How do you stop City?
Matt Stanger picks the bones out of a fascinating weekend of Premier League action, while we name our Team of the Week. From disallowed 'goals' to industrial language to eight-goal thrillers there was never a dull moment...
By Matt Stanger and Adam Bate
Last Updated: 13/01/14 2:39pm
Team of the Week
How do you stop Manchester City?*
Nine wins in their last ten Premier League matches and six out of eight on the road in all competitions. The last time City were in the North East they suffered an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to Sunderland in November, but they have made an impressive recovery since then and survived a tough test against a Newcastle side frothing at the injustice of Cheick Tiote's disallowed strike.
Although City lacked their usual fluency on Sunday, Manuel Pellegrini will be encouraged by the form of Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko in Sergio Aguero's absence as well as his team's resilience in the second half. City were occasionally sloppy in possession - recording their lowest pass completion rate of the season (73%) - but largely limited Newcastle to speculative efforts from distance.
When Joe Hart was called upon, he responded well to the threat of Loic Remy and Yohan Cabaye, making five saves to record only his second clean sheet following his return to the first team. As Alan Hansen wrote in The Telegraph on Monday: 'Hart was back to his best and for a manager like Pellegrini, who is so attack minded, it is a defensive decision (to drop the keeper) that in hindsight appears one of the most important of the season.'
Perhaps the most telling statistic from the match is that Newcastle completed 21% more passes than City but fewer in the final third, highlighting the visitor's inclination for quick transitions from their own half. This was evident in the first goal as Aleksandar Kolarov was played in down the left before cutting the ball back for Dzeko to thump home. It was swift, confident counter-attacking and emphasised the compelling variation to City's approach.
* We're not sure.
Infuriatingly consistently inconsistent
City's conquerors in November had won only one match since that occasion before Saturday, but they put Fulham to the sword in their latest six-pointer to climb within a point of safety.
Cometh the hour, cometh the often infuriating man-child, as Adam Johnson's hat-trick settled the match and provided an example for goal-shy strikers Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore, whose biggest contribution this season may well be his tumble for the fourth goal.
"Hopefully I can force my way back into the squad," said Johnson of his World Cup hopes as though once decent performance merits the discussion.
"I've been working hard and, at the beginning of 2014, I said it was a new year, a new start and time to get back to how I had been playing in the past."
Johnson caps off a fine couple of days by being named our Player of the Weekend here
Tougher tests to come for Tim
No-one really knows what to make of Sherwood so far - or perhaps the truth is that the doubters knows exactly what they think of him, but have been unable to air their opinions due to Spurs winning four and drawing one of his first five league matches in charge.
At half-time on Saturday, it seemed vindication for doubting Timothys was only 45 minutes away, but two goals in the second half prolonged the wait. Was it the sign of a proficient manager who understood how to improve his team's performance, or simply further evidence that Crystal Palace can rather charitably be referred to as 'mediocre'?
"I thought they might come and sit but they did the opposite to that, they had threats on the counter attack, they gave us problems and they should have been ahead at half-time," admitted Sherwood after the game.
"They looked like they were playing with a little bit more desire and that's what we talked about at half-time. We've got a group of lads who are very talented but unless you marry the talent with desire, you're going to get found out.
"I think in the second half we picked it up and we showed we can match that desire and commitment and then our quality showed."
It's all well and good focusing on the effort and character of the team but, as David Moyes has shown at Manchester United, there is a glass ceiling to that approach. The next two matches, against Swansea and Manchester City, will provide a much more thorough examination of Sherwood's tactical acumen.
No more Hammer horrors?
Back to basics, backs to the wall and back to the sort of performance required to avoid relegation. After two heavy cup defeats in a week Sam Allardyce finally came out fighting to inspire a rousing response from his players, and a solid defensive performance saw the Hammers climb back alongside Arsenal at the top of the clean sheets table. With Andy Carroll also returning, the resurrection is underway.
Sturridge, just the tonic for Liverpool
Plenty to chew on for Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool scored five to see off Stoke but threw away a two-goal lead in the first half in a match pock-marked with mistakes.
The most encouraging aspect of the performance was Daniel Sturridge's impressive cameo as the striker made his first appearance in almost two months. Not only was his understanding with Luis Suarez still evident, but he also showed splendid skill and speed of thought to score the fifth and his tenth of the campaign.
That the SAS have now managed 32 strikes this season underlines their importance to Liverpool's Champions League hopes, with Suarez achieving the largest proportional contribution (43%) to his team's total number of goals in the Premier League. The second highest is Loic Remy, who has scored 34% of Newcastle's 29 strikes before a steep drop to Romelu Lukaku and Wayne Rooney (26%).
The worry for Rodgers is that Liverpool have now conceded at least two goals in seven of their last eight away matches, with Stoke, Hull and Everton all finding the net three times against the Reds. Only two of those fixtures have ended in victory, highlighting a concerning trend that the manager needs to rectify.
