Observations from the battle of the top four

Observations from the battle of the top four

It’s a television broadcasters dream: four clubs, all in with a genuine shout of winning the Premier League, all playing each other on the same weekend. Arsenal played host to league leaders Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur visited Manchester City and in terms of drama, both games lived up to the hype. But what can we take away from the battle of the title contenders?

The standard of refereeing in the Premier League is not good

Sadly, the standard of officiating in the Premier League has been diminishing quite alarmingly in recent years. Imagine the tabloid fume if a foreign player had done what Jamie Vardy did to ‘win’ his penalty. Simulation, dive, invent a foul or whatever you want to call it, basically Vardy jumped into Nacho Monreal and referee Martin Atkinson fell for it, awarded the penalty and just to rub salt in the wounds, Vardy scored it. In the second half Riyad Mahrez took a dive and although no penalty was given this time, the referee chose not to book him. Over at The Etihad, Mark Clattenburg puzzled many by awarding a penalty to Spurs when Raheem Sterling jumped to block a cross and it hit him in the back. Although players should not turn their back on the ball, awarding a penalty for it is beyond harsh. In all seriousness though, referees are human and will make mistakes, but to make such poor errors of judgement on game changing decisions in such key games is not exactly a great advert for the Premier League.

Leicester can stay the course

Dodgy penalty and result of the game aside, Leicester have overcome a dip in form over the festive period to establish a lead at the top of the Premier League. The Foxes have been a joy to watch this season and despite not having a dearth of talent in their squad, have gone toe-to-toe with the league’s top sides and was no different against Arsenal. Danny Simpson’s foolish second yellow to get his marching orders was without doubt a game changer and yet it still took a last-gasp goal from the returning Danny Welbeck to win it for the Gunners. Leicester have displayed that not only can they play, but they have resilience, spirit and Claudio Ranieri is managing the pressure very well. Even if they don’t win the title, they look odds on for a top four finish.

Spurs are no bottlers

Bottlers, chokers, that’s what Spurs were perpetually known for amongst rival fans, but Mauricio Pochettino has developed a steely determination amongst this squad. Whilst the attention for much of the season has been on Arsenal, Leicester and Manchester City, Tottenham have quietly gained momentum, built on the foundation of a strong defensive unit. Spurs have a strong spine to their team, from back to front and plenty of talent to come off the bench and change a game if required. It may have taken a poor penalty decision from the referee, but Harry Kane calmly dispatched it, as he often does and after City equalised, Spurs held their nerve and Christian Eriksen showed his quality. Pochettino is a smart coach, building a good side and they may not be the finished article, but they showed at The Etihad that they’re not bottlers.

Manchester City are still vulnerable

With Vincent Kompany back and two holding midfielders, it looked like Manuel Pellegrini was going for defensive stability and control, but Manchester City still looked vulnerable. The penalty decision will unquestionably rankle with City, but after getting back in the game, the Eriksen goal should be of true concern and despite a squad awash with talent, defensive vulnerability remains an Achilles heel for City. Pellegrini’s inability to address the issue is ultimately costing him his job this summer, but he could yet go out with another Premier League crown, six points is not impossible for Manchester City. However, with 12 games to go and three teams to overtake, it will be tough and though they have some terrific attacking talent, it is the propensity to concede that hurts them.

Arsenal have spirit

The Gunners appear to have emerged from a blip in form and showed there is a character about the squad that could be vital as they head into a traditionally difficult period for them. Arsene Wenger’s side have Barcelona to look forward to soon in the Champions League, not a tie any team in the world would look forward to and how they deal with that and the games around could ultimately define the remainder of their season. Epitomised by Alexis Sanchez, it’s that burning desire to win that Arsenal showed against a resolute Leicester side high on confidence. They kept plugging away and will feel the result vindicated the penalty decision that Jamie Vardy got, but it was that spirit and desire that Arsenal will need if they are to win their first Premier League crown in 12 years.