Obdurate City prove their point
This was a meeting of two teams constructed with wildly differing philosophies in mind, but separated by only two points at the top of the Premier League table. With City preparing to add the £27 million Edin Dzeko to their squad, what divides the two clubs was demonstrated by the team sheet, which detailed an Arsenal squad including nine players who had joined the club as youngsters. But their divergent approach was also evident on the pitch, as an adventurous Arsenal side were desperately unfortunate not to take all three points, while City, settling for a point despite their unending riches, failed to muster a solitary shot on target.
On a day when the VAT rise in England meant Arsenal were selling the first £100 non-corporate ticket in the Premier League, the Gunners' intuitive, flowing performance ensured some value for money for home supporters, but in the Premier League the hard currency is points, and with Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas hitting the post on a night when Chelsea and Tottenham both lost, a combination of wastefulness from the hosts and resoluteness from the visitors cost Arsenal two valuable points in the title race. It was a game they should have won, comfortably.
Arsene Wenger has been at pains to point out that his substantial emotional, technical and financial investment in his squad is starting to pay dividends, and their stock has been high of late with this performance demonstrating their flair and verve, but the smart money must now be on Manchester United to win the title. Two points ahead of City, having played two games less, and four ahead of Arsenal with a game in hand, this was the perfect result for the league leaders.
Not so for Arsene Wenger, but although City extended their winless streak at Arsenal to 29 games and 36 years, and were jeered off by an Emirates Stadium crowd that finds particular offence in defensive tactics and perceived time-wasting, City got the point they played for. It must be questioned whether, with the vast resources at their disposal, the club and their manager should have higher aspirations, but such an approach has already frustrated Chelsea, Manchester United and now Arsenal this season, and it can be argued that resistance is an art in itself, with Vincent Kompany and Kolo Toure strong in defence and Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez working tirelessly in attack.
Mancini was certainly in no mood to apologise for having secured a point: "When you play here against Arsenal, you must defend, this is football, we cannot all play like Arsenal ... If one team plays well, it can happen that you must defend." Regarding the response of the Arsenal fans, who lambasted his side as boring, Mancini simply replied: "Not important."
As for Arsenal, they stuck to their well-worn strategy of fluid, intricate attack, and none demonstrated that policy more vividly than Jack Wilshere, the midfielder, 19 on New Year's Day, who has been entrusted with responsibility for the deeper reaches of Arsenal's midfield, even if Mario Balotelli has not heard of him. Unwisely, the City player, when collecting an award last month that placed him ahead of the Arsenal midfielder in a poll to find Europe's best young player, memorably said, "What's his name? Wil?... No, I don't know him". Wilshere seemed keen to rectify this slight, and turned in a wonderful performance in the opening 45 minutes.
But he was not alone in a first half in which Arsenal comprehensively dominated a side that boasted the most parsimonious defence in the Premier League, tearing apart City at will and hitting the post through Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. Indeed, the first five minutes probably contained more action than in the entirety of the corresponding fixture last season. It was a massacre, though without City blood being split.
It would be tempting to conclude that given their lack of chances, City's imminent purchase of Dzeko will right a few wrongs. Certainly the acquisition of the Wolfsburg striker is a promising one - and no one is suggesting he will emulate Rodney Marsh who, in 1972 proved a superfluous signing mid-season and by his own acknowledgement "messed up the balance" of the side, seeing them plummet from first to fourth - but City's shortcomings lay in the service they were providing their lone attacker. The absence of David Silva, with his understanding of how to use a football and impeccable technique, appears every inch a leading Premier League playmaker, was felt acutely, but if Dzeko is to flourish to his full extent then surely City will have to show more dynamism.
Wenger would not reproach Mancini for his approach as the Frenchman was fully expecting City to play for a point. He said: "They came here to have a 0-0 and they got what they wanted. Tevez - I have never seen him so deep. I wasn't surprised because they came here last year set up as well to get a 0-0. I hoped that we would score an early chance; we were also unlucky because we hit the post twice. I don't blame my team tonight."
One player capable of producing magic for City, Adam Johnson, was on the bench with Jo bizarrely favoured, though after his introduction on 65 minutes he made an immediate impact at right midfield, while Arsenal made their own change five minutes later when replacing Walcott with Andrei Arshavin. This presented Arsenal fans with the chance to serenade the Russian with a song that in turn also denigrates former Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor. Kolo Toure could have been forgiven for humming along in his head after the pair's contretemps in training on Tuesday.
There was an on-pitch flashpoint when a fractious conclusion to the tie saw both Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna dismissed when going head-to-head on the touchline. Sagna appeared to be the more aggressive of the two, and his actions were misguided, but the decision to issue two red cards appeared an overly strict one by referee Mike Jones, particularly on Zabaleta. In a rare case of two managers agreeing on a refereeing decision, Wenger described the double dismissal as "harsh", while Mancini concurred: "Two yellow cards were enough."
It was too late for either side to capitalise, and although Arsenal continued to push for a winner, they were presented with an impenetrable wall of blue. It is not for nothing that City have the meanest defence in the league, and in the second half their determination was admirable. Whether such a defensive policy is conducive to title success in the Premier League remains to be seen, though Mancini feels his side are in a "good position". But Arsenal, with all their attacking flair, are yet to prove that their own philosophy will pay greater dividends after letting two points slip through their grasp.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Kolo Toure. Though Fabregas and Wilshere were excellent, it was City who got the result they desired and so the plaudits must go to the away defence. After battling his team-mate in training on Tuesday, Toure showed the right kind of fight in an arena he knows well. The Ivorian threw his body on the line to frustrate his former side, and was superb alongside Vincent Kompany.
ARSENAL VERDICT: They appeared set to run away with the game in the first half but could not kill off City. The midfield were magnificent, completely dominating their opponents, but Arsenal's cutting edge was lacking - a familiar complaint in recent seasons. Greater ruthlessness will be required if this team are to challenge Manchester United.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: The selection of Jo was odd, and must have had Johnson questioning just what he needs to do to secure a regular place in the starting XI. Tevez and Yaya Toure worked extremely hard to compensate for a lack of flair but their toil was without reward. City's real heroes were at the back.
PREMIER LEAGUE'S NIGHT OF THE LONG KNIVES: It is rare that a meeting of second versus third is overshadowed, but events elsewhere conspired to push this game down the bill. All the talk in the press room was regarding the futures of Roy Hodgson and Carlo Ancelotti after damaging defeats for their respective clubs.