Subpar opposing defense helps Manchester clubs excel
In 1968, Manchester City won the league and a few days later Manchester United won the European Cup. In May, City won the FA Cup; later the same afternoon, United won the league. It was typical of the relationship between the Manchester clubs that after City had thumped one north London team 5-1 on Sunday, United went and thrashed the other one 8-2. Of more concern to the Premier League and football in general, though, is what Sunday said about the relationship between the Manchester clubs and everybody else.
Is this -- it was only natural to wonder -- a sign of things to come? In
Spending power makes a huge difference, of course it does, although the anger and shock some fans seem to be feeling rather ignores the fact that certain clubs have always had more money than others. The figures are bigger now, but this was the road English football set itself upon when the sharing of gate receipts was abolished in 1981. What's truly shocking in that regard is that Arsenal makes more in match-day revenue in two games than Sunderland makes in a whole season; if finances were the only issue then, on the basis of Sunday's results, double-figure scores are going to become commonplace at Old Trafford this season.
Of course they won't, because other teams will go to Old Trafford and defend properly. One of the great strengths of football is that it is possible for a weaker team, through diligence and sensible tactics, to thwart a stronger side. The very greatest games may feature two strong sides tearing into each other, but there's a large section on the next level down of the pantheon that essentially consists of one team trying to stop the other from playing. The routs were caused by the losing teams engaging the Manchester sides in open firefights. For Tottenham, as the home side, perhaps that wasn't too culpable; Arsenal, significantly weakened by injuries, sales and suspensions, with morale low and confidence shaky, surely had to put idealism aside and adopt guerrilla tactics.
In some ways, City's performance was the more impressive. Tottenham clearly isn't in peak shape at the moment, but it has hammered Heart of Midlothian 5-0 away this season in the Europa League, and competed well away at United for 70 minutes or so. Harry Redknapp's decision to pair Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar in the center left Spurs without a ball-winner in midfield, a problem magnified by the fact that Modric -- at least if Redknapp's post-match comments are to be believed -- didn't want to play at all as he seeks a move to Chelsea. The fact that Chelsea is reportedly prepared to treble Modric's wages, of course, itself is a direct indication of the impact of spending power.
To an extent Redknapp's hand was forced by injuries, but where he has to take responsibility is in his failure to counter the man advantage City, playing a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid, had in the center of midfield. The first half, in fact, was a classic example of what happens when three in central midfield meet two: City came to dominate the ball, while Spurs looked dangerous on the occasions it got the ball wide. City took its chances -- helped by some sloppy defending from Younes Kaboul -- and, as so often, goals changed the dynamic of the game.
For City, two things stood out. Firstly, it didn't just play with great fluidity; it had an aerial option as well. Edin Dzeko is a player who has puzzled a string of coaches -- at every club he's been at, his first season has been unremarkable -- and there is an ungainliness about him that makes fans and pundits suspicious. He is certainly not a darter, or a deep-lying creator, but neither is he an out-and-out target man capable of clattering through defenders in the manner of, say, Niall Quinn or Jan Koller. Rather he is a hybrid, somebody who offers a blend of physicality and movement; he adds a physical presence to City's forward line without costing them much in the way of fluidity.
Secondly, it has issues defensively, something to which Roberto Mancini made reference after the game. In four matches -- including the Community Shield -- this season, City has scored 14 goals, but it has also conceded six. It's not a major issue yet, but Spurs missed chances early in Sunday's game and, on the balance of the game, Bolton should never have been allowed to get within one goal of City. The fluency of City this season has been wonderful to watch, but Mancini admitted that a little of last season's solidity needs to return.
Arsene Wenger protested that every shot United had in the first half went in, which was fair up to a point. Ashley Young doesn't curl in 25-yarders every week. That was only the third free-kick Wayne Rooney had scored for United. That they both then repeated their goals in the second half, though, rather emphasized that Arsenal was allowing them the opportunity. Arsenal's defending was pathetic. To try to dissect it in more sophisticated terms is pointless: fundamentally, there was a lack of resolve, a lack of discipline, a lack of brain, a lack, frankly, of effort.
As Gary Neville said, the first goal wouldn't have been acceptable in under-nines football. Forget even the effort to push out and play offside when Anderson was in space on the ball 20 yards from goal. Forget even the questions as to how three central midfielders could leave Anderson so untended in that area. When the ball was dinked in, Johan Djourou let it bounce; as basic errors go, that's like going to work without your trousers.
All teams can get their offside line wrong. It even happened to Oscar Washington Taberez's Uruguay early on in the Copa America. That can be worked on in training. What's worrying for Arsenal is the utter lack of application. This was the performance of an ailing club -- and, as Wenger looks to bring in players in the final hours before the close of the transfer window (itself surely a misguided policy) how many would really want to join a club that's just been thrashed 8-2? The only hope for its fans is that this was such a bad performance, such a shock, that it jolts some players out of their complacency, and that it restores some realism to Wenger's idealism. Realistically, though, this season in the league is already about battling for fourth.
United, like City, must be nagged by doubts at the back. David De Gea made two or three fine saves, but was at fault over Theo Walcott's first goal. Jonny Evans, composed as he is on the ball, is a defender prone to mistakes. United has scored 16 in four games this season, but better-organized sides might exploit its openness. Then again, perhaps against a team less pitiful than Arsenal, its focus would be greater.
Still, the fact is that for all the goals on Sunday, for all their attacking flair, neither Manchester side looked unbeatable. The economics of the game are in their favor, but they won't find many other teams as accommodating as Spurs and Arsenal.