In our weekly column, Kristian Walsh looks at the tightness at the top, a return to 4-4-2, Stoke's blueprint, the cost of the Europa League and a tale of two managers

THE WEEKEND'S FIVE TALKING POINTS

1. Christmas sees an eight-team title race ongoing

“Just like the team that’s going to win the Football League, we shall not be moved,” came the cry from the 2,000 Everton fans as their 2-1 victory against Swansea was confirmed. It would be easy to blame such optimism on Christmas sherry or the inhalation of too much tinsel, but they have a point.

Everton are most definitely not going to win the Premier League . Probably. But they most certainly are in an eight-team gunfight for Champions League qualification. From table-topping Liverpool (as of Saturday, at least) to eighth-placed Manchester United, every team will believe they are capable of qualifying for Europe's premier club competition.

But with just eight points currently separating first and eighth, that also means they are, by default, in the title race.

That Arsenal ’s game with Chelsea at the Emirates is not played until Monday skewers that slightly, as a home-team win could widen the gap to 10 points. Still, last season saw the gap between first and eighth – ironically Manchester United and Liverpool – at 18 points; the season before, it was 20. If Arsenal do not win on Monday, it will be Christmas Day’s closest top eight in Premier League history.

The tightest in recent years was in 2002, when 11 points separated eight teams. That year, Manchester United and Arsenal would eventually finish in the top two on 83 points and 78 points respectively, with third-placed Newcastle cut adrift on 69. For anybody wishing to deny the theory that to challenge for the top four is also to challenge for the title would be entitled to recall that season.

But this season has the potential to be different. All eight teams have the capability of beating each other, but also possess glaring weaknesses which ensure they can drop points. Manchester City have lost to Cardiff, Chelsea have lost to Stoke, Liverpool have lost to Hull and Manchester United have lost to pretty much everybody. In fact, only Everton have avoided a chastening defeat to a side they were expected to dispose of comfortably, with only one loss all season – that came away to City, and everybody has lost there anyway.

This may favour teams like Everton, Newcastle and even top-of-the-table Liverpool – teams that had no real expectation of a title challenge, and whose knowledge of such a challenge would unsettle scores of players who have never been involved in one. A team could find themselves a point off fourth in March, but just as easily just five points from the top. With players like Ross Barkley, Yohan Cabaye and – of course – Luis Suarez, it is something to sing about.

2. A win for 4-4-2 at St Mary’s

There are some things in English football that are now considered outdated. Long balls lofted from defence are thought of as the work of a Neanderthal, while goalkeepers who cannot tip-toe in possession like Lionel Messi are footballing dinosaurs.

But above all else, there is snobbery about tactics – specifically the use of 4-4-2. There is a famous scene in the film Mike Bassett: England Manager when the archaic Bassett, played by Ricky Tomlinson, announces the England team to a cynical press clamouring for a continental style of football. “Ladies and gentleman,” says Bassett, “England will be playing four-four-f***ing-two.”

It is a comedic scene with a strong stench of reality, even 12 years on: 4-4-2 is considered unintelligent, brutish and – above all else – English. What’s more, 4-4-2 with two strikers of a similar style is sacrilege, enough to make tactics aficionados keel over and cry.

Enter Tim Sherwood, complete with baggy tracksuit and touchline commands such as “get it forward” and “get in to them”. Tottenham ’s interim head coach is far removed from the quiet Andre Villas-Boas, who treated football as a delicate Rubik’s Cube, something that had to be solved over a period of time. Sherwood, on the other hand, takes a hammer to it and smashes it to smithereens.

Sherwood started Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor together up front against Southampton, with an attacking midfield behind them. Gylfi Sigurdsson was instructed to put crosses in from the left and Christian Eriksen asked to do so deeper in central midfield; the full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were also encouraged to get high and wide. Some 16.7 per cent of Spurs’ passes were long and their accuracy was only 74.2 per cent (something also attributed to Southampton’s pressing game), but they scored three goals in a league game for the first time this season.

It worked. Soldado crossed for Adebayor to equalise for Spurs, while yet more play out wide forced Jos Hooiveld to turn into his own net. There were moments its flaws were exposed, such as for Adam Lallana’s opener when big gaps opened between defence and midfield. But the most important thing for a team that needs to move closer to the top four is that they won.

