A tale of two games for Arsenal, two of the deadliest strikers in the EPL, Laudrup's astute signings and the excuses are running out for Alan Pardew
Lukas Podolski (Arsenal)
To put Arsenal on this list would be to ignore their wretched first half performance on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, something I cannot do. That day they were missing Lukas Podolski, and he demonstrated his worth with a blistering performance on Thursday morning against West Ham. As well as scoring a brilliant long range drive to bring his team level on the evening, he also weighed in with three assists becoming the first player in the EPL this season to collect three assists in the same game. How Arsenal missed him on Sunday, their defeat at Chelsea meant that the Gunners have only picked up one point from a possible 15 in games against the top three in the EPL. The occasional brilliance of players such as Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott (who has now scored eight and assisted six goals in his last 11 EPL appearances) means that the race for 4th place with Tottenham should go right down to the wire.
Another emphatic victory over Norwich, they have now won their last three fixtures against them by an accumulated score of 13-2! Here the main positive was the continued development of the partnership of Luis Suarez (who has seven goals in three games vs. Norwich) and Daniel Sturridge, who both were effective in linking up, as demonstrated by Sturridge’s exquisite dummy for Suarez’s goal. The worries that the arrival of Sturridge (who has three goals in three appearances) would mean that Suarez would be played out of position have so far been unfounded, both players have the versatility to move freely around the attacking third, making them extremely difficult for opposition defenders to pick-up. A word of praise should also go to Jordan Henderson, who has developed well over the past few months and here scored a tremendous half-volley before playing an inch perfect ball across the pitch to Stewart Downing in the build-up for the third goal. The worry for Liverpool is that they have still not beaten a team currently in the top half of the EPL, but there are real signs that they should be able to better their 8th place finish of last year.
David Silva (Manchester City)
The majestic Spaniard demonstrated that there may be life in the title race yet with two goals and a classy all round performance in the 2-0 victory over Fulham. His second goal was coolness personified, and his all round game was back to its best, with 92% of his passes completed and six chances created for teammates. Yaya who?
Adam Le Fondre and Adam Federici (Reading)
The fact that Reading have picked up victories over West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle over the past two weeks, when defeats seemed much more likely, can be attributed perhaps to luck, but also to the predatory skills of Le Fondre. His winning brace against Newcastle means that the deadly finisher has now scored with four of his last five shots at goal in the EPL. To make sure they were in a position to get anything out of the game, the Royals also had keeper Adam Federici to thank, who pulled off two marvellous reflex saves from Papiss Cisse in the first half. Last week they improbably won against Albion with three goals in the final eight minutes, whereas here their first shot on target came in the 71st minute and they scored from their only two shots on target. While their fighting qualities cannot be denied, it seems as if lady luck is currently with Reading, and the team will certainly need her if they are to escape at the seasons end.
Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)
His double in Sunderland’s victory at Wigan displayed just what a prolific finisher he is as he took both of his chances clinically to give him 10 goals for the season, from a mere 21 shots on target! He now has six goals in seven EPL appearances against the Latics, and the value of Fletcher to a Sunderland team that does not create many chances cannot be measured. Give credit to Martin O’Neill and his team, they looked in free-fall towards the end of last year, but are now comfortable in 11th place and have been excellent in their last two victories over West Ham and Wigan.
Ben Davies, Jonathan De Guzman and Ki Sung-Yeung (Swansea City)
Considering Swansea were only four days away from booking a trip to Wembley in the Capitol Cup final, the fact that they so ruthlessly dispatched Stoke City says a lot about Michael Laudrup’s team. Unsurprisingly they dominated possession, completing 147 more passes than Stoke, led by the classy South Korean Ki who only misplaced four of his 67 passes. 19 year old Davies, who has matured greatly since his uncertain start to EPL life, got the ball rolling with a fantastic off the ball run, before out-muscling Jonathan Walters and Ryan Shawcross before slotting home. Dutchman De Guzman, another summer signing made sure of the points with two goals, the first a sublime free-kick and the second a lung-busting run from deep and calm finish. The loss of Brendan Rodgers, Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair has barely been felt by the club who look to be on the verge of some silverware, and this is in large part thanks to the excellent signings made by Laudrup.
