Vincent Kompany's shaky form highlights Man City's defensive worries
Arsenal have received plenty of praise for their 2-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday, and rightly so. Arsene Wenger's side played with purpose, organisation and mental fortitude, things that have flickered in their recent past but rarely stayed on brightly enough in games such as this, games that might convince everyone that they are realistic title-challengers. Arsenal were simply better than City.
If we were to follow our old friend narrative, then the roles were reversed on Sunday. In a game between Manchester City and Arsenal, one side was decisive, full of energy and attacking ideas, while the other was tentative, flat and defensively extremely brittle. The themes remained the same, it's just the colour of the kits that changed.
That last point is perhaps the most concerning for City -- it is their defence that will scupper their bid to catch Chelsea, if such a bid is to be scuppered. Manager Manuel Pellegrini must be worried that City haven't kept a clean sheet in a month, six games in which their back line has been breached frequently and not by the most deadly of attacks, either. Everton and West Brom found their way through, struggling Burnley and Sunderland bagged a brace each (only Aston Villa have scored fewer than the latter this season), while even Sheffield Wednesday, who have a mere 21 goals in 26 Championship games and endured a run of just one goal in seven earlier in the season, found a way through in the FA Cup.
Watching City against Arsenal, it was easy to see the reason for this run. City defended tentatively, constantly backing off and giving the brilliant pair of Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez as much room as they liked to create chances and chaos.
Perhaps most conspicuously for City, Vincent Kompany didn't cover himself in glory. Admittedly, you could attribute his showing to rust, having been missing since the middle of December, but his foul to concede the penalty that put Arsenal ahead was clumsy in the extreme, a foul that came only after Kompany himself carelessly gave the ball away. He also was lucky not to be sent off for a succession of fouls throughout the game. Kompany is supposed to be the rock at the heart of City's defence, alongside the sometimes erratic Martin Demichelis and the often erratic Eliaquim Mangala, but his reputation is such that he gets away with far too many basic errors.
Kompany offers greater organisation and leadership when in the team, but his mistakes have become too frequent and important to ignore, and troublingly they seem to have started arriving in big games. Note the horribly scuffed clearance that lead to Philippe Coutinho's winner in the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool last season, a result that could have cost City the title. Against Arsenal he was at least partly responsible for a loss that is perhaps as significant for who it was against, a side that usually struggle in big games. Kompany's tendency to take on too much responsibility and overcomplicate things frequently does more harm than good.
Kompany was not the only defensive problem, of course. The prematch concern over both Fernando and Fernandinho in midfield was that the pair would prove too defensive, that without the forward runs of Yaya Toure City would become predictable in midfield, but actually almost the opposite was the case. Perhaps with the attacking concerns in mind the two midfielders seemed keen to advance up field, leaving far too much space for the Arsenal attacking line to exploit in front of the City defence. When they were that exposed, it's perhaps inevitable that they would be tentative and back off excessively.
You might wonder whether City were wise to spend north of 25 million pounds on striker Wilfried Bony when it is the other end of the pitch that should be causing them more concern, but that is slightly misleading. For a start, a defender of the equivalent quality of Bony is unlikely to become available in January, while City have the constrictions of their financial fair play punishments to consider as well. In any case, as Mangala's inconsistent form since that big money move from Porto shows, throwing money at a problem is not necessarily the answer.
It might be something of a left-field option, but has Pellegrini considered playing Bacary Sagna in the heart of his defence? The Frenchman has spent more time on the bench than pitch since moving to Eastlands in the summer, given the form and stature of right-back Pablo Zabaleta. But whenever he was asked to fill in at centre-back while playing for Arsenal, Sagna was extremely solid, his pace combined with a surprising strength in the air making it look like he'd played there all of his life.
"We still have to play against Chelsea so it will be a very decisive game," Pellegrini said after the game, about the fixture against the Premier League leaders at the end of January. "The game we must play at Stamford Bridge is a very important game. We must close the gap to two points. I hope we are going to recover and play the way we are playing so far."
If City are to mount a significant challenge to Chelsea, or indeed just get a result at Stamford Bridge, they must solve the problems in defensive that have plagued them. If not, Jose Mourinho's side will enjoy a carefree canter to the title.
Nick Miller is a football writer for ESPN FC, the Guardian, Eurosport and a number of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.