They won against a side who have been praised for their intelligent tactics, no less. Mauricio Pochettino has many admirers for a style of football formed in Santa Fe and nurtured in La Liga. It relies on technically gifted players with high levels of fitness and intelligence. Their style is one English football fawns over and wishes they created and could implement successfully.

Yet Sherwood’s 4-4-2 was the perfect formation to counteract it with space being found in wide areas to allow Spurs to execute their game plan perfectly. That is not to say 4-4-2 is the way forward, and Sherwood should show a bit more flexibility if he hopes for the job permanently, but there is a time and a place for the formation as Sunday proved.

3. Home comforts for Mark Hughes and Stoke

It was just like the (relatively) olden days at the Britannia Stadium – or so it seemed. The wind cut through the stadium and made magic with the ball; the ball itself spent most of its time in the volatile air, being brutalised from forehead to forehead; the paying gallery above loved it all, especially when Stoke eventually came away with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa .

It is now six league games unbeaten at home for Stoke, with this win so gratuitously similar to many seen before. Mark Hughes’ side engaged Villa into a scrap, one which his side were always likely to win with the second half wind behind them. Stoke made 19.2 per cent of their passes long – not enough to be vintage Stoke, but enough to pay tribute – which, in turn, saw Villa launch 20 per cent of theirs long as well. But Stoke then won over 70 per cent of the many aerial duels and put in a successful cross once every three times. The battle had been won.

A lot was written of Stoke’s home record under Tony Pulis, of how vital it was their Premier League survival. The correlation between the degeneration of Pulis’ side and its home form was highlighted in the aftermath of the Welshman’s departure in the summer. But though they conceded more goals at home (22) in their five-year league stay, they won 28 of their 41 points at home – an effort which is not too far from 2011-12 (29 points from 45) and 2009-10 (27 points from 47). The importance of their home form was undeniable, but it was partly because of how poor they could be away.

This is what Hughes has to deal with at Stoke, and he is coping admirably so far. This is not the expectation of having a £32m Brazilian international at a burgeoning Manchester City, nor is it keeping up a Queens Park Rangers side on high wages and little else (players he signed, in fairness). At Stoke, he has to battle against perception, even if it is not based on reality.

Football expects two things of Stoke under Hughes: an evolved style of play and maintaining their (not so) magnificent home record. To do both simultaneously is difficult, as most of Stoke’s good home performances relied upon that slobberknocker style. Against Villa, it was evident: Peter Crouch knocked down for Charlie Adam to sweep home the opener, before the winner was bundled home – the Britannia bundle, if you will – by Crouch himself.

For now, Hughes may have to find a happy medium. It’s happy enough at the moment. Stoke are in 10th having lost just one at home all season having conceded just six goals, steering them eight points clear of the relegation zone. With a windswept Crouch raising his arms aloft, with masses of hulking humanity charging forward in celebration, it’s just like watching the old Stoke. Sort of.

4. Europa League proving costly

Of all the differences between Swansea and Everton on Sunday, one is more important than all: this was Everton’s 19th game of the season, while it was game 28 for Swansea.

As Everton grew stronger in the second half, Swansea started to tire. The zip and zest of the away side’s passing was not replicated by Swansea, who hardly threatened before or after Everton’s goals, relying on a fortunate Bryan Oviedo deflection for their goal. The nine extra games have started impacting upon Michael Laudrup’s side, which will worry him with a busy Christmas schedule ahead.

Though the Europa League is an easy target to fire at, the proof is in the league table. Liverpool and Everton both look fresh and full of energy because of no Thursday night games, and both sit in the top four; Spurs, by comparison, have often looked lethargic, though how much of that is because of midweek football is open to debate.

It is not just about tiredness. With no Europa League, Roberto Martinez has had to operate with a smaller squad – no great change at Goodison Park, but notable nevertheless. Though a smaller squad can be a hindrance, it has not proved so for the Spaniard yet, instead allowing a pretty established starting 11 reach an impressive understanding with other with substitutes of good quality like Leon Osman, Gerard Deulofeu (now injured) and Oviedo (now playing) to be hungry, determined and knowledgeable of what is required of them.

