Lee Dixon: It's there in black and white: Newcastle show value of a clean sheet in gung-ho season

Pardew has a regular back four, which can actually reduce how much running you do – you know where your team-mates will be

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The Independent Online

It has been some start to the season, a quarter-season of surprises and enough goals to satisfy everybody (even an old defender). Before it began I had United as the team to beat again. There were question marks over Chelsea with the new manager arriving. There were question marks over how far City could push on and how quickly they could settle down as a team with their new players. Where would Arsenal be after losing those key players so late, and could Tottenham get back into the Champions League?

Now City have emerged as the team to beat. Just how well they have done has surprised me to an extent. With that squad of course they were going to be challenging but not even Roberto Mancini could have expected such a brilliant start – scoring six times at Old Trafford is not going to be forgotten in a hurry by players or fans. They have had controversy to deal with – Carlos Tevez and the odd Mario Balotelli moment – but on the pitch there is little that hasn't gone to plan.

City will have bad spots during the season, every team does, even Arsenal's Invincibles had times when they had to fight their way out of trouble. The dip will come and that will answer possibly the biggest remaining question about City – how they cope with adversity. How will the dressing room react when it gets tough and is the relationship with the manager strong enough to survive? Mancini likes things done a certain way in training and preparation and it is how that rigidity is received when results aren't going their way that will be so important.

That defeat at Old Trafford by the noisy neighbours was a slap in the face for United. They are not out of it but they must deal with those defensive frailties. The team Sir Alex Ferguson sent out at Everton last weekend and the way in which they played showed how conscious he is of the number of chances they are presenting to opponents. They need Nemanja Vidic. But United are far from alone in having worries at the heart of their defence. Chelsea and Arsenal also have issues to address there. Arsenal are emerging from the doldrums with a decent run of results although they are not there yet. The team need to improve their overall defensive mentality – that does not mean just the back four but the entire team.

So far, it's the usual suspects – and Tottenham and Liverpool will be there in the Champions League race as well – but the biggest surprise has been Alan Pardew and Newcastle. After Everton at home today they face successive trips to City and United and then host Chelsea. These games will severely test exactly how good they are and if they can take points from them then they can justifiably look to claim a European place come the end of the season.

There has been a suggestion they are in a false position because of the opposition they have faced but I don't agree. Ten games unbeaten can't be knocked and their result at Stoke on Monday was fantastic. Pardew deserves enormous credit for what he has achieved in what is a tough place to manage. He has built a solid side, they are tight at the back, have Cheick Tioté and Yohan Cabaye excelling in the centre of midfield and have a striker in form in Demba Ba. But it is what has happened at the back that is the key – Newcastle have conceded seven goals in their 10 games, one fewer than City and half as many as Tottenham. A large part of the reason for that solidity is consistency of selection.

Pardew has settled on a regular back four in front of a sound keeper in Tim Krul. You can get away with things if you aren't chopping and changing. The back four I was part of at Arsenal may not have been the four best individual players. There were more dynamic left-backs than Nigel Winterburn and more flamboyant right-backs than myself but when you play together week after week in matches and on the training ground you develop a complete understanding. It can actually reduce the amount of running you have to do on the pitch by a third because you know exactly where your team-mates will be and where you need to be.

Pardew lost a huge amount of talent over the last few months; Jose Enrique was his best defender, Kevin Nolan his best attacking midfielder and Andy Carroll his best attacker. But he has rebuilt remarkably well and I can't stress how impressive they were at Stoke.

Newcastle aren't the only team to have done better than expected. The three teams that came up all have the potential to stay up, something that has only happened once in the Premier League. Swansea have built a good home record – they've let in one goal in five games. Norwich have been willing to have a go, no matter who they are playing, and QPR bought well and can do so again in January. In a way Norwich's positive approach reflects the season so far – it's all about attack. And that has made it great to watch – even for old defenders.

Five Asides

1 Decades in the game and I have never spoken to Fergie


A Football Focus camera crew came round this week collecting tributes for Sir Alex Ferguson for today's programme. What can you say? He deserves all the plaudits coming his way – I find his enthusiasm after all these years in the game remarkable. The funny thing is that after all the years I have been in and around the game – and for all the times that Arsenal faced his United sides – I have never spoken to Fergie. Not once. Maybe now that Match of the Day has moved up to Manchester I can pop round to Old Trafford and introduce myself.


2 Rooney, like all the greats, can play in any position


It may be 25 years and counting but Sir Alex is still coming up with fresh ideas. In midweek it was playing Wayne Rooney in midfield. In part, it is a sign of where United are in central midfield, and given the options they have up front in Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov, there are occasions where it might not be a bad option. I always reckon that the very top players can play well in most positions. Rooney looked good there and he has the skills, he's a great passer, he has vision, can create and if he has an anchorman alongside him he can drive forward from there as well.



3 Bolton's patience with Coyle contrasts with Kean unrest


It is odd the way it can work in management. Bolton Wanderers have had a shocker so far this season, not only losing but getting thumped and there's barely a raised voice over Owen Coyle's position. Blackburn Rovers have the same number of points but have not been playing that badly and Steve Kean is the subject of regular protest from the fans.


4 They say never go back but O'Neill must manage return


On the subject of management it will be interesting to see whether Martin O'Neill comes back into the game with his old club Leicester City. I never think it is a good idea to go back but he may feel he has been out of it for long enough. By this stage of the season you would normally expect a Premier League job to have become available but so far there have been no sackings which may prompt O'Neill to make his comeback in the Championship.