Robin van Persie (Manchester United)
10 goals in 10 games, there is little else to say about such a prolific striker whose movement and finishing just simply makes scoring goals look all too easy!
West Ham United
For those wishing to crown Arsenal as the masters of passing football, spare a thought for the rotten performance of West Ham which made the Gunner’s dominance possible. It’s now one win in 10 for West Ham after a disappointing week in which they dominated but failed to defeat QPR, before their pathetic surrender at the Emirates. Against QPR they seemed a team devoid of ideas, their one strategy to lump the ball into the area as much as possible as demonstrated by their 56 crosses. Against Arsenal they recklessly defended way too high up the pitch, allowing themselves to be continually exploited by the pace of Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. They also seemed to think having somebody to play defensive midfield and shield the defence was not important, highlighted for the fifth goal in which Jack Wilshere picked up the ball with nobody within 20 yards of him allowing him to drive forward and begin a move that was the final nail in the Hammers coffin. Again, I certainly don’t feel West Ham are in any danger as there are certainly three worse teams than them in the league, but for the sake of his long-term future, manager Sam Allardyce needs to get the team performing as they were earlier in the season.
Is now the time to panic? Their unlikely defeat at home to Reading means that the Magpies have now thrown away a massive 16 points from winning positions this season, and they have picked up only four points from their last eight EPL games, the worst form in the division. The defeat at home was one of those games where nothing goes for you; the opposition keeper plays a blinder, they score with their only shots on goal, their player mis-kicks and it leads to a goal. This game in isolation shouldn’t be enough to make Toon fans panic, but it continues a highly disappointing season thus far. The signings of Frenchmen Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran and Massadio Haïdara leave manager Alan Pardew with few excuses for the remainder of the season. He now has to demonstrate that he can get the team playing effective football - not the long-ball tactics they have employed thus far, and that he can organise a porous defence. His first test…a six pointer at Aston Villa next week.
Guy Demel (West Ham United)
An absolutely awful display by the experienced defender who twice stood off Lukas Podolski, leading to the first and third goals, and continually was caught ball-watching instead of keeping tabs on the dynamic German.
After a fantastic run from mid-October to mid-December, Norwich have rather regressed to their early season form with only one point out of a possible 18. At Liverpool they desperately missed Sebastien Bassong, they have now conceded five goals in each of the three EPL games missed by the defender and without his stability fellow centre-back Michael Turner looked lost. Like in their 2-5 defeat last September, Norwich completely failed to shut down Liverpool’s passing game, not putting them under any real pressure throughout as demonstrated by the 1258 passes completed in those games by the Reds. Like West Ham, you feel Chris Hughton’s team did enough in the first half of the season to ensure safety, but this poor run will be a worry for sure.
While a 0-0 draw at Southampton isn’t the end of the world, it is another demonstration of two points being dropped rather than one point being gained. Everton were recently involved in an EPL record 16 match streak, in which both they and the opposition scored in each game, however since then they have registered consecutive 0-0 draws for the first time in almost five years. At least one of those 0-0 draws, against Southampton and Swansea, needed to be a win if Everton are to maintain a serious push for 4th place, but truthfully that seems beyond the Toffees. On Tuesday morning they looked off the pace and were slack in their passing, and forward Nikica Jelavic, who has scored only one goal in his last 12 EPL appearances, again was quiet touching the ball only 17 times. It seems as if Everton do not have the strength in depth to get through the season and finish in the Champions League places.
An absolutely miserable week for the Villains who failed to win after taking the lead for the sixth time this season at West Bromwich Albion, before their Capitol Cup fiasco against League Two Bradford. At the Hawthorns on Sunday morning, Villa threw away a two goal lead for the second time this season, and conceded yet another goal from a set piece. Worryingly for this mentally fragile Villa team, 71% of the goals they have conceded this season have come in the second half and if games ended after 45 minutes Villa would be in sixth place ahead of Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal. There are now increasing doubts as to whether the youth strategy employed by under-fire manager Paul Lambert will be enough to keep them in the EPL this season.