Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.
Another round of fixtures saw Arsenal’s annual slump continue. It wasn’t so much the result – a defeat away to Pep’s Manchester City – but the dire performance that confirms Tuesday’s loss to Everton was more than just a blip. The regularity of their winter wobble is seriously astonishing. Elsewhere Southampton and Liverpool were derby day victors and Middlesbrough dealt more misery to an unfortunate Bob Bradley.
Goalkeeper – Kasper Schmeichel
It wasn’t a weekend of great goalkeeping and short of handing Thibaut Courtois the place in recognition of his tenth clean sheet I was struggling for options. However, watching back the lively Stoke/Leicester draw, it became apparent how important one Schmeichel save turned out to be. Leicester had ten men, six bookings and a two-goal deficit when Mame Diouf swung in a cross in the 57th minute. John Walters rose up over Wes Morgan and turned a header to Schmeichel’s left. The Dane reacted well to make a sprawling save. Leicester rallied in the final half hour to earn an unlikely point.
The Stopper – Cesar Azpilicueta
Azpilicueta is the (almost) forgotten man in this formidable Chelsea outfit. He established himself as a solid fullback in his first few years but has taken to a new centre-back role with ease. Three at the back means a fair amount of shuffling about and relies heavily on defensive understanding. At times, each centre-back has the freedom to cover other areas of the pitch and that’s exactly what Azpilicueta did when edging forward and dinking a ball onto the head of Diego Costa. Crystal Palace asked questions at times but Azpilicueta’s defending was as smooth and controlled as ever.
The Runner – Raheem Sterling
Make no mistake, Arsenal were poor on Sunday and there was little in the Manchester City performance worthy of concern for league leaders Chelsea. Nevertheless, whilst the rest of the blues continued to crawl back to their best, Sterling injected life into a sluggish opening quarter. The former Liverpool winger is capable of some useless performances but his match-winning potential continues to appear in flashes. He – along with Leroy Sane – gave the Arsenal back line a torrid time and handed Guardiola a crucial three points when cutting in and beating Peter Cech at the near post.
The Finisher – Jay Rodriguez
Jay Rodriguez scored twice in Sunday’s derby to briefly turn the clocks back to 2014. On the run up to that year’s World Cup, the young Englishman was bagging plenty of goals and surging towards Roy Hodgson’s England squad. In April he ruptured a knee ligament and missed every minute of the following season. Last year you might have caught one of his 12 appearances but he looked very much a man-in-recovery. Southampton’s patient approach has paid off and when Rodriguez swivelled and dispatched a dipping volley over Arthur Boruc you’d be forgiven for thinking his best days are on the horizon.
The Other Finisher – Alvaro Negredo
We’ve seen this before from Alvaro Negredo. The Spaniard is capable of producing a run of games which convinces us he is one of the deadliest finishers in European football. Unfortunately, it’s usually followed by a prolonged absence from the scoresheet (and perhaps even the first team). He scored 23 goals in his single season at Manchester City – despite netting just nine times in the league and not scoring a single goal from January to May. Middlesbrough will be hoping Negredo avoids a similar baron stretch because it’s obvious they are a better side when he is scoring. His first was a cracker on Saturday, turning in the air to find the bottom corner with a crisp finish. Negredo would be a beast on a five-a-side pitch; he looks the sort of guy who’d ruthlessly smash everything past the goalie from seven yards out.