LONDON: The Premier League title race is evolving into a duel between the old and the new as personified in Arsene Wenger against Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool all scored four times as they recorded away wins to remain locked together on points.
Arsenal briefly went top with a 4-1 win at Sunderland at lunchtime then City regaining pole position on goal difference after a 4-0 triumph at West Bromwich. Liverpool joined them on 23 points in the evening after a difficult 4-2 win in South London at Crystal Palace.
Hence City (+15), Arsenal (+13) and Liverpool (+11) have opened up an important gap over pursuers such as Tottenham and Chelsea who are three and five points adrift respectively.
City’s victory was probably the most significant of the three because they did not concede a goal and ended a six-match run without a win in all competitions, the worst sequence of Guardiola’s entire, eight-year managerial career. Equally important Sergio Aguero scored twice to underline Guardiola’s misjudgement in having omitted him from the Champions League to Barcelona two weeks ago.
Aguero opened the scoring at The Hawthorns on an early assist from Ilkay Gundogan then struck again within 10 minutes. In the second half the Argentinian provided a third for Gundogan who completed the scoring with his own second goal in the final minute.
Kevin De Bruyne, a late substitute for Nolito, provided the low cross for Gundogan to seal his most effective City performance since his summer arrival from Borussia Dortmund. Gundogan, playing on the right of a three-man midfield, would have been man of the match had it not been for Aguero. He now has three goals in six league appearances.
The last time City went six games without a win was in 2008 so there was double relief in this win, a game in which City claimed a remarkable 77pc of first half possession. Guardiola said: “The problem when you haven’t win for a while is you lack a bit of confidence. In that period we played well but, if you don’t win, telling about the good things you did only sounds like excuses.”
Arsenal manager Wenger has become an expert at delivering excuses over the past 12 years since the Gunners last won the league title. But he had no need of them after a victory at Sunderland which was probably the most simple Arsenal will record all season.
The Gunners are unbeaten in 14 games in all competitions since their opening-day defeat by Liverpool. France striker Olivier Giroud struck twice within five minutes of being introduced as a 69th-minute substitute to kill off Sunderland hopes after Jermain Defoe’s penalty had cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s first-half opener.
Arsenal regained command with a spell of three goals inside seven minutes to leave Sunderland with only two points from their first 10 league games, matching Manchester City’s low in 1995-96.
Mesut Ozil again ran the show in midfield but missed chances in both first and second half to add to his total of four goals in all competitions in the past two weeks. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny, in central defence, had the most comfortable match possible against a Sunderland side already apparently doomed to relegation.
Arsenal also welcomed back Wales’ Euro 2016 hero Aaron Ramsey after injury. He stepped in for Granit Xhaka who was serving the last of his three-game ban after being sent off in the earlier victory over Swansea.
Wenger was satisfied to see all his key decisions rewarded. As he said: “The first two balls Giroud touched were goals, and that shows you when you have quality on the bench, it’s easy to make good decisions. With Giroud back, Ramsey back, Xhaka not suspended anymore, overall I think we are in a good position.”
The same applies to Liverpool. They showed solid team spirit by winning at Palace despite conceding equalising goals. Jurgen Klopp’s team went ahead through Emre Can and then Dejan Lovren but defensive errors handed two goals to James McArthur before Joel Matip restored the lead before the break.
Roberto Firmino made sure of the points with a fourth goal in the 71st minute to condemn Palace to a third straight defeat.
Can, operating on the left of midfield has provided valuable steel which has offered Philippe Coutinho, just ahead, greater freedom to employ his creative talents. Coutinho was outstanding against Palace while Can claimed his first goal of the season and can be well satisfied that Liverpool have won eight of his games so far and drawn the other.
The one cautionary tale for Liverpool is that their 13 goals conceded is the worst record in the top six with Loris Larius still adapting to the Premier pace and learning how to deal with a rain of crosses.
Klopp knows it. He said: “We will sort the defence. I’m not going into the dressing room and saying: ‘You’re a bad defender,’ or: ‘You’re the goalkeeper, where are you?’
They’re all human beings and we will work on it.”