Formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive and negative qualities. Arsenal and Manchester City both played a base 4-3-3 at the Emirates in a 0-0 draw on Wednesday, but their interpretations of the system could hardly have been more different as Arsenal first dominated and was then frustrated by City's resolution.
It would be easy, based on the two clubs' reputations, to think City had gone out to spoil, that its only aim from the game was to take a point -- as it had seemingly been in the home derby against Manchester United earlier in the season, or indeed away to Arsenal last season, both of which games were drawn 0-0. Roberto Mancini has been criticized for his negativity, although it is only the heightened expectation at City these days that draws against United and Arsenal are seen as being anything other than worthy results. Mancini has consistently intimated that his aim is first to secure a maiden Champions League qualification and only then to think about the league title; that may be a questionably modest aim, but in that context his caution makes perfect sense. Besides, his caution on Wednesday was at least in part forced upon him.
Initially, as they usually do, both sides began with one of their central midfielders slightly advanced of the other two: Cesc Fabregas in front of Alex Song and Jack Wilshere for Arsenal, and Yaya Toure in front of Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry for City. Even the personnel, of course, show the difference in ethos between the sides. De Jong is an enforcer, pure and simple; Song is comfortable on the ball and often gets forward into the opponent's box, as he did in scoring against Chelsea last week. Barry is a grafter with a decent left foot; Wilshere is an imaginative passer with a muscular edge. Toure is a box-to-box midfielder who was employed almost entirely as an anchor at Barcelona; Fabregas is one of the great midfield playmakers.
From fullback, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy were constantly pushing forward for Arsenal, whereas City had the overtly defensive Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards, who can be aggressive but sat deep. And on the wings, Arsenal had Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri, both of whom spent most of the game pressed tight against (and in Walcott's case, too often beyond) City's back four, while Jo and James Milner -- an unfussy worker rather than a sprinkler of magic dust anyway -- were very clearly auxiliary midfielders. Arsenal is full of imagination; City's key attribute is diligence.
But whether Mancini intended to be quite as defensive as he ended up being is open to doubt. As he pointed out, his options were restricted by absences, with forwards David Silva and Mario Balotelli, along with Aleksandr Kolarov, a far more attacking left back than Zabaleta, all unavailable. Even then, the retreat into the bunker happened only after a first 10 minutes in which Wilshere drilled a ball across the face of goal just too far in front of Robin van Persie, Van Persie hit the post and Wilshere was denied by a smart, low save from Joe Hart.
Mancini came from the bench to the edge of his technical area and clearly gave instructions to Toure to drop deeper. The space in which Fabregas and Nasri had been frolicking was closed up, and Arsenal was faced with a back four protected by a curtain of three deep-lying midfielders. Milner and Jo effectively man-marked their opposing fullbacks, leaving Carlos Tevez to operate in that most soul-destroying of roles, as the lone false nine, doomed to receive the ball in his own half, look up and realize he is still the most advanced player on his side by 15 yards. As an attacking force City was nothing, failing to muster a single shot on target, but defensively it was excellent.
This was City as it had been earlier in the season, a team broken into seven defensive players and three attacking. It had moved toward something more cohesive -- something in which Silva and Kolarov have been key -- as mutual understanding grew, but this was back to basics to avoid a hiding.
"When you play here against Arsenal and they play better than you," Mancini said, "you must defend."
Arsenal continued to control possession and territory, but after three great chances in the opening 10 minutes, it created only two more in the remaining 80, Fabregas striking a post and Van Persie drawing a fine save from Hart -- and even that was with a 30-yard drive rather than something more constructed.
Could Arsenal have done more, and perhaps thrown Nicklas Bendtner on earlier and gone more direct? Well, perhaps, but by then it was in control of the game; changing the game plan might have played into City's hands, and Arsene Wenger perhaps felt that City eventually would be worn down and forced into an error. Had his side been more patient, less quick to get down on itself and the world in general, perhaps it would have been. What was surprising was that Arsenal's press was noticeably less aggressive than against Chelsea. That might have been the result of fatigue brought on by the heavy Christmas program, but it allowed Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure time in possession, enabling them to slow the tempo of the game.
In a sense, the retreat was an admission of failure from City, and it was lucky Arsenal didn't go ahead in that opening spell. At Eastlands earlier in the season, Arsenal had gone ahead after 20 minutes and went on to win 3-0. The Gunners were aided, of course, by the dismissal of Dedryck Boyata, but also by the fact that City, in broken-team mode, simply isn't set up to chase games. But having effectively settled for a point, City was exceptionally disciplined and, the longer the game wore on, the more comfortable it looked as Arsenal effectively blew itself out and appeared, long before the end, to have accepted that this wasn't to be its day.
That, unfortunately, is typical of Arsenal: Wenger's men are rather too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs, thwarted by ill-fortune and craven refereeing and the negativity of opponents. Much of football is about managing luck, about taking the hand you've been dealt and making the most of it. For all the glory of its football, there is a petulance about Arsenal that is not merely unsavory, but actively undermines the Gunners. City was once similar, its fans almost reveling in being heroic losers, but whether because of the amount of investment or through Mancini's influence it has developed a pragmatic streak that earned a point that after 10 minutes of the game it never looked like winning. Lucky? Initially yes, but having enjoyed that fortune City adapted magnificently to take advantage, as it had in drawing 0-0 at Tottenham on the opening day of the season.
The real winner, of course, was United, which saw the limitations of its rivals exposed again: City forced into negativity, and Arsenal without the mental fortitude to take advantage.