Arsenal, Manchester City: The chasm in philosophy and finance
Arsenal was dismantled in somewhat consummate fashion on Sunday afternoon. Manchester City, although benefiting from two errant referring decisions, was superior in every facet, controlling with a ruthlessly beautiful blend of command and creativity.
The encounter serves as the perfect depiction of the gaping chasms between the two clubs. Consequently, Pep Guardiola's men are thriving. Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, can only look on in admiration.
After winning 10 of first 11 games, while also boasting +31 goal difference, Manchester City has produced best start in Premier League history. Their relentless form distorts the table, however. The other top six clubs, after Chelsea's victory over Manchester United on Sunday, are separated by only four points, meaning the five challengers have seen season's opening negatively tinted. In the most recent contest, it was Arsenal's turn to have their standing dismantled - slowly, painfully, pass by pass, touch by touch.
City were phenomenal against the Gunners. They enacted Guardiola's blend perfectly: possessional dominance, incessant pressing with great precision and control. The league leaders commanded the game through the midfield axis of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, while also suffocating Arsenal with claustrophobic-inducing pressure. Then, in moments of searing pace and deadly accuracy, they carved open their opponents with fluidity in movement, along with mastery in orchestrating angles and space. The Citizens proved too difficult to contain. Subsequently, Arsenal's title challenge hangs in the balance, with a City-shaped noose tightening around their increasingly strained necks.
The recent match at the Etihad does more than just portray the differences for this season, though. It delineates the long-term prospects of the two organisations. Unfortunately for Arsenal, they are utterly disparaging. For two key, underlying reasons: Finance and philosophy.
First, the Gunners and their Manchester rivals are working in completely different financial realms. City used 14 players on Sunday, with just one costing less than £20 million. That was Fabian Delph, signed for £8 million due to a release clause in his Aston Villa contract. Had it been a transfer completed through the usual negotiation process, he likely would have also broken £20 million. Moreover, only four City players cost less than £30 million, including the aforementioned Delph, as well as Ilkay Gundogan, Sergio Aguero and Silva.
Arsenal, in contrast, has made only five signings over £30 million in its history. Four featured on Sunday - Alexandre Lacazette, strangely, started on the bench. In fact, the Citizens brought in four players costing more than £30 million during past summer window alone. Two were defenders and one a goalkeeper, positions which tend to command less substantial transfer fees. This is not to serve as a 'bash Manchester City' piece. If they have the money and abide by Financial Fair Play, they are well within their rights to splash the cash. Rather, it is simply to show that these two clubs are working in different stratospheres. Arsenal won't compete with City on the pitch until they match them off it, particularly when it comes to player recruitment.
That disparaging financial clout drives the second chasm between these two clubs: The philosophy of change. Arsenal, naturally, considering the same manager has been in charge for 21 years, 802 Premier League games - Wenger will break Sir Alex Ferguson's record of 810 in coming months - is far more patient in assembling their squad. They veer away from high turnover among players and staff, chasing continuity, even if that results in mediocrity, as it has in recent years. City, on the other hand, like a ruthless business, welcome revolution. They view the process as an improvement. High turnover is just relentless advancements at the Etihad.
Guardiola arrived at Manchester City with the reputation as a detailed, pedantic but involved, passionate coach. He is a teacher as much as a manager. Although that aspect of his character has shone through, particularly in the progressions of many players who were already at the club when he joined, there is another, perhaps more significant, element to his management which is often overlooked. Guardiola is a ruthless assassin, simultaneously garnering and nurturing the sprouts of youth with one hand while swinging a sickle to cut dead wood with the other. That has been the case at City in recent times.
Of City's 25-man Premier League squad from 2015/16, only ten players remain. Among them, Yaya Toure and Eliaquim Mangala have since been phased out. This season, 20 players have made a league appearance, with ten having been signed during Guardiola's reign. That includes Fabian Delph, a hardly used reserve who is now earning a more prominent role. Only four of those 20 players haven't started a game. They are Claudio Bravo, the second choice goalkeeper, Gundogan, a versatile, depth providing midfielder, and Toure along with Mangala, who are both clearly resigned to significantly restricted roles. Simply, then, Guardiola has revolutionised the team in little over a year.
The Gunners, meanwhile, are a completely different animal. Of the 25 players in the Premier League squad two seasons ago, only six have since departed. Mikel Arteta retired, Gabriel Paulista, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain left in summer, with Wenger wanting to keep the latter, but the Liverpool-bound player forced a move due to his desire for a fresh challenge, and Joel Campbell is out on loan. This campaign, 22 players have made a league appearance, with five signed in last two years - Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, Granit Xhaka, Sead Kolasinac and Lacazette. Arsenal prioritise continuity. That system, however, has not led to surety and comprehension. It has brought about stagnation instead.
Manchester City and Arsenal are two very different clubs, from finances to philosophies. But only one is moving forward; only one is on an upward trajectory; only one is developing and progressing. It is not difficult to see which. Sunday's game only intensified the limelight on the whole situation.