LONDON (Reuters) - With a squad that was derided for being short on quality by frustrated fans in pre-season, Arsenal, who host Norwich City on Saturday, have surprised many by surging to the top of the Premier League table.
The foundation on which their strong start has been built is their burgeoning midfield ranks, recently boosted by the arrival of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid and Mathieu Flamini, who rejoined the club after leaving AC Milan at the end of his contract.
These two have joined Aaron Ramsey, who is fulfilling the promise he showed before breaking his leg in 2010, classy playmaker Santi Cazorla, England's Jack Wilshere and Czech Tomas Rosicky in battling for limited starting places.
"When you look at teams like Barcelona, their midfield has always been the most important part of their game so hopefully Arsenal will be very similar," former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour, who won three Premier League titles with them, told the club website (www.arsenal.com)
"It's looking very strong, no matter who starts. There is so much depth in the midfield with Mikel Arteta, Mathieu - who has been a great signing - Ozil, Jack Wilshere, (Alex) Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cazorla - so it's a real headache for the manager.
"Aaron Ramsey's been the player of the season so far, he's been superb with the goals he's scored but the whole midfield are very adaptive now."
After losing their opening league match 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsenal were revitalised by the signing of Ozil on deadline day, and are unbeaten in the 11 matches they have played since.
The German, who joined from Real Madrid for a club record 42 million pounds in a rare show of financial muscle from their naturally cautious manager Arsene Wenger, has handed the north Londoners a huge psychological boost.
"Assists lead to success and I'm the sort of player that likes to create goals," Ozil said.
"I think a lot of my team mates know me as a player who is not selfish. It makes me very happy when I create goals or score goals myself. But the most important thing is that the team reaches its goal and plays positive football."
Arsenal are top on goals scored from Liverpool, who travel to Newcastle United (1145) on Saturday, a fixture they won 6-0 last season.
The Merseysiders are starting to see a fruitful partnership developing between strikers Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez after the latter returned from a 10-game suspension.
They have scored five goals between them in the last two matches and club record scorer Ian Rush feels Suarez's game will bring out the best in his forward partner.
"I think Sturridge may get a few more goals because of the way Suarez plays; he'll help Sturridge a bit more with his experience," Rush said.
"They are both great players, world-class players and world-class players can play with anyone. I like the way Suarez does it - he looks at Sturridge and plays off him and around him.
"You can see them trying to bring each other into the game now, the partnership is working really well and they are full of confidence. They have both got so much ability."
Manchester United are six points adrift of the leaders having lost three of their opening seven matches but a win over Sunderland before the international break handed manager David Moyes breathing space.
They now have the perfect opportunity to build momentum with four successive home games in different competitions, starting at home to Southampton on Saturday (1400).
While strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie will hope to continue the goalscoring form they showed on the international break for England and the Netherlands, it is at the back where United have looked vulnerable this season.
After conceding nine goals in the league, they face a tricky task in shutting out Southampton who have stunned many by rising to fourth, two points off the lead, after three victories in a row.
Chelsea, in third, host Cardiff City, Everton entertain Hull City (both 1400) and Manchester City travel to West Ham United (1630) on Saturday.
Stoke City host West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City play bottom side Sunderland.
Tottenham Hotspur (1500) in sixth will try to rebound from their disappointing 3-0 defeat by West Ham, away at Aston Villa on Sunday. Crystal Palace host Fulham on Monday (1900).