Man City v Arsenal: About warriors and wizards
Arsenal's craftsmen must show their mental mettle against Man City
Without seeking to pick on an individual, Theo Walcott inadvertently defines Arsenal's mental frailties.
Against Everton in midweek, the winger was obviously talented, occasionally dangerous but ultimately folded like a bad poker player.
Walcott, like the Gunners, lacks that elusive title-winning quality. Arsene Wenger's men are still slightly less than the sum of their parts.
Call it what you will. Churn out one cliche after another, but in this instance, the kind of guts, spirit, gumption, determination, passion and persistence that feed a lazy pundit isn't quite there.
Unless the Gunners find any of the above at Manchester City tonight, they can kiss away any chance of victory.
One defeat doesn't define a season, at least in most cases, but there was something about that soul-stripping loss at Everton that was dipped in deja vu.
Had Chelsea succumbed at Goodison Park, the sense of shock would've been palpable.
But Arsenal's defeat was met with a collective shoulder shrug.
This is what Wenger's nearly men do. They flatter to deceive. They float past lesser opponents on warm pitches like butterflies dancing on the breeze.
But on freezing nights in Merseyside, the Gunners can still float like butterflies but die like bees. They sting once and expire.
Arsenal's performance against Man City now faces forensic analysis, as cynics look for further evidence of brittle bone disease. A week ago, they were the favourites for the Etihad encounter. The Gunners were flying on the back of a 14-game unbeaten streak and City were slumping.
But Everton ripped away the curtain to reveal wizards shivering in the cold. The defeat was a pertinent reminder that Arsenal's peerless artistry still comes with a self-destruct button.
At Everton, Gabriel's rustiness only underlined Shkodran Mustafi's absence and Nacho Monreal's nerves got the better of him as the hosts countered.
In central midfield, Granit Xhaka continued to hint at his potential, but still grasped for sustained pedigree and Francis Coquelin tired as the game wore on. And Walcott just faded away.
Individually, their mistakes were barely perceptible. Collectively, they tease out that inherent weakness from the Big Book of Cliches.
They are still paying the price for an absence of passion.
The term itself is rather irritating, hinting at a mystical quality that somehow defines the gritty, roll-the-sleeves-up tenacity that defines the blood-and-thunder aspects of the Premier League.
Nit-pickers can quarrel over the terminology, but the fact remains that a no-nonsense tackle from James McCarthy against the Gunners caused a deep, primal roar that echoed around Goodison Park.
It was a scream of belligerence that roused Everton and sent Arsenal scuttling towards that warm, cosy retreat they often sneak to when the going gets tough.
It's that place where title winners like N'Golo Kante, Diego Costa and Yaya Toure, at his best, never seem to visit. It's a place where daydream believers go for a reality check, to kill off their title hopes once and for all.
The Gunners have popped in so many times, it's a wonder they haven't got their own parking spaces. So the performance at City now becomes pivotal.
One second-half implosion can be written off as an anomaly. Two is a bad habit.
In the case of Arsenal, it's a long-established habit, an addiction to mental weakness that has undermined the last decade of Wenger's reign.
Only a sustained, committed showing at City will allay fears that the old Gunners have returned with a damp squib.
Wenger always sends out wizards. Whether he has enough warriors for the bleak midwinter remains the exasperating, eternal question.
Their efforts at the Etihad must provide an answer.
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- Middlesbrough v Swansea
- Stoke City v Leicester City
- Sunderland v Watford
- West Ham v Hull City
- West Brom v Man United
- Bournemouth v Southampton
- Man City v Arsenal
- Tottenham v Burnley
- Tuesday morning
- Everton v Liverpool