Team of the Week
Title race heating up
Are Manchester United back in the title race? Probably, although how good they had to be to defeat Arsenal 1-0 at Old Trafford on Sunday is clear. United's defence was excellent, but in the second half in particular they gave too much of the ball to Arsenal, and in some respects were just lucky that the visitors didn't do a great deal with it. One imagines that they will have to play much better in order to retain their title, but on a day when two other theoretical title contenders lost limply, perhaps just enough will be, well, just enough.
As for Arsenal, they lost, they didn't play well, their deficiencies are there for all to see, but in the last week they have played Liverpool (with Suarez and Sturridge), Borussia Dortmund (with Robert Lewandowski) and Manchester United (with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney) and gained six points while only conceding one goal. It's not exactly a huge surprise therefore, that many Gooners appear to be relatively upbeat.
Read why a defensive lapse and Olivier Giroud's poor performance proved costly for Arsenal here
Man City unconvincing favourites
At what point do Manchester City fans start getting concerned? "I really cannot believe that we lost this match," Manuel Pellegrini said after the game. "I think that Sunderland won the match without the possession in the 90 minutes, but football has these things. They scored a goal because our defenders had a gap between them and it was the only chance they had to score."
It's all very well trying to write the 1-0 defeat to Sunderland off as a freak, a one-off and don't worry we'll be fine next time, but this is now a habit for City. Add Sunderland to Aston Villa and Cardiff as the underwhelming defeats that leave their away record reading P: 6, W: 1, D: 1, L: 4. That draw, incidentally, was at Stoke.
They only lost five games in the whole of their title-winning season in 2011/12, and while in this season when the title race is so very open they might have a little more wiggle room in that respect, they are already six points behind the league leaders, and Arsenal's defeat at Old Trafford would have doubled the vexation after this most inexplicable of defeats.
It's becoming a pattern for Manchester City fans. At home, City are brutal - five wins from five, 20 goals scored, just two conceded. But on the road they seem to be putting in exactly the same performances - ponderous, little creativity and with often glaring weaknesses at the back. That Phil Bardsley - Phil Bardsley! - was given so much time and space to pick his spot should be enormously concerning.
Whatever Gus Poyet is doing at Sunderland, we're now getting into the territory where it's something more than 'not being Paolo Di Canio'. There are still quite clearly big problems at Sunderland, and they're still second-bottom with just seven points from 11 games, but the improvements are there for all to see.
The defence is tightening up for a start. Sunday was their first clean sheet of the season, and came after two games in which they'd only conceded one. That might not seem terribly special, but when the previous eight games had seen 20 goals fly in, you can definitely file this one under 'getting there'.
"They deserve all the credit - they're the ones we had on the pitch," said Poyet after the game. That may be so, but these were the largely the same players that Di Canio had running around like circus clowns, carrying buckets that initially appeared to contain water, but in fact were full of glitter.
Chelsea needed a Ramires tumble to scrape a 2-2 draw at home to West Brom. Somehow Andre Marriner was convinced. It's become common to say that mistakes are fine - because, after all, everyone makes mistakes. However, if nothing else it's deeply troubling that a referee - apparently one of the best in the land and one that was standing only a few yards away at the time - can be so easily fooled by a not-particularly subtle con-job.
It's not even that Jose Mourinho seemed to think that Steven Reid being in the way as Ramires lurched to one side and cannoned into him was worthy of a penalty that was uncomfortable, but that Mourinho had, only a month or so ago, declared he disliked diving and would punish any of his players that engaged in the dark arts. Being one-eyed about these things and adopting a 'win at all costs' mentality is a hallmark of all the top managers, but it only highlights the pitfalls of setting yourself up as a pious moral arbiter about it beforehand.
There are also issues for Mourinho to address. Had it not been for the penalty, the post-match discussion would surely have centred around Petr Cech inexplicably allowing Stephane Sessgnon's dribbler of a shot to squirt under his body. By rights, that should have been the decisive moment of the game. With Thibaut Courtous starring for Atletico Madrid, Cech's long-term future at Stamford Bridge must be in doubt.
Ashley Cole is another Chelsea stalwart not enjoying the best of times. One omission from the first team looks like a rest. Two in a row looks like a drop. Or, at best, a kick up the backside. Mourinho's comments after the game would suggest the latter. He said: "Ashley is a top professional, he is a fighter. He has to work hard, to fight hard because the place (in the team) is his place."