5 Match of the Day heads to Manchester with a Neville


Tomorrow I'm on the train up to Manchester for the first Match of the Day 2 from our new studio. We've been promised a new set and will have Phil Neville, who is a good talker on the game, alongside me to try out the new sofa.



Lee Dixon's verdict on all the Premier League action

Newcastle v Everton

Odds Home 5-4; Draw 9-4, Away 23-10.

Kick-off Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Alan Pardew is without Gabriel Obertan as his Newcastle side seek to go second. The midfielder misses out with an infection and could be replaced by Sylvain Marveaux. Cheick Tioté is a doubt and Shola Ameobi remains out. Everton have Marouane Fellaini suspended, but Royston Drenthe returns from suspension. Phil Neville, Sylvain Distin and Tim Cahill will have late fitness tests.

Arsenal v West Brom

Odds Home 2-5; Draw 7-2, Away 15-2.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Robin van Persie will return to the starting line-up after being rested for the midweek draw with Marseilles. Marouane Chamakh, Kieran Gibbs, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna remain out. West Bromwich are without Paul Scharner (knee), while Peter Odemwingie faces a late test on the same ailment. Shane Long remains out with his own knee injury as the Baggies look to repeat last season's 3-2 success at the Emirates.

Aston Villa v Norwich

Odds Home 5-6; Draw 5-2, Away 7-2.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Barry Bannan is available again for Aston Villa after serving a club suspension following his arrest for drink-driving. Midfield colleague Jermaine Jenas is also in the squad after recovering from thigh and calf injuries. Eric Lichaj (hip) is out. Paul Lambert has no fresh worries for his Norwich side, with Grant Holt again pressing for a recall to the starting line-up. Zak Whitbread (hamstring), James Vaughan, Elliott Ward and Daniel Ayala (all knee) are out.

Blackburn v Chelsea

Odds Home 13-2; Draw 100-30, Away 4-9.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Blackburn have no fresh concerns and are unlikely to make any changes after good displays in the last two matches against Newcastle and Norwich. David Dunn (calf) is back in the squad while Junior Hoilett is fit. Didier Drogba remains suspended for Chelsea following last month's red card at QPR, while Hilario is out with flu. John Obi Mikel (back) returns to contention, while captain John Terry is also expected to feature.

Liverpool v Swansea

Odds Home 2-7; Draw 9-2, Away 9-1.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Steven Gerrard misses out for Liverpool with an ankle infection, with Jordan Henderson again set to deputise for his England colleague. Defender Jamie Carragher has a chance of featuring and will undergo a late fitness check after missing last week's win at West Bromwich with a calf injury. Swansea welcome back Kemy Agustien from a hamstring injury, but Stephen Dobbie (ankle) remains a week away from fitness.

Man United v Sunderland

Odds Home 1-4; Draw 9-2, Away 12-1.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Nemanja Vidic returns for Manchester United, but Michael Owen (thigh) has joined Ashley Young (toe), Ryan Giggs (hamstring), Chris Smalling (foot) and Tom Cleverley (ankle) on the treatment table. David Vaughan (groin) is doubtful for Sunderland, with Lee Cattermole standing by. Keiren Westwood makes his first league start after Simon Mignolet was ruled out for eight weeks with facial injuries, while John O'Shea (hamstring) is also out.

QPR v Manchester City

Odds Home 9-1; Draw 4-1, Away 1-3.

Kick-off Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1 10.30pm)

Team news Neil Warnock has a number of injury problems for tonight's visit of the league leaders, with Shaun Derry (groin), Akos Buzsaky (Achilles), Rob Hulse (knee) and D J Campbell (foot) all missing, while Adel Taarabt is a doubt. Kieron Dyer may return from a foot injury. Manchester City are without the suspended Vincent Kompany, while David Silva is doubtful with a back injury. Owen Hargreaves could make the squad but Carlos Tevez is unlikely to be involved.

Wolves v Wigan

Odds Home 10-11; Draw 23-10, Away 100-30.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2 10pm)

Team news Steven Fletcher has returned to training after missing the last three league matches with a calf problem, but Mick McCarthy will make a late decision on whether to include him. Jamie O'Hara (knee) and midfielder Stephen Hunt (back) are expected to feature. Wigan await updates on Mohamed Diame (ankle), but captain Gary Caldwell is suspended after reaching five bookings.

Bolton v Stoke

Odds Home 7-5; Draw 9-4, Away 2-1.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 2 10pm)

Team news Ricardo Gardner is suspended for Bolton after his red card at Swansea, so Paul Robinson is likely to return. Owen Coyle has no fresh injury concerns other than the long-term absentees Tyrone Mears, Lee Chung-yong, Stuart Holden, Sean Davis and Sam Ricketts, Stoke will make changes from the trip to Maccabi Tel Aviv, with Ryan Shawcross, Marc Wilson, Cameron Jerome and Jonathan Woodgate in contention to return.

Fulham v Tottenham

Odds Home 11-5; Draw 23-10, Away 5-4.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Damien Duff could retain his place ahead of Mousa Dembélé after impressing against Wisla Krakow. Aaron Hughes (thigh) misses out, along with Philippe Senderos, Simon Davies and Orlando Sa. William Gallas is pushing for a first league start of the season after returning against Rubin Kazan, Luka Modric is expected to recover from a groin injury but Roman Pavlyuchenko (back) is a doubt.