The Mancunian candidates
Remember the Big Six? Well, say hello to the Towering Two.
Yes, London is still the capital of Ol' Blighty, but after this weekend, it's safe to say that the epicenter of English soccer has migrated to a city that, according to the Carlos Tevez Zagat Guide, has only two restaurants and nothing to do after dark. What Manchester does have, however, are two thrilling soccer teams destined to spend the next 36 match weeks deciding which name will be plastered on the giant champions billboard in downtown.
Will it be City, the arriviste moneybags who, after 35 trophy-less years, finally bought -- OK, built -- a team good enough to put five goals past Spurs at White Hart Lane while keeping Tevez, last season's co-EPL Golden Boot winner, rooted to the bench? Or will it be the defending champions, who laid the worst beatdown on Arsenal in over 100 years, dismantling the Gunners 8-2 without ever casting a come-hither glance at their co-Golden Boot winner, Dimitar Berbatov, who rested comfortably in a plush red leather seat? Now, it would be a dereliction of my Arsenal duty not to point out that the Gunners were missing eight starters through injury and suspension, not to mention The Two Who Shall Not Be Named who fled North London just before the apocalypse. That said, 8-2 is eight-friggin'-two! To put it in context, United only managed to score six against a patched-together Cosmos exhibition team that featured five U-23 players who ply their trade in the third tier of American soccer.
(About the only comfort I can take is that Arsenal scored one more than Spurs, who were drubbed 5-1 by City, proving yet again the Gunners' glaring superiority over Tottenham in the newly reconstituted MPL -- Manchester Premier League.)
And how did Monsieur Wenger plead?
"No," he said, when some intemperate English reporter asked him whether he plans to resign after Sunday's loss. "Because I think it was under very special circumstances."
Here's the thing, though: United and City were as terrific as Arsenal and Tottenham were crap, and now each has nine points, while the Gunners and Spurs boast a lonely, gap-toothed single point -- combined. Expect that gap to widen as the season progresses, because the terrifying truth is that both Manchester teams can play better and both of the losers may well not have hit bottom yet.
It is still early, sure, but if you detect a singularly Spanish aroma to the table, it's because the EPL has a distinct La Liga feel, except we're not yet sure which team is Barca and which is Real. But we do know that not even a revitalized Chelsea -- now luxuriating in the silky skills of Juan Mata (scorer of as many Chelsea goals in 25-plus minutes as Fernando Torres has since January), while still hoping to add the Croatian virtuoso, Luka Modric -- is in a class with the twin Mancs.
Anyone else circling Oct. 23 on the calendar, when the Manchester derby threatens to turn the city into beautiful downtown Tripoli?
Like Hurricane Irene, this weekend's devastation at the Lane and Old Trafford was not unexpected; only the extent of it was. Sunday was Arsenal's heaviest defeat since doughty Loughborough Town thrashed the Gunners 8-0 in 1896 -- I was at that game, and trust me, we played worse against United -- and came on the heels of Wednesday's morale-boosting Champions League win over Udinese. What exactly did Wenger say to galvanize his team before kickoff? "Let's try to keep it under double digits, lads"?
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Sir Alex, never one to miss an opportunity to patronize his longtime rival, spent the week saying how sorry he felt for Wenger, who has had to endure a deluge of exasperated Gooners calling for his well-coiffed head. "He's irreplaceable," declared a magnanimous Fergie, only too happy to have Admiral Wenger at the wheel of his sinking ship.
On Sunday morning, the writing was more or less carved into the bar when the starting lineups were announced. The Arsenal side that ran out at Old Trafford was as sub-Carling Cup quality as any Gunners team I've seen in the past decade, but it was unlikely they would have won even if they had Thomas Vermaelen, Bacary Sagna, Alex Song and Kieran Gibbs instead of Johan Djourou, Carl Jenkinson, Armand Traore and Francis Coquelin. (Though at least they might have limited a rampant United to a measly half-dozen goals.) Did I mention that the score was 8-2?
To his credit, Sir Alex stayed mum about the absence of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, da Silva 1 and da Silva 2 from his lineup. Rather, in his quietly menacing way, he trotted out a team with an average age of 23 in comparison to Arsenal's surprisingly geriatric 23.6. How ironic that when youth was finally served Sunday, it was Ferguson rather than Wenger who could take a bow. All those years collecting raw talent, schooling them in United's attacking philosophy, loaning the budding starlets out to lesser teams and finally integrating them alongside established stars all came home to roost in as glorious a display of youthful verve as you're likely to witness this season.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Rooney scored a sublime hat trick -- the first in this storied rivalry since Dwight Yorke's effort in 2001. Wazza is in the kind of form England so desperately needed in South Africa, as the rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. The gleeful obituaries that were so fashionable a year ago, given his extramarital escapades and Torres-esque failure in front of goal, make for excellent graffiti in the Old Trafford toilet stalls now that his new hair and five sumptuous goals in three games show that it's still Wayne's World. We just marvel at it.
