The Premier League: Arsenal vs Manchester City
But what of Arsenal and Manchester City, though? Last Monday night at West Ham, they were abject for the first forty-five minutes and outstanding for the second. It was a win that ended their longest run of games without one since 1977. The first half performance was completely in keeping with what Arsenal have been like this season, the second was more like the erotic fantasies of the regular knee-jerkers of AFTV. Guessing which face of this Mayor of Christmastown will turn up always feels like a bit of a fool’s errand, but it’s usually been the former, lately.
Manchester City, meanwhile, are undergoing what constitutes a “crisis” in their world, presumably alongside global shortages of ivory back-scratchers and three month delays for Bentleys. They’ve lost two of their last five league matches and four overall this season. Last weekend, they were picked apart in the first half hour with surgical precision by an uncharacteristically energetic Manchester United. The rest of the Premier League believes that it has caught a scent of their soft, yellow underbelly, and is pushing that centrally defensive weak spot with greater urgency than they used to.
And Pep Guardiola has worn the mildly haunted face of a man whose time at this club might be coming to an end. Ever since he was memed to within an inch of his life after last month’s 3-1 defeat at Liverpool, his team has lost the silky veneer that they’ve been wearing for the last couple of years. Leicester City, quietly and impressively grinding out results, edged above them in the Premier League table. Only the fact that Chelsea’s recent form has been even more patchy than theirs of late has prevented them from slipping still further.
It’s a familiar cycle of questions in the Premier League at the moment. When should clubs stick or twist on managers in the middle of a season? Is it enough to be a “legend” and little else in order to manage a club at this level of the game? How wilfully ignorant and reckless might it be to follow such a policy in a multi-billion pound business? It’s almost as though the other clubs if the Premier League have come together to try and devalue Liverpool’s first Premier League title in three decades by wearing clown shoes for every match.
By half-time, we had most of the answer that we were looking for. Manchester City cut through the Arsenal defence like a hot knife through Primula three times in the first forty-five minutes, the first in just ninety seconds, and with the Arsenal defence still finishing their pre-match quail’s eggs, the second after fifteen minutes, as they went for their ablutions ahead of their morning constitutional, and a third just before half-time, as they slipped on their monocle and checked the state of the Empire in The Thunderer. Such a carefree existence.
Manchester City, meanwhile, were all gleaming, snarling efficiency. Kevin De Bruyne sidefoots the ball into the roof of the goal before half the crowd have got themselves sat down. BOOM. De Bruyne side-foots it across for Raheem Sterling to roll the ball in with a look of mild puzzlement on his face. BLAM. De Bruyne again, hastening the exits in the direction of half-time alcohol to soothe the pain. KABLOOEY.
Three-nil at half-time, and Manchester City are good value for the lead. Kevin De Bruyne, that blank slate of a football who it is impossible to get too angry with, has killed the game stone dead with half of it still play, like an asp appearing half-way through Antony & Cleopatra. He’s beautiful to watch, all poise, elegance, intelligence, and that sort of consistent brilliance that makes doing something extremely difficult look extremely easy. Arsenal’s central defence look like Steptoe & Son and their horse, Hercules, by comparison, and only a spectacular Bernd Leno saves prevents a first-half-hat-trick.
The half-time booing is somewhat tempered by the fact that about two-thirds of the seats look empty by the time the referee blows the whistle. The match is over as a contest, and we all know it. Manchester City’s game management instinct kicks in and they kill it stone dead, ocassionally pushing towards the edge of the Arsenal penalty area like a cat playing with a mouse before devouring it. Arsenal keep going. They kind of have to. But there are points during this second half that feel like The Night Before Christmas. All through the Arsenal midfield not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. When the final whistle came, there was little sound. There were few left inside the ground to make it. m
Perhaps Arsenal actually are undergoing a thorough global search in order to bring one of the world’s most respected coaches to the club in order to completely rebuild their playing side. Perhaps a list of new signings to be made in the January transfer window in order to sturdify a team with the heart of a budgerigar and the spine of a domestic rabbit. Or perhaps they aren’t, and they’re just hoping that Ljungberg because, well, wouldn’t that be sweet if the new manager turned out to be a club legend who was agreeably cheap?
Manchester City, meanwhile, have snapped back to life after last week, but having seen this afternoon’s match as well as last Saturday’s, it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that Manchester City’s game is determined by how bothered the other team can be at any point. Last weekend, Manchester United’s clearly inferior group of players managed to get some fire into their bellies and made City look distinctly moderate. This afternoon, Arsenal didn’t really look as though they could really be bothered, and consequently, Kevin De Bruyne could run amok. It almost isn’t even funny any more.