With most of the Premier League's top half needing a new striker this summer, Daniel Storey takes a look at the probable names on expensive shopping lists...
With the title races in both England and Spain looking like they might go right to the wire, Daniel Storey gives you his top ten title finishes. Think final day madness and mayhem...
Nothing has been more apparent in the Premier League this year than how much Manchester City struggle when Vincent Kompany is missing. The captain led by example alongside Matija Nastasic in his team's 4-1 thrashing of Manchester United in September, but he has played just three more matches since as City's form has fluctuated. Nastasic has been the biggest victim of Kompany's injuries, forced to partner Javi Garcia and Martin Demichelis in defence, and the 20-year-old must eagerly await Kompany's return from his current three-week lay-off. City's first-choice duo helped the Blues record the best defensive record in the top flight last season, shipping just 34 goals, and Manuel Pellegrini will be anxious to get them back together for the long term as he looks to resolve his team's puzzling inconsistency.
"But West Ham have been awful!" I hear you cry. "How can a team in 16th have any decent partnerships?" Well, my learned friends, that is indeed a good question and one that requires further investigation (*desperately tries to find justification for selection*). The truth is, despite West Ham's rather dismal performances this season, their problems mainly lie in an attack with Sam Allardici possessing 10,000 spoons when all he needs is a knife, or something. After the Hammers shipped five goals in two home matches to Everton and Cardiff (in the League Cup), Allardyce opted to drop James Collins to play Winston Reid and James Tomkins together, and the partnership has certainly offered promise. The duo repaid the manager by keeping three clean sheets in five matches before Reid's ankle injury, which preceded the 3-1 defeat to Norwich. The quicker West Ham get the Kiwi patched up and back playing alongside Tomkins, the quicker they can hope to avert lingering relegation fears.
Southampton's successful start to the season owes much to their defensive resolve, with Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte forming a solid partnership at the back. Saints have only conceded five goals so far - the fewest in the top flight - which marks an incredible turnaround from the beginning of the previous campaign when they shipped 29 strikes in the first 11 games. It was probably with little difficulty that Mauricio Pochettino identified error-prone duo Jos Hooiveld and Maya Yoshida as the weak links in Saints' back four and so far Lovren has been worth every penny of his £8.8million transfer fee, even notching the winning goal at Anfield. Southampton face tough trips to Arsenal and Chelsea in their next two matches but, unlike their 6-1 defeat at the Emirates last season, it is difficult to imagine them receiving a spanking this time round. Jinx.
Although Hull have dropped from eighth to 12th following three defeats in their last four matches - including a heavy loss at Southampton last time out - the midfield partnership of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore has given them a solid grounding in their battle for survival. We've preached before on these pages about how important it is for promoted teams to strengthen their spine and Steve Bruce's shrewd management in the transfer window has again proven the theory. At the start of the season the Tigers were just 4/7 for a swift return to the Championship; that they have since moved out to 11/4 is testament to Huddlestone and Livermore's contributions thus far.
The importance of Saints' defence has already been emphasised but it would be unforgivably negligent to exclude the excellent Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin from this list. The axis of destruction at the heart of Southampton's midfield has been crucial in Pochettino's relentless pressing game, helping ensure that Lovren and Fonte haven't had too much work to do. While only five players average more tackles per game in the Premier League than Schneiderlin this season, Wanyama's game is based a little more on robust qualities, with the former Celtic man weighing in with 29 fouls, not all of which can be praised for being 'tactical'.
Definitely the best nickname in this top ten and also the best midfield partnership in the top flight on this season's evidence so far. Arsenal cruised to four victories in the four matches Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini have played together in central midfield this year before the combination was disrupted by Mikel Arteta's return and Flamini's injury troubles. While Ramsey also performed well alongside Arteta in victories over Liverpool and Dortmund, Arsenal are arguably more fluent when Flamini anchors the midfield, allowing the Welshman greater freedom to roam. "They can both go as far as they want to," said Cesc Fabregas as he heaped praise on the duo recently. "They have quality on the ball and they have the physical attributes. Ramsey's stamina is spectacular. He and Flamini are the best I've ever seen in terms of covering the ground and being physically strong."
If this top ten had been compiled last season then there would have been no doubts about Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines being the best partnership in the Everton side as they plundered the left wing. However, Everton's fine form under Roberto Martinez hinges more on the Toffees' solid centre-back combination of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, which is a rather surprising development given the manager's spell at Wigan. "They have been the solid rocks of this squad for a long time and this season they've really embraced changing the way we start the play and been incredible ambassadors for this project," said Martinez of the duo in October. With only two teams conceding fewer goals than Everton in the first 11 matches and Spurs the only side to keep more clean sheets than the Toffees' total of six - which includes three in their last three matches - the old resolve has afforded time to Martinez as he looks to impress his attacking ideals at Goodison.
The best partnership in the Premier League last season have been crucial in Manchester United's steady recovery from their blip at the start of the campaign, notching 12 goals between them. Despite Wayne Rooney's delight at being returned to his previous centre-forward role - if, indeed, that is even true, with the striker picking up his usual position behind Robin van Persie in a 4-2-3-1 formation - there is a feeling that the duo can still offer a lot more as David Moyes adjusts to the attacking demands at Old Trafford. Van Persie has created just a single chance from open play this season, while Rooney's record of two goals in the last seven matches leaves much to be desired. The former will need to be more involved and the latter more consistent if United are truly to flourish.
Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge may have been pipped to the post by their rivals at Manchester City, but their stunning form has given Liverpool genuine optimism in their bid to return to the top four. The two strikers have scored 12 goals in the six games they have started together, with Suarez leaping to the top of the scorers' chart with eight strikes in his first six games back from his biting ban. Suaridge were perhaps at their most potent as a duo in the 3-1 win at Sunderland, when Sturridge laid on two goals for his partner, while Suarez returned the favour by setting up the England striker in the 2-2 draw at Newcastle. If the pair can continue to gel, then Liverpool will have enough firepower to test the other teams in the battle for a Champions League place, with Suarez's future surely dependent on the outcome.
The signing of Alvaro Negredo was met with snorts of derision in the summer as Manchester City were again criticised for over-spending on a player, but the Spaniard's burgeoning partnership with Sergio Aguero suggests that it's money well spent. In seven starts together, Aguedo have notched 15 goals and seven assists, with City scoring 24 strikes in that period. The 1-0 defeat to Sunderland was a disappointing anomaly, but aside from that slip-up the duo have proved themselves to be the deadliest attacking combination in the league, offering hope to Pellegrini as he attempts to mastermind a climb from eighth. "From the first moment we did well together," said Negredo of his link up with Aguero. "It's been very good from the first day, and especially with both us speaking Spanish, we understand each other well. He's a great player, and with great players it's easy to get along."
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.