All of Rooney's prodigious talents were on display: his vision, work rate, leadership and, most importantly, his ruthless finishing. The two exquisitely struck free kicks were David Beckham-approved in their technique and precision. On the second, all Wojciech Szczesny could do was think "Nice shot" as the ball hit the back of the net.
As an advertisement to lure prospective talent to the Emirates, Arsenal made about as persuasive a case as Arnold Schwarzenegger looking for a new housekeeper. With the summer transfer season slated to close Wednesday, is there a single player of note longing to join Wenger's crusade?
It doesn't matter that the Gunners' crisis is not entirely his doing. Surely there are others in the Arsenal brain trust who share -- indeed, encourage -- his pathological inability to pay market value for experienced players to bolster the squad, not to mention the ominousness of American owner "Silent" Stan Kroenke, who appears content to quietly hoard the Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri transfer revenue, despite the fact that his new club has won two of 14 EPL games since its ignominious Carling Cup final defeat. How do you say "asset strip" in French?
Even the most delusional Gooner would acknowledge that a title charge was always going to be quixotic, having lost two world-class players in less than a fortnight with nothing but jittery teens to replace them. But did anyone expect this level of disarray? About the only measure of the famed Arsenal consistency is that this was the third straight game in which the Gunners picked up a red card, and the team could easily have been reduced to nine if Howard Webb hadn't taken pity on the utterly hapless Andrei Arshavin. Quickly now, what's the ratio of Arsenal red cards to goals scored so far in the EPL? There goes my dream of depending on the Fair Play rule to backdoor us into the Europa League in 2012.
Unless you're a Spurs fan, it's easy to feel sorry for Arsenal after its latest humiliation, but it's really City that deserves our sympathy. Just as the baby blues emerged from the smug shadow of their bitter crosstown rivals with a jaw-dropping early-morning display against Tottenham, they got knocked back into the gloaming by United's even more impressive performance.
City's decimation of Harry Redknapp's ragged squad was still noteworthy, as it reaffirmed the team's bombastic, newfound attacking style as a worthy successor to Roberto Mancini's overly cautious snooze-ball. Not only did it reverse two irritating trends on that side of Manchester -- City had been beaten by Spurs in six of their past eight EPL meetings and hadn't won at White Hart Lane in 20 years -- it also showed just what stagnation had befallen the once-cocky former Champions League participants.
Though Redknapp has made no secret of Spurs' inability to compete with the free-spending Mancs, it was stunning to see what precious little response they had for City's massive fleet of quick-thinking, artful attackers, whose passing and movement around the penalty area frequently approached Barca vintage. The delight and self-belief in City's play makes them genuine title contenders, even though it was painful to watch that French weasel Nasri record three assists -- two more than he mustered for the Gunners all of last season in league play -- and display an almost instantaneous telepathic understanding with David Silva, Sergio Aguero and the lithe, lethal Edin Dzeko (scorer of four goals, including a sensational twisting header back across net).
Which brings me to the larger point: Both Manchester sides have rebuilt themselves admirably, and it's no coincidence that both shelled out significant money this summer to add much-needed depth and versatility ahead of the world's most grueling domestic season. The other, more distant title contenders, Chelsea and Liverpool, also worked diligently to address obvious deficiencies, while both North London clubs passed their days trying to hold onto players and convince the media that no, they're not in crisis mode.
And how has it all played out in the first month? The spending sides are the four teams sitting at the top while playing the best soccer thus far. Oh sure, Liverpool arguably overpaid for some midfielders -- though who at Anfield would argue after Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson's impressive first Liverpool goals Saturday? -- and Chelsea will be unable to properly replace the John Terry/Frank Lampard/Didier Drogba axis in full for the time being. But how much of a morale boost does it give their respective campaigns to see the Gunners and Spurs so psychologically shattered? Whether you like it or not, spending wheelbarrows of money does create instant relevance.
I shudder to think how much the Huge Two are going to improve themselves in the January window while Wenger hunts the globe for the next underwhelming 17-year-old French pixie.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."