Saints marching on and on
Heady days at St Mary's. Third in the table, three points behind the leaders and forming about 75% of the England squad. Or something like that. Adam Lallana's goal in the 4-1 win against Hull on Saturday was a joy, and while he was helped out by a rather accommodating defence who didn't seem terribly keen on tackling him it was tangible reward for a terrific performance.
''I feel like I am playing with freedom and confidence at the minute, as the team is, and that is one of the main reasons why we are getting these good results,'' he said after the game, insisting that he is trying to 'stay grounded'.
Lallana and pals would be forgiven for thinking 'Forget grounded - let's go to Disney World!' at the moment. Fellow England call-up Jay Rodriguez is certainly more of a mind to get excited. "We went to third and we still believe we can be higher. There are no limits for us, really. We've just got to keep impressing and working hard."
While the sensible side of anyone's brain would advise Southampton not to get giddy just yet, the non-sensible side tells them to enjoy it.
Liverpool right in the mix
On a weekend when most of the other contenders were at best laboured, at worst abject, Liverpool's 4-0 shellacking of an admittedly desperate Fulham side was as breezy as you like. "I think slowly we are getting there," said Brendan Rodgers after the game. "Maybe teams will be looking at us now and instead of thinking 'maybe we can get something' they will be thinking 'this could be a long afternoon' because of the threat and the intensity."
He has a point. Liverpool adopted a more comfortable-looking 4-3-1-2 formation this weekend, a system that seems to bring the best out of their first-choice players. Steven Gerrard is obviously not the marauder of days gone, but he can still pass and, as Fulham found out the hard way, deliver a mean set-piece or two. He is often in danger of being overrun slightly in a two-man midfield, but when he has the increasingly impressive Jordan Henderson and Lucas next to him to do most of his running, he's still a valuable player to have in the Liverpool side.
In addition, Philippe Coutinho playing just behind the already pretty fluid Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez provides a whirlwind of movement that means better defences than Fulham's will be torn apart this season. 'Slowly getting there' is probably about right for Liverpool at the moment. And if you're a work in progress and still only two points off the top with 11 games gone, there are plenty of reasons for optimism at Anfield.
Newcastle add to Spurs struggles
While Tim Krul was helped out rather by Spurs shooting straight at him rather than the more conventional 'either side', 14 saves in one game is pretty impressive. Like the striker who scores a hat-trick of tap-ins, you've got to be in the right place to get them. As for Loic Remy, that's seven goals in eight starts now for the Frenchman. So much for the crisis at Newcastle.
Andre Villas-Boas, on the other hand, may have carped after the game that the 1-0 result was "unfair", but perhaps when he has finished his minor tantrum he will realise that if his side seemingly lacks the wit and imagination to break down a team that have lost to Hull and Sunderland this season, then there will be plenty more 'unfair' results ahead.
Nine goals from 11 games is...not good. Perhaps this game will be the tipping point for Villas-Boas to try something different. He did towards the back end of last season, switching formations to often impressive effect, but this term he has rather rigidly stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation with inverted wingers, even though he doesn't really have anyone naturally comfortable being the inverted chap on the left. Aaron Lennon and Gylfi Sigurdsson have their strengths, but playing there is not among them. Lennon is sometimes infuriating, but is often hugely effective when scampering towards the byline with those little legs pumping away, so why not give it a go?
And while you're at it Andre, what how about benching Andros Townsend for a while? There's a very expensive Erik Lamela sitting on the bench gathering dust at the moment. Give him a go, eh? Got to be worth a try, because lord knows Plan A isn't working at the moment.
Read why Tottenham's problems run deeper than facing a heroic Tim Krul here
West Ham worries
It was a horrible afternoon for West Ham at Carrow Road as they went down 3-1 to Norwich. Not just because they flushed a winning position down the toilet, but because Winston Reid, arguably their best player and certainly their best defender this season, could be out until the new year with an ankle injury.
"We've only ourselves to blame," said Sam Allardyce, carefully pointing the finger of blame at "individual mistakes" rather than say, his failure to recruit a striker leaving them forced to play a 4-6-0 formation that has resulted in just one win in the five games it's been deployed.
Sure, playing a centre-forward hadn't exactly worked out terribly well for them previously but that was probably more to do with that centre-forward being the almost comically inept Modibo Maiga. January, or Andy Carroll's return from injury (whichever is first) cannot come soon enough.
Not to worry though - after the international break the Hammers (only out of the relegation zone on goal difference) face Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal before the end of the year.
Read how Leroy Fer's improvement helped Norwich beat West Ham here