Five thoughts from Saturday's Premier League action:
1. The center of attention. As his Arsenal contract dribbles to its end, Theo Walcott has been trying to use his leverage to make the move to central striker.
As Christmas and the transfer window approach, Walcott now has his wish. For the second game in a row, he started as central striker for Arsenal, this time at Wigan. He had scored a late goal in a rout at Reading in midweek. This was tougher.
Arsène Wenger has a reputation for unlocking talent. Walcott is clearly a talent. Yet as the seventh anniversary of his arrival at Arsenal approaches, he has never been fully unlocked.
If Walcott succeeds as a central striker, Wenger can take the credit. If he fails, then it might discourage other suitors who might drive up the price. Of course, if Walcott fails, it also means Arsenal won't be scoring. That is why the switch also tells us a lot about what Wenger thinks of all the other players he has bought in recent years to score goals. Olivier Giroud, who was reportedly fit again, and Marouane Chamakh weren't even in the squad. Gervinho was on the bench. Lukas Podolski was again playing an anonymous hybrid midfield role that serves to keep him a long way from goal almost all the time.
The problem with assessing Walcott on one game is that he spent Saturday isolated. His new role did allow him to stand around in the rain while all his teammates kept warm, running around like crazy. He forced one good save from Ali-Al Habsi, whiffed on another chance and had a shot blocked. Yet Walcott's decisive contribution came, but of course, when he was forced onto the right wing in pursuit of a wild pass from Kieran Gibbs. As he cut back into the area, like a true winger, Jean Beausejour made contact. Walcott fell. Arsenal had a penalty. Mikel Arteta converted and that was the difference in a 1-0 victory.
Roberto Martínez, the Wigan manager, complained that Walcott had been allowed to "buy a penalty."
Saturday didn't prove that Walcott can play as a central striker. It only confirmed that Wenger is prepared to play him there in preference to anyone else.
2. Same old City. After 92 minutes in the Manchester rain the statistics made remarkable reading. City, the champion, had enjoyed 73 percent of time of possession and had 21 goal attempts. Yet Reading, the bottom club, was clinging to a goal-less draw.
Then City did what it has developed a reputation for doing. Two minutes into added time Gareth Barry scored. City won, 1-0. So, business as usual at the Ettihad: City wins and closes the gap on United to three points, at least for 24 hours. Reading remains last.
Told by a BBC interviewer that his team had shown patience, Roberto Mancini, the City manager, laughed sarcastically in a way that suggested that he was losing his.
"In this game you should be patient," Mancini said between derisive snorts. "But you have a chance and you don't score and then you have a chance and you don't score, you have a problem.
"You need to score quickly in this game."
Every manager likes the occasional easy, low-stress victory. What must have been most worrisome for Mancini was that despite all its pressure and all its shots, City had managed only two attempts on target before Barry scored. City has made a habit of winning late, but in a title race any slip is potentially fatal. The inability to kill off opponents has already cost City points.
For Reading, the result was both fair and cruel. It desperately needs a result that proves it can compete in the Premier League. It has scared United and Chelsea and Arsenal (in the league cup) and now City, but it has lost to all of them.
Brian McDermott, the manager, tried to pass the blame for the defeat from his players to the referee.
"That goal is just wrong," he said "It's an absolute certain foul."
3. The lion in winter. At 32 years old and after more than 700 games, Steven Gerrard is not quite the non-stop athlete he once was. He prefers to walk when he can, prowling midfield with the rolling gait of an old heavyweight as cuts down the angles and seeks out openings.
On Saturday in the December rain, Gerrard showed he still has a quick mind and quick feet as he orchestrated a 4-0 victory by Liverpool over Fulham. He may not run all the time, but he can run when the time is right. Fulham, which floated like a butterfly and stung like one too, might have been the ideal foe. It could not stop Gerrard doing as he pleased in central midfield.