It also means he must play young players in the most important competition – Ross Barkley, the latest from Everton’s fine production line, is better served winning Premier League matches with fine free-kicks as opposed to in Europe on dodgy pitches in front of a few thousand people in largely empty stadiums.

Sometimes, less is more. Even if Everton had more money to spend after Marouane Fellaini’s transfer, Martinez would not have felt the necessity to swell the squad with players as Laudrup did this season. He turned to Alvaro Vazquez and Alejandro Pozuelo – two young Spaniards with obvious talent, but also incapable of making the desired impact off the bench. Alvaro missed an excellent opportunity for the equaliser in stoppage time.

Swansea are only three points worse off than they were after 17 games last season, but with a hectic festive period and Napoli to prepare for in February, it could become even tougher. For Everton, they – along with a few other clubs – may wish for fourth or nothing in their pursuit of European football.

5. A tale of two managers

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. This weekend saw a tale of two managers whose futures do not reside with their clubs in their current roles, but for entirely different reasons.

Keith Downing – interim caretaker coach-cum-manager at West Bromwich Albion – saw his temporary side draw 1-1 at home to Hull City, while Malky Mackay waved goodbye to the Cardiff City supporters at Anfield, even if Vincent Tan has offered him a chance of reconciliation (the chances of which are as low as his waistline is high).

Indeed, this season has been about a tale of many managers – departing ones, at that – particularly in the bottom half of the table. The shifting sands of employment have helped teams near the bottom so far: Tony Pulis replacing Ian Holloway has brought six vital points for Crystal Palace, while Rene Meulensteen has overseen an improvement in performance at Fulham, if not necessarily results yet. Gus Poyet, meanwhile, still has Sunderland with a chance of survival and allows his players to breathe a little more than Paolo Di Canio.

But those three appointments came pretty quickly after the dugout was vacated. For Kevin Ball and Keith Millen of Sunderland and Palace respectively, their performances in temporary charge were praiseworthy, if only because they knew the next manager’s appointment was imminent.

That is not to disparage Downing’s efforts at the Hawthorns, but how long he will be in charge for is unknown. And while a point is important after four consecutive defeats, they faced a Hull City side who have conceded 17 of their 20 goals away from home. They played tentatively in the first half, unsure on what their roles were; only in the second half and a goal behind did they default to an attack-minded approach. Though it ultimately worked with Matej Vydra’s late goal, the sense of West Brom being in purgatory until a new manager is appointed is hard to shake.

The same applied to Mackay at Anfield, who stood on the sideline with the world expecting Tan to pull a giant lever in the directors’ box above, opening a trap door beneath the Scot’s feet and send him to unemployment. Though his side played well in the opening 10 minutes against Liverpool, they soon regressed; with Luis Suarez’s opening goal came the feeling of inevitability. Though Liverpool were excellent, Cardiff looked resigned and fully aware of the uncertainty surrounding the manager. Their second half fightback – as futile as it proved – felt like the final shot over the barricade.

But both Mackay and Downing stay for now. The uncertainty will not help either in their attempts to stay in the top-flight. The clubs must make a decision quickly or risk treading water at best – a dangerous thing to do with those behind circling.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

THE WEEKEND'S FIVE KEY TRENDS

Stat #1: Everton defenders have supplied eight goals in the Premier League this season, more than at any other club.

That Everton’s defenders are scoring goals should not be a surprise – Leighton Baines has done so from dead-balls for years. But even more impressive is that Roberto Martinez’s side are doing it without Baines and from open play, with Coleman and Bryan Ovideo become auxiliary inside-forwards for the Blues.

It would be tempting – and, indeed, accurate – to note Coleman’s goal was because of his endeavour and steadfast efforts to move down the right-hand side and look to get into the penalty area. But what is interesting is how this is made easier by the positioning of the front three (above). Martinez plays Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku close together in a cluster, which automatically necessitates Jose Canas to help Ashley Williams, with Chico Flores occupied on the left-hand side by deeper Steven Pienaar and Oviedo.

