No matter the sport (save perhaps American College Football) there’s generally a great deal more importance placed on games that take place late in the season. It makes a kind of sense; manner in which the results effect the ultimate outcome of the season are magnified and as a species we’re certainly prone to emphasizing the recent over the distant. That mindset has the side-effect of early season games being viewed in the moment as somehow less important. They’re clearly not though, despite the fact that the lead up may not be quite as dramatic or the emotions involved quite as charged. That’s the case to an even greater degree in a league without a playoff, whose Champion is determined based on cumulative results and which offers exponentially higher financial rewards to the clubs finishing in the top four.
Manchester City will travel to Emirates in January, and if the top of the table ends up in a state similar to the one it is in at the moment it will no doubt be trumped up as one of the season’s most crucial ties. And while there is a fair amount of buzz around Arsenal’s visit to City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday, there’s little doubt in my mind that a contest between one of the league’s elite and a club in the middle of the table that takes place in February will generate quite a bit more fanfare. The narrative makes the later contest more compelling, and I do enjoy a compelling narrative. But make no mistake; Sunday’s clash between the Citizens and the Gunners may very well be one of the year’s most crucial.
Arsenal are one of England’s traditional powers, with 13 First Division titles and 10 FA Cups to their name. They’ve built themselves into a perennial power and Champions League stalwart through many years of excellence and innovation. That’s not so much the the case with Manchester City. Though their history is nothing to discount, they aren’t anywhere near Arsenal’s class in terms of historical success. They’ve managed to turn themselves into one of England’s elite clubs in fairly short order due to their seemingly limitless financial resources provided by an owner that seems bent on dominating England and eventually Europe with little regard for the club’s self-sustainability. It’s a classic battle between old-guard versus new-school, team-concept versus individual flair, style versus…well, I suppose they’re both fairly stylish. The rest stands though. It all comes back to that whole narrative thing eventually.
There are at the moment five teams that have what looks to be a realistic chance of finishing with a spot in the Champions League, unless of course that is you think West Brom have a deep run in them. Everton and Aston Villa have picked things up a bit these past few weeks, and though Liverpool are in shambles at the moment there’s far too much talent on the squad and the unknown of how things will shake out in the January transfer window to write them off for sure. But coming into the year, the teams that hold he top five spots at the moment seemed to be he five best teams in England and little that has transpired so far has done much to make anyone doubt that. With that being the case, any contest between any two of those five is of greater significance.
Both clubs have done about how you would so far in league play; each had a surprising result against Sunderland and Arsenal’s upset at the hands of West Brom came in league rather than in the Carling Cup, but little bumps along the way are to be expected. They are pretty much what we thought they would be at he outset. Manchester City boast a nearly unparalleled collection of talent but have had some difficulty performing as a cohesive unit. Arsenal have played brilliant technical football but have at times been somewhat timid in front of goal and somewhat soft in defense. As excellent as these teams are, even he greatest have imperfections.
Largely even on talent, the key will be which club is able to dictate the pace of the game and exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. For Arsenal that will mean controlling possession and attempting to force Manchester City out of shape. Arsenal’s game is forcing their opponent to lose discipline and capitalizing on available space. City are capable of dealing with a methodical, opportunistic attack as they showed in their narrow victory over Chelsea. With that said, defensive lapses have led to problems against clubs far less dangerous than Arsenal. City’s key to victory will lie in their ability to establish a more physical style. Much has been said about Nigel De Jong’s sportsmanship as of late, but the fact remains that De Jong’s defensive presence in the midfield is largely unmatched in England or anywhere else in the world. Carlos Tevez is the type of scorer that can give Arsenal’s backline fits, assuming he is given proper service. For all of their flash and spending, Manchester City are stylistically similar to much of the rest of the Premier League and those types of teams have been difficult for Arsenal to deal with when able to take establish the style of play.
This game has every appearance of being a fantastic one. Contrasting styles, differing philosophies and significant implications on the Champions League places and quite possibly the Premier League title. If Arsenal are able to win they’ll draw even with Manchester City and be no lower than second place. If Manchester City win they’ll keep their standing and stay at most two point back of Chelsea. It’s early for sure, but the three points at stake mean just as much now as they will in January.