A while back Fifa’s resident tousle-haired visionary Marco van Basten came up with a ragbag of extreme measures – abolishing offside, introducing sin-bins – designed to free modern football from the dominance of deathly all-out team defence. Presumably he has not been to the Emirates Stadium recently. Or indeed, on this evidence, the Etihad Stadium either.
Watching Arsenal and Manchester City play out this zany, at times slightly wild, 2-2 draw it was tempting to place an urgent call to Switzerland. Marco, old boy, call off the search. We’re years ahead of you. The oddly shapeless future is already here.
In fairness, very few elite-level matches, even in the fast-forward Premier League, are marked by such a striking mix of attacking energy, defensive flaccidity, brittle central midfield and Granit Xhaka. These two teams conceded 16 goals between them in the last 16 of the Champions League en route to a pair of slapstick exits.
Both looked here at times like a cast of mismatched decorative parts thrown together, a perfect demonstration of why the Premier League continues to perform so well as a televised product and so poorly as an elite-level conquering force among the real club football elite. At some stage the Premier League should probably object to Uefa: that rule keeping English teams apart increasingly looks a hindrance to making any progress. Who else lets you play like this?
City started here with six attacking midfielders on the pitch. Arsenal fielded four players who have attempted to fill the first-choice centre-forward role. And yet by the end this was a tale of three Shkodran Mustafi headers, the first a defensive affair to help City open the scoring, the second an assist for Arsenal’s equaliser, the third a second equaliser after half-time.
It was just that kind of game, a strange thing lacking not in intensity or energy, but in form, pattern and defensive resistance. There was a moment of defining double-take with 25 minutes to go. Theo Walcott played a cushioned forward volley-pass to Alexis Sánchez, who replied with an elaborate and flashy back-heel. Fair enough, you might say, except both players were just outside their own six-yard box. Jesús Navas picked the ball up. Sergio Agüero almost nodded in his cross. Everybody just got on with it all again.
A point here will presumably ease the pressure on Arsène Wenger, albeit nobody watching this oddly seasick match could mistake it for a corner turned. “I’m ready for a fight,” Wenger had announced last week, sentiments his midfield seemed to take literally as Francis Coquelin and Xhaka took it in turns to either fade to the fringes or launch some full-body assault on the nearest opponent, with no obvious setting in between.
Somehow Coquelin – a man who seems to spend the majority of each game hauling down some charging attacker like an adolescent leopard learning how to kill antelope – stayed on the pitch. As did Xhaka, whose performance was gripping in its determination to seek the limits of refereeing permissiveness.
The evolution of Xhaka at Arsenal is an oddity in itself. He is not meant to be this bad. At the Euro and the World Cup in Brazil he was far removed from the sprawling, frazzled figure of his first season in London. At some point a manager who seems to have bought him as a wearily tolerated concession to defence has to take some responsibility.
City scored after five minutes. Mustafi came haring out into the midfield vacuum to head a clearance back, then watched as Kevin De Bruyne’s pass zipped over his head into the empty green acres. Leroy Sané eased away, held off Héctor Bellerín and slipped the ball past David Ospina, who chose that moment to lie down on the ground.
It was a lovely finish but Arsenal had been cut open like a hot knife through lukewarm spreadable margarine, four touches in a straight line taking the ball into the corner of the net. On the touchline Wenger frowned and looked puzzled. And to their credit, Arsenal did rally. Mustafi will have been delighted to play a part in their equaliser, heading on for Walcott to finish.
Parity lasted just over two minutes. Mesut Özil lost the ball close to his own goal and watched David Silva work it out to Agüero unmarked in a huge pocket of space in the box. OK, let’s just run that again. Yes, Agüero – that Agüero – completely unmarked. The ball was zinged into the corner of the net to make it 2-1, but then you already knew that.
Mustafi headed the equaliser from a corner. Both teams continued to attack relentlessly and defend with slapstick energy. Neither has any realistic chance of winning the league title from here, which looks a one-and-a-half-horse race, with Tottenham closest to Chelsea.
The difference between the teams is clear enough. Spurs may lack a striker, trophies or any Champions League pedigree but there is an encouraging gristle and discipline in that central wedge, the same qualities Antonio Conte has instilled in the centre of his Chelsea team. Pep Guardiola has plenty of time to work at his bigger picture, the idea of control by keeping the ball, stretching opponents, defending by retaining possession. Wenger remains simply himself, or rather the extreme, sightly cartoonish version of his later years. In the meantime the upper reaches of the Premier League will remain a fun, zippy, if at times oddly unsatisfying place for afternoons such as these.