This allowed Everton to attack the right-hand side, leaving Coleman as the outlet who was often unmarked – before he strode forward and powered in the opener, he had threatened a number of times with late darts into the box. Canas made a remarkable 13 recoveries (above) and two interceptions, the majority of them on the right-hand side, which demonstrates the work Barkley, Lukaku and Mirallas did – Barkley especially – down the right side. Everton’s defenders are profiting from the work of those in front; that coherency and synergy is a big part of Martinez’s style.

Stat #2: Cardiff had the most headed shots this weekend (6) and scored the only headed goal.

With Luis Suarez scoring 19 goals before a Christmas present has been unwrapped and Liverpool top of the table, there is nothing much to worry about for Brendan Rodgers.

Except his defence, that is – particularly the full-back positions, and particularly Glen Johnson. Though the majority of Cardiff’s chances were created from the left foot of Peter Whittingham standing over a dead ball, the corners and free-kicks conceded were symptomatic of a problem with Liverpool in recent months. The full-backs push high up the pitch, which allows space out wide; even when the full-backs are back in position, they allow crosses to be put into the box – Cardiff attempted 18 crosses with almost half of them successful.

Though Johnson’s position is slightly skewered (above) given he spent most of the second half at left back, he effectively acted as an attacking midfielder anyway. This left both Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho stretched at the back, although Lucas Leiva dropping in to effectively form a back three did help. Still, Johnson’s instruction to get forward relies on Lucas and one of Joe Allen or Jordan Henderson to cover against better sides.

Though the rhetoric of Johnson being unable to defend is lazy, there has certainly been a drop in standards in recent weeks. It is something that must be corrected with Manchester City and Chelsea to come.

Stat #3: No one created more goalscoring chances than Wayne Rooney in the PL this weekend (6) – all of Rooney’s were from open play, too.

The versatility of Wayne Rooney continues to astound. In the absence of Robin van Persie, expectation was that Rooney would reclaim his position as the main striker; instead, against West Ham, he effectively played central midfield alongside Tom Cleverley and controlled the game.

Rooney made 104 touches and attempted 81 passes, more than anybody else on the field. Even in a congested midfield, with Ravel Morrison, Mark Noble and Matthew Taylor (moving in-field from the right to try to help them) to work around, Rooney showed he can create as well as score.

His discipline (above) was probably most impressive. Knowing Danny Welbeck and Adnan Januzaj were combined well up front, and with Antonio Valencia and Rafael occupying the right-hand side, Rooney knew it was for him to sit slightly deeper and pick out the moving targets in front of him. He found Januzaj nine times, most of them in dangerous positions; he found Welbeck once, but it brought the first goal of the game; he also offered balls to Valencia seven times out wide. Maybe most interestingly of all, he passed to Jonny Evans more time than any other player (below), highlighting the maturity he displayed in midfield, knowing the difference between the right pass and the spectacular pass.

Stat #4: City were the only team to reach double figures for shots on target this weekend (10).

For those wondering how Manchester City will play without Sergio Aguero, wonder no more – at least when they play away to relegation-threatened sides, that is. The answer for Manuel Pellegrini is to simply do as they did before with Edin Dzeko instead of the Argentine maestro for the opening 58 minutes.

With Dzeko partnering Alvaro Negredo, there was a slight difference in that their role was limited more to occupying defenders and allowing the four behind them to play (above). Though both managed four shots – two on target apiece – neither scored, although Dzeko only had less than an hour to do so. Jesus Navas, brought on to stretch the play and allow a more structured 4-2-3-1, pushed back both John Arne Riise and Kieran Richardson, allowing more space for Samir Nasri, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho to operate in.

The trend of playing good players close together and asking them to intricately weave their way from defences continues. City managed 76 per cent passing accuracy in the opposition’s half; Toure touched the ball 89 times, with Silva and Fernandinho managing 79 and 77 respectively. Even Navas, on for just over half-an-hour, had 23 touches and made 10 from 11 passes successfully. Though City will miss Aguero’s goals, there is plenty elsewhere to keep their title challenge alive.

Stat #5: This is the first time Newcastle have kept back-to-back clean sheets on the road in the Premier League since September 2011.

