By Ewan Roberts
Manchester City and Arsenal may sit almost 200 miles apart, but the distance between their respective philosophies and business models is exponentially greater. One represents the gratuitous excesses of modern football, the other has inadvertently fuelled it. One glugs from a bottomless well of cash, the other sips from a puddle of self-sustainability.
Despite sitting at opposite ends of the football spectrum, the two sides are bound together by their microcosmic tussles; City and Arsenal do not merely fight for three points, their battles represent a wider duel regarding “the right way” to run a football club in the age of Financial Fair Play.
It’s a rivalry that has only been born in the wake of Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of Manchester City in 2008. Free spending City, being drip-fed multimillion pound signings, have gone from mid-table scrappers to Premier League champions in the blink of an eye, while Arsenal’s progress has stalled, haemorrhaging their most talented players and fighting just to hold onto a Champions League berth.
The sides are united further by the frequency with which City have plundered and pillaged Arsenal’s most prized possessions. First Mark Hughes raided the north London side, plucking Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure for a combined fee in the region of £41million. Then Roberto Mancini lured Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri to the blue half of Manchester.
The successes City have had are due in no small part to the players they have torn away from Arsenal. As Nasri & Co. lifted the Premier League trophy in May, Arsenal fans were left to reflect on a seventh year without a trophy and consider what might have been had they retained their key players.
Four departures from last summer alone – Nasri, Clichy, Emmanuel Eboue and Cesc Fabregas - have gone on to win titles with their new clubs. As Arsenal have drifted further from the level required to win silverware, they have simultaneously aided their competition.
On the pitch, the clashes between the sides have generally been very even. In their last six league encounters, Arsenal have won twice, City have won twice, and the game has ended as a draw on two occasions. The Gunners have scored six times, City five.
Arsenal finished 19 points (and 19 goals) behind City last season, and were 39 goals worse off on goal difference. Off the pitch, City have taken enormous, unhindered strides forwards, but for Arsenal, every flutter of progression has been preceded by a setback. They may have bought Ligue 1’s leading joint top goalscorer in Olivier Giroud, but they've lost the Premier League’s most lethal striker in Robin van Persie.
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A conflict cannot exist on contrasting bottom lines alone though, and it was the inflammatory actions of Adebayor that lit the blue touch paper and ignited a rivalry that would extend beyond the number counting of the boardroom and into the raucous, emotive terraces.
Adebayor, the Togolese forward brought to England by Arsene Wenger and subsequently sold to City, shunned the celebrationless passivity that has become commonplace amongst footballers facing former clubs. Instead, he raced the length of the pitch to celebrate the goal that had given City a 3-1 lead over the Gunners in front of the small section of travelling Arsenal fans that had once cheered him.
As debris rained down on Adebayor, his arms provocatively outstretched, the nature of the rivalry changed. There was vitriolic contempt for the player, resentment of the club he had joined, and a growing sense of frustration and angst that Arsenal could no longer hold onto their best players. Adebayor’s conduct added a visceral edge of animosity to the otherwise symbolic rivalry.
Though the respective managers promote wildly different ideologies - City have assembled a roster of highly paid ‘Galacticos’, while Arsenal nurture and educate young talent on a tight budget – there is also a hint of mutual envy.
Wenger has criticised City’s recent sponsorship deals, loopholes to FFP as he sees them, but on some level he must long for the blank chequebook that Mancini carries in his backpocket, the monetary muscle that allows the Italian to contest the signature of almost any player on the planet, the wage budget that would have kept Robin van Persie at the club.
And likewise, Mancini probably yearns for Wenger’s autonomy, for carte blanche control over every aspect of the football club from the academy upwards, for an existence free of Brian Marwood, for job security that simply does not exist at a club where success isn’t earned as much as it is bought.
So Manchester City and Arsenal go to war again, reigniting their most modern of rivalries; one based not on local geography or success, but on opposing monetary values and principles. And an idea: the idea that net profit can match debt-inducing spending, that young players can be reared to compete with established superstars. This afternoon's match will not only bring two contrasting philosophies together, it will also define the price of competitivity.
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