Gerrard was given an assist for the opening goal because he took the wicked out-swinging corner from which Martin Skrtel scored. Gerrard then burst behind the defense to collect a clever pass from Stewart Downing and finish with cool certainty.
Most of all Gerrard showed the quality of his passing. Often all he does is make the obvious pass. He just makes it faster and more accurate than almost any other midfielder in the Premier League. In the 50th minute, Gerrard clearly knew what he was going to do before he received the ball, switching it rapidly to Downing on the right. Downing didn't have to check to wait for the pass or stretch to reach it. There was no chance for the defenders to close. Instead the pass presented Downing with the initiative and an invitation to cut inside. That is what he did, smashing in a shot for Liverpool's third.
Gerrard's performance, so cool and so dominant, was a reminder of why he was the greatest English player of his generation and why, as Frank Lampard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand fade, he remains the leader of the national team.
4. Avoiding the ax at Christmas. It's a tradition of British soccer that the festive season is a time of fear. The one thing Santa brings club managers at Christmas is the sack.
That might explain some of noise that's been emanating from dugouts this month. Martin O'Neill at Sunderland and Wenger at Arsenal both declared they were the only people to manage their clubs. Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool talked of a top two a finish before revising his forecast to top four. Rafa Benítez even declared that even if things don't work out at Chelsea, well, he was top of the list to replace Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid. Mourinho, the master of the self-promoting quote, quickly told Benítez to shut up.
On Saturday, after losing in Manchester, McDermott, the Reading manager, insisted on looking back to last year, when Reading was sixth in the Championship and insist it was amazing the club was in the Premier League at all. (The unspoken message was: "I'm the guy who got you here, even if I'm now going to take you straight back down.")
Managers have cause to be fearful. Every Premier League club will play four games between Saturday and Jan. 2. That's 12 potential points to chase in a brutally compressed schedule. If things go wrong, a season can spin out of control in barely a week.
Three clubs (Manchester United, Swansea and Aston Villa) will play four games in just 10 days from Sunday to Jan. 1. The schedule also presents several teams with two consecutive away games. Tottenham goes to Aston Villa on Jan 26 and follows that with the long trip to Sunderland three days later. Newcastle goes to Old Trafford on Boxing Day and then all the way to London to play Arsenal on the Jan 29.
Happy was the under-pressure manager who headed back from a long trip Saturday with three points. David Moyes, whose Everton won at West Ham, was always safe. So, of course, was Wenger, who won at Wigan. But O'Neill could start looking beyond Christmas as it finished its longest road trip of the season with a 1-0 victory over relegation rival Southampton. "To get three points on the board gives us a chance over Christmas," he told the BBC.
5. Wielding the ax at Christmas. One manager who probably does not have to worry about being axed at Xmas is Harry Redknapp. He only took over at Queen's Park Rangers in Nov. 24 and the club was at bottom already.
Nevertheless, Harry has been fired often enough to know that it's never too early to start building up credit with the fans and making clear what a tough job you face. He also needs to convince owner Tony Fernandes to open his wallet again in the transfer window. Plus it's not a bad idea to change the subject after your team has lost 1-0 to a late goal at Newcastle.
That doesn't mean Harry doesn't have a point when he starts talking about taking the metaphorical ax to some of his layers.
"There are a lot of players at this club who earn far too much money," he said. "Far too much for their ability and what they give to the club.
"I don't really want to see the owners have their pants taken down like they have in the past."
"I fined a player last week and he was earning more than any player earned at Tottenham. You shouldn't be paying massive wages when you've got a stadium that holds 18,000 people."
The player was José Bosingwa, who refused to accept his demotion to the bench against Fulham last week,
"He has been fined two weeks' wages, £130,000. Not too bad for two weeks -- decent isn't it?"
Redknapp has never been averse to spending an owner's money.
"We have got to try to improve a little bit in the transfer window," he said.
How much is Redknapp earning? About the same as Bosingwa: a reported £3 million a year. Harry will also collect a £1 million bonus if QPR stays in the Premier League.