However you saw Yaya Touré’s contribution at Arsenal, however you interpreted City’s defeat and made up your mind about it, City had succeeded in losing a match that they had dominated territorially for long periods and with it the hope of being close to the leaders as 2015 turns into 2016.
History tells us not to worry unduly. That City can turn things round – and in fact have turned things around – in much tighter spaces than this. History also tells us that City have definitely not finished with us yet. Since when did this club arrive at Christmas, any Christmas, and announce in blithe spirit "that’s all you’re getting from us, just more of the same from now until May"?
Nevertheless, the fractious nature of this 2015-16 season, littered as it has been with untold injuries, dreadful defensive howlers and mountains of managerial speculation, does not seem to be offering great hope for a positive outcome. For a club that has always thrived on a healthy dose of confusion, there is slightly too much of it around at the moment. Even the club's badge is at present nothing more than a series of rumours posted on walls around the city.
For a start, whatever they have added to the soup at Carrington to weaken the hamstrings and tighten the tendons, someone needs to take responsibility and change the recipe. City have lost players to more days of injury than any other club in the division and it is beginning to damage more than just the back of Samir Nasri's knees.
Those still fit (and miraculously there are still a few) are shouldering a heavy burden. Poor Kevin de Bruyne, fresh in from the cosy Bundesliga, where you can relax in your slippers for a month over Christmas, had to be removed for the Swansea game as he was seeing double from his exertions. Ex-City lothario Jerome Boateng, pictured recently on social media feeding himself from a coconut on a tropical stretch of sand, can vouch for the beauty of the mid-season break. Watching poor Fernandinho run himself into the manicured Emirates turf on Monday, who would have begrudged him half a coconut with a straw poking out the top?
He, Yaya Toure and David Silva formed part of a midfield five at the Emirates that spent a large part of the evening keeping the ball off a home side eager to quell the doubters' fever. City’s possession stats had already gone through the roof (78% during the early part of the second half) revealing just how much they dominated this aspect of what had been heralded as the first proper title face-off of the season, despite the fact that Leicester are sailing away over the horizon at the top of the league.
That the Blues went in two-nil down at half time and ended up scrambling frantically to get any kind of result in the last ten minutes, would have made the onlooker think he was on high powered antibiotics. Once again City had dragged a poor result from a reasonable performance, which is a variation on a long running theme that now includes the inexplicable collapse at White Hart Lane, the dreadful shambles at the Britannia, the trousers-down rodgering from a henceforth wafer thin Liverpool and the Billy Smarts runaround first half against West Ham.
City were undone when and where it mattered most. Arsenal - having been forced to play second fiddle for long periods of an engrossing match - had all the answers when it came to the crunch. With Silva ably shackled by the tigerish Flamini and Ramsey, all City’s midfield could do was pass it sideways and, occasionally, when they felt the risk was manageable, back towards the lurking figure of Eliaquim Mangala.
Here of course lurks another problem. Mangala must be a confident boy. He would have to be to continue to put his head above the parapet after some of the gross errors he has performed in the name of the City defence this season. This is no longer a bedding in period for the ex-Porto man. It is no longer learning the ropes. Something more devilish and more serious is at work with his thought processes and limb manipulation.
With the gung-ho Otamendi alongside him, it all looks a little too Keystone Cops at the back these days. There are potential mistakes in every tentative opposition attack, hurried air shots waiting for every opposition prod forward and ludicrous shanked clearances to the nearest dangerman – in this latest case the adequately skilled Mesut Ozil - for many a chance to fall out of cold, thin air.
If Pellegrini’s 2013 construction was so intent on attacking it hardly needed a defence and his 2014 version was so intent on going on holiday it hardly bothered to try, then this, his third building project, looks the oddest of all. Well endowed, luxuriously upgraded, the silk cushion and embossed tablecloth version, it just doesn’t seem to want to function.
With the long shadow of Pep Guardiola hanging over the Chilean’s every step, it is unfeasible to imagine a coach in his position not wavering a little. You can speak the good speak and with the best intentions set up your side to do some serious damage, but is your heart going to be in it for the long cruel slog through December and into the barren wastelands of January, pocked as it is with more potential exploding mines versus Leicester, Watford and Everton no less than three times? Can the Chilean say, hand on heart, that none of this is affecting his concentration?
And what of Pep, attempting to look interested in Bayern’s latest galloping runaway Bundesliga season? Is he thinking how Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm and – God forbid – Jerome Boateng might fit into a future Etihad equation?
Toure has been the absolute lynchpin at City throughout this Phase One Golden Era that will be forever remembered by us all. His reputation will forever fly high after what he has dragged out of his team mates in the name of Manchester City football club. Truly one of the absolute giants of this club’s modern history.
Need we be reminded of his goals to beat United in that époque-defining FA Cup semifinal in 2011 and the subsequent final v Stoke at Wembley. Swatting the likes of Fedinand and Evans to one side as he carried City across the threshold and into a brave new world of shining pots and blazing flashbulbs.
Barnstorming, pitch-length stampedes against West Ham and Aston Villa produced other goals in the League Cup and Premier League respectively that will remain scorched on the memories of City fans as indelibly as anything that the club has produced in the last 30 years. Tales of this giant man of the Ivory Coast and his daring deeds in the sky blue shirt will warm the hearts of generations of City fans to come.
But time waits for no man, even such an imposing example of athletic prowess as this. Although many midfielders come into their own at 32, Toure’s current age, his brand of pitch-eating thundering takes it out of lungs and legs in equal measures. No one in their right mind would expect him to be able to carry on what he has done so exhilaratingly for five years at City and nobody appears to be asking him to except his manager Manuel Pellegrini. Maybe the Chilean isn’t expecting this from his midfield general anymore and plays him as he remains the best option for the position, but his successor will not need to much of a long hard look before drawing his own conclusions on the matter.
With Fernandinho 30 and David Silva one month away from the same landmark, City’s midfield is ageing gracefully but rapidly. With 80 minutes gone of a tumultuous top of the table clash at the Emirates, circumstances demanded that they step up a gear and take the game to Arsenal in the last ten minutes. This was carried out on the back of substitute Jesus Navas, another 30 year old, and Toure, who produced a late cameo as good as anything seen from him this season.
The latter’s spectacular strike to reduce the deficit ushered in a grandstand finish, during which City might have snatched the draw that many will say their play deserved, but that would have masked other weaknesses in their armoury.
Once again -- and for the umpteenth time since his arrival in Manchester in the summer of 2014 --Eliaquim Mangala’s performance at the back had something of the night about it. Caught out of position, playing others on side, losing possession cheaply for Arsenal’s killer goal and ambling upfield in a misguided attempt to right all of these wrongs, were just some of the antics of the wayward central defender in this game. Talking up City’s defensive frailties without captain Vincent Kompany is a well trodden path, but the truth and the numbers will not go away.
|Pellegrini: between a rock and a hard place|
These are season-defining problems that need to be addressed immediately by the club before Leicester’s scarcely believable lead at the top widens to a cavern and Arsenal’s self belief solidifies beyond its usual winter brittleness. This then is the dilemma facing Txiki Begeristain and Ferran Soriano, as they strive to create a global superpower in east Manchester. Nobody ever said the transition would be easy and that last step up that the club intends to take is proving a tricky one to manage just now.