Liverpool and Arsenal lift as Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck return
There was plenty to grab fans' attention on arguably the most exciting weekend in one of the most exciting Premier League seasons in years, including late goals, surprise results and embarrassing thrashings. Perhaps one of the most notable developments was the return of two English strikers who have been absent for much or all of the season so far.
For Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, it wasn't Daniel Sturridge's goal that was particularly encouraging. After all, it's not worth getting especially excited over a free header against the worst team in the division during a game in which Aston Villa seemed to lose its last whiffs of spirit and motivation. It was more Sturridge's simple presence on the pitch, a sight that has been all too rare in the three years since the England striker arrived at Anfield.
Since they signed Sturridge in January of 2013, Liverpool have played 163 games and Sturridge has appeared in just 75. It must have been tempting to simply cut their losses on a player whose health kept him out of more than half their games, and one whose own manager has hinted that his problems might be psychological as much as physical. The obvious reason they kept him is that when he's fit, Sturridge is about as close to a guaranteed goal-scorer as it's possible to get in the Premier League, finding the net 45 times in those 75 appearances (only 60 of which have been starts).
"He's a real striker," said Klopp after the Villa game, but you can see why the German might admire Sturridge for more than just his scoring abilities. His movement, most significantly displayed when he was up front with Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez in 2013-14, is superb, pulling defenders this way and that to create space in which Liverpool's other attackers can flourish.
Philippe Coutinho also returned at Villa Park, and his reunion with Roberto Firmino and even Adam Lallana gives Liverpool a front four offering pace and unpredictability, an attacking lineup that most Premier League defences would find it virtually impossible to keep track of. Perhaps it's too late for Coutinho to make a substantive impact on Liverpool's league chances, but his return is clearly encouraging.
The benefit of having Sturridge back is obvious. Daniel Welbeck being fit and available for Arsenal doesn't have quite as big an impact as Sturridge's return has for Liverpool, if only because the former Manchester United man has a relatively modest scoring record compared to his England colleague. Welbeck has scored nine times in 35 appearances since arriving in London in 2014, but of course it's that second number that is concerning but seemingly inevitable for Arsenal.
There are many reasons for the Gunners' 12-year title drought, but one constant has been key players' unavailability due to injury, including Robin van Persie, Jack Wilshere and even Abou Diaby, who was a potentially superb player on the incredibly rare occasions he was on the pitch. Injuries took their toll year after year, but the team passed the point where it could all be blamed on bad luck some years ago. This season hasn't been much different, with Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin (among others) spending significant periods of time on the sidelines.
Welbeck doesn't fall into the category of "key" players, but he does provide an option for the Gunners, something a little different to their other forwards. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have their limitations, as does Welbeck, but while none of the three should necessarily be considered as world-class forwards on their own, when they combine, this trio offers a threatening array of capabilities.
This is a wide-open title race. The top three sides (Leicester, Spurs and Arsenal) are currently separated by two points, and all have obvious strengths and equally apparent weaknesses. That of course makes the race hugely entertaining, but it also means that, from the perspective of the teams involved, any small advantage is crucial. Any additional option -- like, for example, someone to get on the end of a cross in the closing minutes of a game against title rivals -- becomes more and more important.
The concern when Welbeck was signed was that he was just good enough to keep Wenger from buying another, genuinely top-class centre-forward but not good enough to be a significant upgrade on what they already had. What Arsenal needed was a clear improvement on Giroud, but despite his extra pace and positional flexibility, Welbeck is not that. He is, however, a valuable alternative, a useful player to have. He is perhaps an example of marginal gains, the theory that every little bit of extra work in training or preparation can add up to the difference between first and second place.
Welbeck might not be the man to make a massive difference for Arsenal, but he can make enough of a difference. His last-gasp goal against Leicester on Sunday certainly showed that.
This season is so tight that those marginal gains seem a little less marginal than in previous campaigns. Welbeck is hardly the man to inspire a marauding Arsenal run that will see them outstrip Leicester and Tottenham, and he will not have the same impact on his side as Sturridge will, but his return should still be welcomed.
Arsenal and Liverpool need all the help they can get this season, and the return to fitness of this pair can still make a definite difference in an unpredictable season.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.