Arsenal Back On Top Again...

They were once again the biggest winners on a weekend when we saw just how over-reliant Liverpool have become on SAS. And are Chelsea really not buying?

Last Updated: 02/12/13 at 13:08 Post Comment

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Winners

Arsenal and Aaron Ramsey
I have already written at length about Ramsey embodying 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', as one commenter suggested, 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.


Hull City
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.


Newcastle
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.

As Sarah Winterburn wrote here last week, 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.


Chelsea
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.

The unsavoury public spat with Romelu Lukaku - a man three decades his junior - suggests that Mourinho is not as content as he claims when it comes to his attacking options.


Manchester City
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.


Samir Nasri
Another purple patch or a revival of the consistency that earned him a move to City in the first place?

Nasri has been excellent on the left of Manuel Pellegrini's 4-4-2 formation this season and followed an impressive performance against Spurs with a well-taken brace in victory over Swansea. His quotes last week also hint at a maturity that may have previously been missing.

"It wasn't his fault, it was just me because I wasn't in a good place," said Nasri of his disagreements with Roberto Mancini last season. "It was a little difficult. In my head, I wasn't the same. I didn't play well for City and lost my spot in the squad and, at the end of the year, you look at your season and you realise, 'I was not myself'."

A quite candid reflection on his personal contribution from a player often accused of lacking bottle.


Everton and Gerard Deulofeu
Despite a shaky first 15 minutes against Liverpool, 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.


Norwich
A reprieve for Chris Hughton after his decision to award Wes Hoolahan only his second start of the season - and first since the opening day - paid off with the playmaker showing a cool head to assist Gary Hooper.

Norwich's record of four wins in the first 13 matches is not abysmal, but grinding out more draws (only two so far, both at home) will help in their quest to edge away from the bottom three and stop people asking questions about that exciting summer spending.

Liverpool and Luis Suarez are next, and we know what that means.


Big Sam
An emphatic victory if not performance, as West Ham played for their beleaguered manager while Fulham did not.


Wayne Rooney As A No. 9
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.


Manchester United
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.

For more on United, click here to read Daniel Storey's 16 Conclusions.

Losers


Victor Moses
"I wanted to score around 20 goals this season. We've still got lots of games to go so hopefully I can get up to that target."

Had the ambitious Moses taken a brilliant chance to make it 2-1 to Liverpool at Hull, he could have spared his team's blushes and made his target seem at least a little more realistic.


Hugo Lloris
Three mistakes in two games (there were two poor kicks against City that led to goals) to cost his team dearly and pile pressure on Andre Villas-Boas.


Marouane Fellaini
Manchester United's fourth most expensive signing in history, left on the bench for a crucial test against Spurs as Phil Jones partnered Tom Cleverley in the centre of midfield. Forget signing Fellaini a few weeks earlier for £4million less, perhaps Moyes shouldn't have bothered at all.


Andre Villas-Boas
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. Neil Ashton, with his embarrassing column in Monday's Daily Mail - 'I wish I could walk away...but somewhere there is a trigger that tells me to stay and fight...if that is a crime then lock me up' - can clearly massage his own ego without Villas-Boas giving him more undue attention. If you are a reporter who has somehow become the story, then surely something has gone very wrong, but Villas-Boas has bigger problems on which to focus at present.

The story of Villas-Boas asking for a Tromso fan heard chanting "You're getting sacked in the morning" to be removed during Thursday's Europa Cup tie somewhat betrays his calm persona. The manager did not crack in a tense press conference on Sunday, but he is understandably feeling the strain. And yet the only way to alleviate the pressure is to guide his team on a winning run.

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?

"He seems like he really wants us to play offensive football, doing our thing. Unluckily it hasn't been what he wished for," said Christian Eriksen in an interview with The Telegraph at the weekend. "When the players understand what he wants it will get better and better. It is about patience."

Eriksen's comments on Villas-Boas' plans were terribly vague, but there was at least a spark to Soldado on Sunday. 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.


