Debrief: The Premier League weekend reviewed, Dec 15
City can win the title… on the road
Manchester City's 6-3 demolition of Arsenal underlined how imperious Manuel Pellegrini's side are at the Etihad: Eight home fixtures have brought 35 goals, an average of 4.37 per game (the next most prolific home side being Liverpool on 2.75 per game). The six-goal hidings handed to Spurs and Arsenal have certainly made Chris Hughton feel better about Norwich's 7-0 slapping in early November, while Man United's 4-1 loss in September seems almost sedate in comparison.
Perhaps more importantly, the win halved the distance between the clubs to three points - effectively two, given City's goal difference. The question has been whether City can be as good on the road, but the win at Bayern was their second in an unbeaten three-game week on the road. That needs to continue if Pellegrini's side are to genuinely challenge for the championship.
Looking back over the last eight games (half the season so far), there are six teams tied at the top of the form table – corresponding to the actual top six: Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, City, Everton and Newcastle. But over those eight matches they're all averaging a fairly low 2 points per game. It's far from a scorching short-term pace, and extended over the season it would only have brought a top-two finish in one of the last 10 Premier League seasons. That may be an indication of a more pleasingly level Premier League, but it also means that any team putting together a run of wins will shoot to the top of the table.
The old "win at home, draw away" gets you two points per game but doesn't win the Premier League. City's next eight-game Premier League block ends with the visit of Chelsea on Monday 3 February and include the Boxing Day home game against Liverpool, but just as crucial are the trips to beatable opponents. Pellegrini should demand maximum points at Fulham next Saturday, Swansea on New Year's Day and Newcastle on Sunday 12 January; should they continue their 100% home record, they would be five points faster than the pace and homing in on a second title in three seasons.
Buyer Moyes needs to keep his finest homegrown
David Moyes may be "set" to "swoop" for world-class players next month, with a concomitant "clearout" of "underachievers" from the champions' squad, but the strolled win at Aston Villa may make him pause for thought. Manchester United have always made eye-catching signings, but have an equally strong tradition of building from within.
Of the 14 players Moyes used at Villa Park, 11 have been at Old Trafford since at least the age of 20, with six having come from the youth team. Two of the latter were at the centre of United's romp: Danny Welbeck bagged a brace and his fellow scorer Tom Cleverley ran the midfield, completing almost 50% more passes than anyone else.
Only the hotter heads among United's fans have advocated selling Cleverley and Welbeck. Much stronger are the calls to cull Anderson, Nani and Ashley Young, while Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia might also be replaced. Manchester United fans love their tradition, and Moyes may find the departure of hired hands goes down better than throwing the club's babies out with the bathwater.
Clarke's departure a mere matter of maths
There was a widespread outbreak of mild surprise at Steve Clarke's sacking by West Brom, but it's far from a senseless or knee-jerk decision. In the end, it all comes down to the numbers.
Clarke's side were two points above the drop zone, having lost their last four on the bounce and won only seven of their 34 games in 2013, gathering 31 points: relegation pace. And relegation from the Premier League means bad numbers in the financial department – as West Brom know, having suffered it thrice in a dozen seasons.
Moreover, Clarke wasn't struggling on a shoestring budget. The squad looks good enough to have kicked on from last season's eighth-placed finish, not least thanks to Clarke breaking the transfer record twice within the space of hours on deadline day, purchasing Stephane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe. Add in Nicolas Anelka and it's no wonder West Brom have their highest-ever wage bill - yet more bad numbers for a carefully-managed club.
Speaking of management, it's notable that both Clarke and his predecessor Roy Hodgson were officially Head Coach. That usually means less involvement in the finances, which at The Hawthorns are tightly controlled by chairman Jeremy Peace, but in the end it doesn't matter what your title is if your team isn't winning.
Clarke's departure makes it four of the current bottom five Premier League clubs to have changed manager this season. The exception, West Ham's Sam Allardyce, can hardly be sleeping easily after one win in nine games – against Fulham, costing Martin Jol his job.
West Brom's eighth-placed finish last season sounded good but most of the points were racked up early on, in Clarke's honeymoon period. Besides, the Baggies were a yawning 12 points behind seventh-placed Liverpool, only one point fewer than the 13 they finished above relegated Wigan. The summer spending was designed to kick them on, not risk their future – which Peace decided was better without Clarke.
Ozil can't go missing
With respect to Sol Campbell - which isn't always easy to find – Mesut Ozil's signing was the biggest jaw-dropper of the Arsene Wenger era. Not only for the pricetag - trebling Arsenal's previous record outlay – but the statement it made: here was a player to win the games in which the Gunners had struggled.
Ozil has certainly impressed in his first three months, and it's a long while since Arsenal looked such strong title contenders. But they need their brightest star to shine in the biggest games: crushing the also-rans is something they've managed just fine without him.
As James Maw noted in his Saturday Analysis, Ozil was comprehensively upstaged in Arsenal's rout at Manchester City by Samir Nasri, who acrimoniously left the Gunners for glory. The German wasn't invisible - he created a couple of chances and completed 48 passes - but he didn't own the game in the way Arsenal would have liked.
Moreover, Wenger will not have been pleased with the way Ozil skulked off the pitch at the end without acknowledging the fans; certainly, the midfielder's compatriot Per Mertesacker didn't hold back his on-pitch remonstrations. It may seem like nothing, and Arsenal fans will surely accept Ozil's Facebook apology that he was "upset with the result" - but they will be rather hoping he stops such results happening again.
Can things get any worse for AVB? Well, yeah...
At least Gooners' misery will only have lasted 24 hours: nothing eases a fan's pain like their greatest rivals getting gubbed. Spurs' 5-0 home humiliation by Liverpool resounded around the division: an end to the Reds' questionable away form (one win in six), an end to Spurs' five-game unbeaten run since the previous annihilation at Manchester City, and for some an end to any faith in Andre Villas-Boas.
It's probably fair to say the Portuguese manager has never pleased all the White Hart Lane faithful, and his popularity rating will have plummeted after this pummeling. On Wednesday Spurs host West Ham in a League Cup quarter-final which has suddenly taken on huge significance for Villas-Boas and Sam Allardyce; then it's Southampton away before the Christmas visits of West Brom and Stoke.
It's not the hardest run of games, but there's the problem: AVB needs nothing less than wins, and preferably stylish ones, if he's to have a hope of repairing the damage. After all, the first four days of January brings trips to Manchester United and Arsenal...