the top flight this season. And yet Mourinho had this to say on Friday: "In the January market we are not going to buy any striker. We will go to the end of the season with Fernando, with Samuel and with Demba. Nobody to go in, nobody to go out." Gulp.
City need away wins now
More goals at home than any other team has managed in total, City were predictably impressive on their own patch against Swansea, but Wednesday's trip to West Brom and Saturday's clash away to Southampton - where they lost in embarrassing fashion last season - will tell us a great deal more about their title hopes. Alvaro Negredo maintained his fine form with a brilliant free-kick, but if City are to improve their fortunes on the road the striker will need to redress the balance between his ten strikes at home and just two away.
Everton star emerges
Despite a shaky first 15 minutes against Liverpool, Gerard Deulofeu was hugely impressive in Everton's fight-back in the Merseyside derby and the Barceloanee continued to flaunt his talent in the Toffees' 4-0 thrashing of Stoke.
"He is showing he is ready, that he is ready to help the team," said Roberto Martinez in his post-match interview. "He surprised me how quickly he has got used to the tempo and physicality of our league...he worked really hard and now he shows he is ready to give you that little bit of quality that we all know he has, but more importantly I think he is a mature footballer that understands what the team needs."
Seven goals in the last two fixtures, including three for Lukaku, suggests Everton have got back-to-back blanks at the start of November out of their system, and it will be intriguing to see Martinez take his in-form team to Old Trafford on Wednesday. A quick reminder: David Moyes didn't manage a single win away to any of the original 'big four' during his 12 years at Goodison.
Four wins in a row for the first time since the remarkable run of spring 2012 that almost saw Newcastle snatch an unlikely Champions League spot. Alan Pardew is due credit for leading the Magpies into sixth, just two points behind Manchester City and one above a Southampton side showered with praise. The decision to drop Hatem Ben Arfa to partner Shola Ameobi with Loic Remy may not be a fashionable one, but it has certainly been effective as Sunday's win over West Brom demonstrated.
Hull continue to impress
After defeats to Southampton and Crystal Palace dragged Hull closer to their predicted position at this stage, it appeared that the rot may have been setting in before a hectic Christmas schedule. But the win over Liverpool proves that the Tigers have as much fight as their obnoxious owner, whose comments somewhat took the shine off a first ever win over the Reds.
If Roy Hodgson were to leave his position, with the England job awarded to the current best-performing English manager, then Steve Bruce would be in a close battle with Alan Pardew right now. It may appear a frightening thought, but Bruce deserves an enormous amount of praise for the job he has done in 18 months at Hull and he has instilled all the qualities required for survival in his ragtag team from the Championship.