Southampton
Despite his calamities, six weeks without Artur Boruc is a dreadful worry for Southampton as they begin dropping down the table.


Liverpool
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?

Sunday began with Hull owner Assem Allam telling protesting fans "they can die as soon as they want", but the only ones keeling over at the KC Stadium were those in a hideous white shirt. Luis Suarez's supporting cast of Victor Moses, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling looked poor on paper and it didn't get much better on the pitch. The sight of Kolo Toure beating the ground in frustration told its own story at the end of a week in which he claimed Manchester City must 'regret' letting him leave.

In hindsight, the 15 paragraphs in this column detailing concerns over Liverpool's form following the 3-1 win against Crystal Palace seemed excessive. In hindsight, those concerns also appear within reason. 'It would not be a surprise if another collapse lies just around the corner,' was the message and there is no better word for a 3-1 defeat to Hull. 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.

As Daniel Storey wrote here, Liverpool are something of a Manchester City-lite given the contrast between their home and away record and only three teams - Norwich (who were thrashed 7-0 by City), Stoke and Sunderland - have conceded more goals on their travels. Add to that just one win over the other teams in the top half of the table and two second-half victories in 15 games as the Reds ease their foot off the gas, and Brendan Rodgers has much to dwell on.

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.

Rodgers' reliance on Suarez and Sturridge is perfectly understandable given the context and there have been plenty of encouraging signs this season following the manager's willingness to cede control in search of better chances. "We're a team that's evolving and starting to understand that side of football; with every attack, you can't score," said Rodgers before the win over Palace.

However, the manager's quest to find balance has been impaired by his failure to strengthen Liverpool's midfield in the summer. Moves for the excellent Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Willian were mooted, but in the end the Reds came up short, with only Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas and Moses arriving to boost the options behind Suarez and Sturridge, which left Henderson playing as a No. 10 on Sunday. The plight of Aspas and £25million duo Fabio Borini and Joe Allen suggests that finding players to feed his hungry strikers - other than Philippe Coutinho, who is starting to seem worryingly injury-prone - is not necessarily Rodgers' forte.

The good news is that the Mkhitaryan money is still in the bank, should Liverpool be able to attract a suitable target (Wolfsburg's Diego is itching for an exit and out of contract at the end of the season) and the club must surely spend to take maximum advantage from a solid start to the campaign and a hugely open battle at the top. The shrewd acquisitions of Sturridge and Coutinho last January prompted a strong finish to the campaign and, with the Reds currently eight points better off than at this stage last year, there is good reason for optimism.

After two defeats in their first three matches last season, each of Liverpool's subsequent seven losses were followed by victory in the Premier League. The same has been true of the Reds' two defeats in the current campaign and Rodgers must ensure that pattern continues when Norwich visit Anfield on Wedneday.


Stoke
Only six points above Tony Pulis.


Martin Jol
In truth, it was a long time coming.

Matthew Stanger - he's on the Twitter

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Readers' Comments

I

may well get slated by other United fans for this, but out of the three contenders, I'd far prefer Liverpool to win the title. Yes some elements of their fanbase can be a bit OTT, yes they're our biggest rivals and yes it will make our poor season feel even more like the end of an era (Fergie's gone, Liverpool are back on top). However I just have to applaud Brendan Rodgers and the way he's turned Liverpool around in just a couple of seasons. It...

Mike_Christie
Please Stop Telling Us What To Think

H

ooray! We are all excited now, we beat a very mediocre team! With all due respect to WHU supporters, not winning that game shouldn't even be a consideration. This is the problem, there is no winning mentality at the Emirates - we're all congratulating ourselves beating a team that we have a winning record against.

TheWhiz
Wenger hails important win

I

s this meant to be an aspiration for United supporters? Moyes mediocrity strikes again. I see the Bayern boys don't want to sign for him, and his reputation amongst the senior European coaches make other key signings unlikely.

redbornandbred
De Gea's Europa League target

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