Newcastle’s clean sheet at Selhurst Park was aided by Crystal Palace – of that there is no doubt. Tony Pulis’ side attempted more long balls than any other team in the division this weekend, nearly 22 per cent, which offered Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini to use their excellence in the air. Both did so, with Williamson winning 60 per cent of his aerial duels and Coloccini and impressive 75 per cent. They were helped by their full-backs Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy as well, with the back four managing 15 interceptions throughout the game.

But their 3-0 victory was not founded on head meeting leather alone. The defence had another task which was to ensure Newcastle’s best asset – the midfield – received the ball. If Palace had dictated the shape of the game, their long ball strategy would have bypassed Newcastle’s midfield. The trio of Yohan Cabaye, Vurnon Anita and Cheick Tiote are complimented by the industrious Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko. The defence were intelligent in possession (above), constantly stepping out of defence and retaining possession. Williamson (61), Coloccini (60) and Santon (61) all retained the ball, with the Argentine particularly economical with 91 per cent of the passes successful.

This allowed the two deeper players, Anita and Tiote, to sit and control the play (below) against a side who were deep and disjointed. They enjoyed 196 touches between them, with Tiote making 100 passes, 86 of them successful. But they had the defence to thank for not only keeping Palace out, but also handing control over to the Newcastle midfield.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

OFF THE BALL WITH ALAN TYERS

Headlines you won't read this week:

• Vincent Tan awarded freedom of the city of Cardiff

• Tim Sherwood: the future of football coaching

• Another quiet week for the forgotten, reclusive Luis Suarez

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Alternative analysis:

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Things we miss about the Premier League: Really, really bad teams

The last few years of the Premier League have seen a reduction in the number of weak teams, perhaps because the standard in the Championship has increased, perhaps because parachute payments have allowed classic yo-yo clubs to maintain a good level. In the last five years, the 20th placed team has scored a respectable 25, 25, 33, 28 (albeit with nine deducted) and 32 points. You have to go back to Derby County in 2007-2008 for the uncomfortable delights of a genuine whipping boy: the Rams managed just 11 points all season.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear leader of the week

He might not be too popular in Cardiff, but the folks back home in Malaysia sure do love themselves a bit of Vincent Tan. Or maybe it’s because he is paying them. Either way, if you have not seen the YouTube sensation “Vincent Tan's 60th Birthday Dedication by Staff” then you simply have must.

In it, employees at some of Mr Tan’s many Malaysian interests – he is a franchise owner of big-name fast-food chains, car dealerships, convenience stores, etc – sing (literally) the praises of the Cardiff owner in a big-band showstopper, the highlight being one middle-aged clerical worker dad-dancing and singing “We love him, we love him”.

No wonder he’s not used to having people disobey his orders, Malky

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Tweet of the week:

Twitter: Lord Sugar - Peter Crouch scores today for Stoke and his wife wins strictly. Bet they won't forget today in a hurry

Lord Sugar likes to keep us up to date on the football and TV news

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Quote of the weekend

Peter Crouch on his wife Abbey Clancy: “She’s miles better at dancing than me. I’ve only got the robot in my locker.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Glamour couple of the week

Look no further than Selhurst Park, where the musical duo of Sting and Jimmy Nail were present to cheer on their Newcastle boys and, who knows, to discuss Sting’s The Last Ship project, an album about Tyneside shipbuilders that he plans to turn into a musical. Not sure which would be more painful to watch: that or Palace.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Pitch invasion of the week

Is there any more enjoyable sight in football than a furry pitch invasion? Fans at Loftus Road were treated to a superb five minute Saturday scurry from a squirrel, which was eventually shooed off the pitch by David Nugent.

Harry Redknapp is understood to have rated the squirrel a “lovely little mover, triffic, we might be able to do a bit of business for ‘im in January but he wants a lot of nuts so we’ll ‘ave to see.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Challenging opinion of the week

“Unless Liverpool win the Premier League title there is a very good chance Suarez will still depart next summer,” wrote Stan Collymore in his Mirror newspaper column. Angry Liverpool fans, you know what to do.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Threat of the week

Alan Hansen, on Match of the Day, about his plans once he steps down from Match of The Day: “I’m going on Strictly, and in the jungle [for I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here’] and I am going to win them both.”