As much as this point remains high on Rodgers' 'to do' list, Liverpool's forthcoming fixtures offer plenty of comfort. Difficult matches against Everton and Arsenal are both at home amid a schedule that includes games against lower-half strugglers Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham and Swansea. It offers the Reds a chance to fortify their grip on fourth before the mid-March trip to Manchester United, who face the significant distraction of a League Cup semi-final second leg and a trip to Olympiakos in the Champions League before that meeting.
Grinding it out, but no finesse
Not only are United distracted by cup competitions, but they also face a gruelling Premier League schedule before what could be a decisive clash against Liverpool. Along with Sunday's trip to Chelsea to take on Jose Mourinho's imposing home record, the champions have to play Arsenal and Manchester City before March 2. If they continue to perform at their current level, hopes of snatching fourth place could already be beyond them.
The victory over Swansea should at least end concerns over a lack of desire. Having watched United throughout the season, I would argue they have always shown effort and determination, but Darren Fletcher blamed the absence of these qualities for the three successive defeats before Saturday. "This is a time for character, more than anything to do with tactics or style," he said after the loss to Sunderland.
It's never time for one or the other, however, and United's main problem has been a paucity of ideas in the final third rather than missing endeavour. They have always stuck to the task, but frequently seem absolutely clueless as to how they should cut open their opponents. This was clear in the first half against Swansea, as they played with the sort of desperation one would expect in a crucial cup tie.
It was a rushed and scatterbrained display that eventually brought the required result through bombarding the box. Although the champions improved after the break, the contrast between the two teams in the first half was telling. Swansea might not be very good, but they tried to play in the right way, building attacks through United's midfield before letting themselves down with poor control and composure around the penalty area.
United, on the other hand, offered nothing to suggest that David Moyes has discovered a more convincing style of play. The manager has repeatedly dismissed these concerns, but almost every match has appeared to be a coin toss, with Moyes doing little to turn the odds in his favour. Until Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie return it's difficult to see that changing, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Jose Mourinho reminds United of the mistake they made in the summer when Chelsea host the champions on Sunday.
Jamie Redknapp gives David Moyes praise for an astute tactical switch here
"A goal, a goal, my kingdom for a goal!"
Just 13 goals in 21 matches highlights where Palace's problems lie with only four teams (Derby in 2007/08 (10 goals), Man City in 1995/96, Watford in 2005/06 and West Ham in 2006/07 (all 12) managing fewer strikes at this juncture in a Premier League season.
Talk of moves for Demba Ba and Tom Ince may seem fanciful, but at least Tony Pulis is showing ambition. If he can pull off one such signing, then Palace will stand a much greater chance of taking advantage of the chances they created in the first half against Tottenham.
On the slide?
Three consecutive Premier League defeats (and four in all competitions) to fall into a mini league with Southampton. Perhaps Pardew was rather fortunate that Tiote's disallowed goal provided a convenient distraction on Sunday.
Newcastle have only drawn three games all season, but if they are unable to beat West Ham and Norwich in their next two away games, they will need to grind out results by any means possible. There is a good chance that Pardew will find himself back under pressure by the visit of Sunderland on February 1.
We can't but mention Mike Jones. Not for disallowing Tiote's goal (the very fact that the decision can be debated so much proves his actions weren't preposterous), but for failing to dismiss Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa for his deplorable hack on Samir Nasri, as we discussed here and here, as Dietmar Hamann also had his say.
Grim times at the Cottage
If Fulham can maintain their points-per-game average under Rene Meulensteen (nine points in eight matches = 1.125) they are on course to finish on 39, which should be enough to survive. They have beaten the teams around them - Norwich, West Ham and Aston Villa - and shown enough mettle in those matches to suggest they can recover from Saturday's heavy defeat.
However, the problem facing three of the greatest footballing minds of the 21st century - Meulensteen, Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley - is that when Fulham lose, they become an utter shambles, which perhaps isn't surprising with a defence comprised of competition winners. Meulensteen's five defeats thus far have been by an aggregate scoreline of 20-5, regarding Sunderland's victory as a mean example.
It's clear that more quality must be sought this month and Clint Dempsey represents a healthy start in that respect. If the defence can be reinforced and Brede Hangeland soon returns from injury, Fulham's hopes are not as bleak as one might have feared on Saturday evening.
The Relegation Battle
That four of the bottom five have already replaced their managers makes for a rather redundant narrative. There is such little accountability in the race to avoid the drop, with four new appointments inheriting a raft of problems left by their predecessors.
That two of the promoted trio are currently in the bottom three only encourages the nagging sense of innocence. We can only hope that someone above starts to make a real mess of things to sate the inherent need to apportion blame. Perhaps that's why Paul Lambert finds himself under such pressure despite Aston Villa enjoying the relative comfort of 11th.