Swamp or Stew: Manchester City 0—Arsenal 3
Manchester City may be the ingredients for a fine soup or the slag roaring in a swamp.
This fixture last season was notorious for its theatre. By contrast, this year may be known for an equal lack of drama. The troublesome presence of Emmanuel Adebayor no longer resonates, the memory of his tactless move to Manchester City now truly irrelevant. Any effort at reconstitution was contained by the visitors who arrived in Manchester to conduct the business transaction of beating their host, whose ascendancy, through a conspicuous display of financial power, presents the greatest threat to the supremacy of the established top four.
A year on, and City’s inferiority turned perceived equal, has altered the nature and genre of the match, which should have contributed to a new dramatic arc. Arsenal’s business-minded approach was not the preferred approach for the neutral, but Arsenal’s focus, mettle, and clinically sober attitude cannot be pinned to the conservative and flat quality of matches often involving City.
Dedryck Boyata’s 4th-minute red card—a clear foul on Marouane Chamakh just beyond the penalty box— meant that a 10-man City would be forced to play the subsequent 86 minutes from its shell. The change of course visibly upset Roberto Mancini, but there is a grain of truth to estimating the red card’s minimal impact, given that City, even in the best of circumstances, have yet this season to leave the strategic security of their conservatism.
Mancini’s protestation of the sending-off proved thin; any implied contentiousness surrounding the red card was a misguided effort to cope with an unfortunate event so early in the match. The City manager claimed that the ball was pushed too far forward to qualify as a definitive scoring chance. The foul, occurring simultaneously with Chamakh’s last touch, sent the striker tumbling to the ground as the ball rolled toward City goalkeeper Joe Hart, hemMed to his line. Mancini’s evidence was too hypothetical to disprove either Boyata’s position or the clarity of infraction. Hart’s reticence to come out of goal could have given Chamakh a chance to gain possession. Nonetheless, the dismissal was unfortunate for the young Belgian defender; circumstances had provided a rare start and opportunity to prove his value in a squad abundant with established seniors.
The significance of the early red card has been made the culprit for the game’s failure to entertain. In any number of fixtures, the turn of events would upset competitive balance, but not when it comes to a City team who have a defense comprised of Kolo Toure, Micah Richards, Jerome Boateng, Wayne Bridge, Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, and Pablo Zabaleta—a beefy and self-sufficient defensive unit often protected by a midfield deploying three holding players. If there is any defense capable of coping with ten men, minimizing the handicap, and resisting the match’s devaluation, it is this configuration of seven defensive-minded players with England’s No. 1 behind them. At times, their full-strength posture is not all that different than playing a man down.
Arsenal breached City fifteen minutes later through a sharp sequence of passing finished stylishly by Samir Nasri, whose goal celebrations are led by his tongue. Arsenal had a chance to extend the lead when Cesc Fábregas was fouled in the penalty box by Vincent Kompany, but the Arsenal captain’s penalty shot was poor and saved by Hart.
The first half was feisty, characterized by unrestrained challenges and hard tackles, which resulted in five yellow cards, but not one of the intimidating efforts compromised either team. City had good scoring chances before the red card, and as the half wore on, created a couple more out almost nothing but Tevezian hard work. The half time score of 1-0 was a little surprising as a result, unless City’s defensive identity and 10-man tactical neutralization is taken into account.
The second half witnessed a continued resilience of City’s defense until Arsenal finally scored a second goal in the 66th minute. There were no signs of capitulation before the second goal and nothing apparent after. City’s “boring” conservatism is also a sign of unbending strength. A feeling that City would not find a way back was finally confirmed two minutes from time, when substitute Nicklas Bendtner made it 3-0.
This is the type of goal that marks the early arrival of certain outcome, where commentators announce through various short iterations that the three points have been assigned—[Team X] put the match "beyond reach", “[Team X] takes three points back to [home city, neighborhood, or name of training ground]”, or “[manager, supporters, players, a player who screwed up earlier now receiving absolution] can now rest easy”.
This is the goal that rarely sees a celebratory pile-up, the striker knee-slide to the corner, or goal scorer running in a sign wave faking-out or throwing-off teammates’ attempted tackles and grabs. The goal that puts the winning team at ease receives a muted recognition, celebrated with half-hugs, pats on the cheek, or mussed hair. Arsenal’s work was done.
The ease and uncharacteristic speed at which Bendtner sliced through the City defense could be argued down to 10-man City’s fatigue after 80+ minutes initiated by the red card, but then the sending-off could be responsible for influencing only the final quarter of the match. Regardless of this delayed influence, it was again City’s defensive constitution that should bear more of the blame for the game’s deficiency as entertainment or barometer of the title race.
City’s catenaccio-inspired mindset could not call upon an ability to effectively use neutralization as a pragmatic strategy to grind out the draw. For all its steel and organization, they do not yet possess the constitution—whether from a lack of strategic cohesion or an overriding conservatism that stifles the will to take risks— that sees the circumstances of a man down, at home, as an opportunity to reorganize and make circumstances advantageous. Watching Carlos Tevez work magic from scant material is alchemy and not a substitute strategy for a 10-man defense with timely counter-attack.
While the match may not have lived up to expectations, it revealed traits in both teams that likely would not have been expressed otherwise. Arsenal, with the fixture’s recent memory distant and kept unrevived, and with a self-identity further galvanized by seeing it’s opposite up close, was focused simply on a task to be soberly carried out by a well-practiced set of operations—a clinical Arsenal of even keel that must make the most out of the advantage. As for City, the defensive foundation upon which the club pursues a top four finish may only take them once again to fifth.
For a team whose success is found in rapid assemblage of high-end objects, it may be time to take what is at hand and consider that it too is being built from the ground up, that there is something to learn beyond the simple familiarity with a teammates reputation and achievements.