It was a Premier League weekend that highlighted one of the great mysteries of soccer: the way form can suddenly evaporate and then magically reappear.
Between the end of November and the first of January, Manchester City reeled in an eight-point Chelsea lead and drawn level. Chelsea, suddenly sluggish, looked like the prey, City appeared the predator.
On Saturday, Chelsea rediscovered its early season brilliance as it scored four times in the first 34 minutes in a 5-0 away win against normally resilient Swansea.
On Sunday, City was punchless against Arsenal at the Etihad, managing just four innocuous shots on target as it lost 2-0. It was City’s first two-goal home defeat since it lost 3-0 to Arsenal in 2010 – which was also Arsenal’s only league victory in Manchester in the last six seasons.
The two displays raise further questions. Was Chelsea so good because Swansea was so bad, or vice versa? Was Manchester City so sterile because Arsène Wenger suddenly sent out a team that played like a defensive, George Graham-era Arsenal side, or because of City’s flaws?
After the match a man looking and sounding a lot like the Arsenal manager appeared on Sky Sports and Arsenal had won because it’s players were: “Good disciplined, well organized, very quick to come out and showed a good solidarity.”
Someone call the police. Where is the real Wenger? What have they done with him?
There was a short period at the start of the second half after City went from five to four in midfield when the sudden appearances of space in the other half briefly drove the Arsenal players mad with the desire to charge into it. Apart from that, Arsenal defended, and they defended well.
Arsenal had less than 35 percent of possession, its lowest since Opta started keeping the stat. Santi Cazorla played as a holding midfielder, which might seem insane, but he looked like the second coming off Patrick Vieira.
Yet the game highlighted City’s dependence on its four superstars. Yaya Touré is off, once again, at the Africa Cup of Nations. City has lost all four games he has missed this season.
That left the leaden pairing of Fernando and Fernandinho in midfield. Their inability and unwillingness to beat the undersized Arsenal midfield either by passing or running was one reason Sergio Agüero and David Silva were starved of possession for much of the game. Long before half time, Silva was turning toward them as another attack died and making a gesture of bewildered frustration.
“We were not a creative team,” Manuel Pellegrini told Sky. “Without a creative idea it is difficult to score goals.”
In defense, Vincent Kompany may be back from his hamstring injury but he hasn’t brought all his pace with him. After 24 minutes, he was too slow to turn with Nacho Monreal on the edge of the box. Instead, Kompany stood still and stuck out a hip. Monreale went flying. Referee Mike Dean awarded a penalty. Cazorla converted. Arsenal led.
Both managers agreed that, as Pellegrini said: “The penalty changed the game.”
Pellegrini, naturally enough, thought the penalty should not have been given, but added “it was unnecessary” because Kompany should not have made the challenge.
Wenger said, in effect, that the penalty played into his hands.
“In a big game the first goal dictates 80 per cent of the times the way of the game.” He said. “Today we scored first and of course that changes the game.”
It meant that his team could stick to its defense-first plan.
Defense was probably part of Swansea’s plans on Saturday. But it failed to execute and conceded in the first minute. Maybe that goal changed the game, but what followed had the look of inevitability.
After the match, Garry Monk, the Swansea manager, took the unusual step of apologizing to his opposite number, José Mourinho.
“I said sorry to José we couldn't give him a game,” Monk told the press.
Swansea errors contributed to two of Chelsea’s early goals. On the other hand, if Willian had not hit the woodwork twice, Chelsea could have won by even more.
Yet was Swansea’s inability to close down opponents the result of its failings or of Chelsea’s dazzling movement, passing and touch? The magic triangle of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fàbregas and Oscar rediscovered their uncanny understanding. The passing was mesmerizing and beautiful.
When Chelsea went 2-0 up, Mourinho came to the touchline, an angry grimace on his face, and thumped a clenched fist against his chest. He wanted more goals to help boost Chelsea’s narrow edge in goal difference over City. But the message was also that this was now a training exercise. His players needed to practice being as good as they good be.
Recent games have been hard work for Chelsea. On Saturday, suddenly, it remembered the formula for making soccer look easy.
Suddenly Chelsea is five points and nine goals better than City. Chelsea could restore its eight-point lead in its next league game, against City at Stamford Bridge on January 31.
“It’s a very decisive game,” said Pellegrini, who must be hoping that Touré’s Ivory Coast team is knocked out on January 28 at the end of the AFCON group stage. But he knows that there is still plenty of time left in the season for form to ebb and flow unexpectedly.
“Even if we don’t win,” Pellegrini said of the Chelsea match, “we can continue fighting. Because in football you never know.”
Oscar: Non-actor -- After Oscar scored two of Chelsea’s early goals at Swansea, he clearly wanted a hat trick.
He went close with a curling shot that flew just wide.
In the 79th minute, as Branislav Ivanovic burst down the right and Swansea’s shell-shocked defense stood and watched. Oscar drifted into the goalmouth. As Ivanovic drove in a low cross, Oscar cocked his foot to prod the ball home. As he waited, Andre Schürrle darted past and turned the ball in.
Schürrle needed the goal more. He had only been on the field for three minutes in his current role as a garbage-time replacement.
Yet Oscar’s reaction was priceless. Instead of faking joy, he put his head in his hands. Then, instead of chasing after the joyous Schürrle to offer congratulations, he walked toward Ivanovic, hands spread wide as if to ask: “Wasn’t that pass meant for me?” Tears appeared to be welling in his kitten eyes.
It would be interesting to know what he said to Schürrle in the locker room.
Real insurance -- Victor Valdés, a man who started more than 500 games and won 21 trophies with Barcelona, sat on the bench at Loftus Road and watched as David de Gea made a pair of spectacular saves to beat away guided missiles from Charlie Austin in the first half on Saturday.
Manchester United scored twice after the break, eking out a 2-0 victory over QPR thanks to De Gea.
Across London, Michel Vorm, who was a starter at Swansea last season, sat and watched as Hugo Lloris’ supernatural fast-twitch reactions denied Danny Graham in the final minutes to preserve a 2-1 victory for Tottenham against Sunderland.
Both Vorm and Valdés know how to ride the pine at the highest level. Vorm sat on the bench for the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final. Valdés was on the bench as Spain won that final and the 2012 Euros. They both represent side-bets in the high-stakes game of bluff surrounding the future of Iker Casillas at Real Madrid.
Casillas has looked fallible in recent seasons.But he is only 33, a good age for a goalie, and is beloved of the Real fans. He has seen off the doubter, Mourinho. This season he seems to have seen off the challenger, Keylor Navas.
Yet both United and Tottenham know from experience that Real can take their best players. De Gea and Lloris both showed on Saturday why Real might covet them. Watching from the bench, Valdés and Vorm could be forgiven for hoping Real was watching too.
Jinxed Tigers -- If Hull comes to town, alert the emergency services.
Last week at West Brom, Hull lost both its striker, Nikica Jelavic and Abel Hernández, to serious injuries before half time and lost the game 1-0. On Sunday at West Ham, a first half in which Hull had dominated but, unsurprisingly without any goal-scorers on the field, been unable to take its chances, cost the Tigers two defenders: James Chester and Alex Bruce. Shorn of defenders and attackers, Hull lost 3-0.
Unsurprisingly, Hull has sunk into the bottom three. If it keeps losing players, it is going down.
The good news is that the basement is crowded. Hull is only four points behind Crystal Palace in 12th. At the rate the clubs at the bottom are going, a point per game might well see Hull to safety, which translates to five wins in 16 games. Two come-from behind wins in eight days by Palace have carried it seven places up the table. But Palace, unlike Hull, has some fit strikers.