Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez in focus as Arsenal, Man City fortunes differ
There is little sense of momentum at the Emirates Stadium; optimism is in short supply at Arsenal.
The latest -- and perhaps final -- phase of Arsene Wenger's career in north London is characterised by wantaway star players, the looming threat of the next crisis and an absence of any serious ambitions to win the title.
Just 11 months ago things were different. In December, the Gunners went to the top of the Premier League -- the last time they reached the division's summit. That No. 1 status lasted a mere 24 hours until Chelsea leapfrogged them but thoughts of a title challenge appeared briefly realistic. Wenger's team have never looked like reaching those heights since.
The high-water mark of the London club's last league campaign came after a 3-1 victory over Stoke City. The following week was calamitous for Wenger: his team led against Everton at Goodison Park but ended up beaten by a late goal.
Then they went to the Etihad and took the lead against Manchester City. Their first half performance was composed and it looked as if the Gunners were back on track. But after the interval they fell apart. The final score, 2-1 to City, did not reflect how abject the visiting side were in the closing 45 minutes. On that afternoon in Manchester it became clear that Arsenal had neither the talent nor the character to win the title.
On Sunday, Wenger takes his men back to the Etihad. City are unbeaten in the league and are already nine points ahead of Wenger's team; Pep Guardiola's stars are growing in stature by the week. Their 4-2 victory away to a very good Napoli side in the Champions League made Europe pay attention and City are playing with a joyous abandon that once Arsenal fans enjoyed under Wenger. Yet by comparison, the 68-year-old Frenchman looks like a relic of a different age now.
The next two games are crucial for Wenger: after City, Tottenham Hotspur wait on the other side of the international break. The gap between the Gunners and their next two opponents was underlined in this week's continental competition; while Arsenal were slumming it in the Europa League, drawing 0-0 at home to Red Star Belgrade, Spurs and City were dispatching two of Europe's best teams, Real Madrid and Napoli.
Last season's defeat at the Etihad could be used as a symbol of all that's wrong with the late Wenger era. On a day when he needed his most high profile players to step up, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil let their manager down. Ozil, in particular, withered as City began to grow into the contest. After the game the German took out his frustration on a locker in the dressing room -- the defeat clearly hurt the 29-year-old, but many in the Arsenal setup wonder why Ozil cannot channel his aggression into performances in vital games.
Meanwhile, Sanchez seems to be playing in a different match to the rest of the team at the moment. The forward's frustration with his colleagues is palpable -- and the same is true in reverse. In the 2-1 win over Swansea City last week, Sanchez dribbled into blind alleys and shot when he should have passed. He went straight down the tunnel at the final whistle, while other Arsenal players applauded the crowd.
Man City will not be as forgiving as Swansea. Guardiola's team have become quicker and more clinical; they will give Ozil space to play but the midfielder frequently gets bypassed when the tempo of games is ratcheted up, while Sanchez's mind seems elsewhere and he arguably may not even be given a start on current form.
Yet Wenger staked the rest of his career on these two players. They were meant to be the backbone of the next great Arsenal XI but it never materialised and now they look like leaving when their contracts expire at the end of the season. When they depart they will leave behind a disenchanted and demoralised squad.
Winning the FA Cup last season temporarily silenced the "Wenger Out" sections of the Arsenal fanbase. There has been simmering discontent in the stands in the early months of the campaign after a stuttering start, but if they fall 12 points behind City on Sunday the dissenting voices will grow louder.
The Premier League landscape has changed and Arsenal have not moved to adapt. City, Spurs and Manchester United have taken steps forward in the past few months while Wenger's team have slid backwards. City and Arsenal are heading in different directions; November could be a difficult month for the Gunners.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.