Just five games into the nascent 2012-13 Premier League season accompanied by a solitary Champions League defeat to Real Madrid, the time has not yet come for Manchester City to panic. Despite that, there is a tangible anticlimactic air hanging over the Etihad Stadium; an aura which has transmitted itself onto the pitch with a series of insipid early-season displays.
That is not to criticise Sunday evening’s draw with Arsenal; the culmination of eight testing days during which Roberto Mancini’s men have also had to contend with the brute force of Stoke City and the relentlessly devastating attacks of the Spanish champions. The Gunners side which faced City on Sunday seems, despite Robin van Persie’s departure, a more durable team than last season’s outfit. In Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta there was a metronomic rhythm to their passing which left a four-man City midfield floundering throughout much of the first-half. Indeed, had it not been for a clubbing mallet of a Gervinho first touch, Arsenal would have taken the lead long before Joleon Lescott’s headed opener.
Weaker opposition would have played out a subdued, elegiac final 45 minutes, allowing City to pick their moment to seal the game. However, Arsene Wenger’s men – if not as fluent as their first-half selves – demonstrated tenacity quite antithetical to the Arsenal of recent seasons. Laurent Koscielny’s equaliser, an instinctive strike as the loose ball dropped to him, was typical of the second-half’s trajectory. Contrary though it may be to describe Arsenal as such, City will rarely face a more obstinate opponent this season.
Nevertheless, City were anaemic. The urgency by which they were characterised last season is in hiding. Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs were the more adventurous of the full-backs – Mancini also decreeing to start with a back-four – consequently pushing David Silva and Scott Sinclair into more orthodox wide-midfield roles than they had initially anticipated. Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia were unable to impose themselves in possession, outnumbered and out-thought as they were by Arsenal’s mobile trident. Furthermore, with Edin Dzeko enduring one of those infuriating games in which he appears to be wading through treacle, Sergio Aguero cut a frustrated figure in attack.
Out of possession they sat deep, strangely content to allow Cazorla the space to mischievously probe for weaknesses in defence. With it, stymied by Dzeko’s immobility and Silva and Sinclair’s anonymity, passes were obvious and safe, sideways and unconstructive. City, you sense, are lacking the direction, the ruthlessness, which made them such a thrillingside to watch. It was evident in the 2-2 draw at Anfield, just as it was for long spells in the war of attrition fought at the Britannia.
One hopes, therefore, that the late goals which, in typical City fashion, turned historic victory into heroic failure at the Bernabeu, do not further blunt the attacking instinct which must define a team so rich in talent. Recent Premier League performances, however, hint at a team struggling to recapture their identity. Whilst time is undoubtedly on their side, the defence of their Premier League title and considerable European aspirations hang on them finding it.
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