North London derby a chance for Arsenal to confirm big-game approach
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Tottenham vs. Arsenal
Aston Villa vs. Chelsea
Leicester vs. Crystal Palace
Man City vs. Hull
QPR vs. Southampton
Swansea vs. Sunderland
Everton vs. Liverpool
Burnley vs. West Brom
Newcastle vs. Stoke
West Ham vs. Man Utd
Battle of the weekend: Tottenham vs. Arsenal
Arsene Wenger has found the winning formula for away days against the better teams, and therefore everything is swell in Arsenal-land. Last month, against Premier League champions Manchester City, Wenger forced many (including this column) to eat their snarky words. And, to be honest, the humble pie was wolfed down. That Wenger so emphatically shushed the baiting was welcome, because excellent football is, ultimately, excellent football -- and that's all one can ask for when watching this (at times) life-affirming sport.
That is not to say the rebukes of Wenger were unfounded; for many a year he and his team have made the same rather basic mistakes. One impressive January victory at the home of a fine team does not a trend for the long term buck, as the famous and plainly catchy old saying goes. But here's the kicker: Saturday's North London derby against rivals Tottenham Hotspur is the opportunity to show Arsenal's performance at City was no fluke.
Most perplexing of all, and without wanting to sound overtly glass-half-empty, was that it took Wenger so long to deploy his team in such a manner. Remember: It was their first away win against City, Manchester United or Chelsea since 2011. Squeezing the space in-between defence and midfield does indeed restrict the opponents who like to roam, while not stationing your back four on the halfway line is also a smart way to ensure you are not counter-attacked.
Again Wenger will need defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin to maintain the impression he has made since returning from his loan at Championship side Charlton in December. His bite in the tackle, complemented by a return to the basics from Aaron Ramsey, has given Arsenal a solid platform from which to build their breakneck attacks. Furthermore, recent victories have been achieved with a sacrificing of dominating possession, contrasting the apparent infatuation Arsenal had with over-passing the ball, and on occasions being punished for doing so. Despite delusions otherwise, ending the match with a statistic of 60 percent or more of the ball does not in fact count for a goal scored.
Tottenham have been in very good form of late, with striker Harry Kane and midfielder Christian Eriksen particularly excellent, not to mention goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who has so regularly made remarkable saves that they now somehow seem unremarkable. With 20 goals in all competitions to his name this campaign, Kane continues to convince he's the exception rather than the rule: a 21-year-old Englishman whose hype is actually justified. Take the sheer quality of his first goal in the 3-0 win at West Brom as evidence of his skill, the way the ball catapulted from his foot towards goal before the keeper even had time to set himself.
Eriksen, too, has deserved greater praise than which he has received this season. Still just 22, he has proved to be damn important to keeping Tottenham in the fight for Champions League qualification, which is turning out to be a genuinely intriguing season storyline. A recent report in the Daily Telegraph showed that without the Dane's goals, Tottenham would be in 12th position instead of their current place in sixth. His arriving from deep to drive home and his unerringly accurate free kicks could undo the Gunners at the weekend.
Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, may well have cracked a smile at the news Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez will not recover from his hamstring injury in time for the match at White Hart Lane. Although the Chilean was off the boil at City and Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil are now back available, his absence will doubtless be felt if a cutting edge is lacking. Perhaps Wenger should have listened to himself rather than the boundless Sanchez when in December he said the forward was in the "red zone" and yet continued to deploy him when a rest seemed more sensible.
Under pressure: Aston Villa
Oh, the misery, the downright misery of it all. Ten hours and 12 minutes of not scoring a goal. Maybe some Aston Villa fans are numb to it by now. Perhaps they've turned to celebrating corners or shedding tears of joy at a shot on target. "We have been in this position for too long since I have been here," manager Paul Lambert said after the loss at Arsenal. You may well have made a rod for your own back there, Paul, for you've been the constant during this sustained awfulness.
One would hope that this level of staggering bluntness up front would at least mean defensively things were sound, and that the lack of craft and shooting boots have been forfeited for a regimented system. Alas Lambert's side conceded five against Arsenal last Sunday and it could have been many more, such were the sloppiness of the passing and the overall chaos, from the goalkeeper Brad Guzan right through the team.
"I am looking for anybody who can improve the side," said manager Lambert ahead of deadline day, not sounding at all desperate for a remedy to the ailment commonly known as goal-shy-itis. But just like their attempts to hit the back of the net, the club failed to get the signing of Liverpool striker Rickie Lambert over the line. Amid all this woe, who will be the one to remind Villa supporters that league leaders Chelsea are next up?
Finding form: Liverpool
In a sentence that has all the hallmarks of egg soon to be on face, Liverpool genuinely seem to have turned a corner. After a start to the season that led to serious questions over whether manager Brendan Rodgers had lost his momentum at Anfield, the Reds are back doing that thing they did last season; the football they play is so swift it can be a blur. Their pressing of the opponent has also returned to the intelligent and aggressive variety, rather than the tepid approach demonstrated at the likes of Crystal Palace in November.
Rather excitingly, their next fixture is against Everton in the Merseyside derby on Saturday. Everton have themselves been going through something of an identity crisis of late, although the 1-0 win at Palace last time out helped to temper the growing scrutiny of Roberto Martinez's team. It is premature to bring out the bunting just yet, though, with the club still close (seven points) to the relegation zone. Defensively they were sounder at Selhurst Park, although that renewed and required resolve will be stretched when the glorious Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling come to Goodison.
- In 45 Premier League games, the Merseyside derby has featured 20 red cards, five more than in any other series. However, no red cards have been handed out in the last six derbies, the longest such stretch without a red in 19 years.
- Everton and Liverpool have each lost one more league game this season than in all of last season. Everton's issue has been defense; the Toffees have already conceded 34 goals, five fewer than in all of last season. Liverpool have had offensive struggles, on pace to scored 55 goals this season, just over half of last season's total of 101.
- Arsenal will expect at least one goal at White Hart Lane on Saturday. The Gunners have scored in 31 of their last 32 league games against Tottenham, with the exception a scoreless draw in Feb. 2009.
- As Chelsea visits Aston Villa on Saturday, Jose Mourinho seeks his first league win at Villa Park having gone winless in five previous games there. Aston Villa and Newcastle are the only two clubs Mourinho hasn't beaten in an away league match as Chelsea manager.
- Manchester City look to snap a three-game league winless streak on Saturday against Hull City. City haven't gone winless in four straight league games since four straight draws in Nov. 2009.
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Any other business: Man City vs. Hull
Although not the glamour game of the weekend at first glance, the outcome of Saturday's meeting between Manchester City and Hull has the potential to crank up the pressure on one of the respective managers involved. City are, of course, second in the table -- they're hardly wretched -- but they haven't won in four matches in all competitions. For the standards expected of Manuel Pellegrini, who is surely yearning for Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony to return from the African Nations Cup, this is frankly not good enough. Only victory will do this weekend.
In the other dugout, Hull boss Steve Bruce is increasingly cutting a doomed figure. Amid an overwhelming choice of damning statistical nuggets that exemplify the torrid period the club are enduring, here is one of particular note: Bruce's side have failed to score in 11 of their last 15 Premier League matches. Their last two matches, against West Ham and Newcastle, both had a pattern of chances created but missed before the team combusted. Considering the money spent on signings in the summer, better is rightly expected of the job Bruce is currently carrying out.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.