As the heat and fury of a migrainously intense, at times migrainously dull Manchester derby died away it wasn’t hard to picture Arséne Wenger nodding contentedly in front of his cinema-scale screen in rural Hertfordshire, perhaps even clenching a wiry fist in quiet celebration at the final whistle. United and City’s physically relentless 0-0 draw at Old Trafford may have felt a bit like a return to the grand fevered “shit-on-a-stick” days of Premier League ferocity, but it was nonetheless a result to cap what Wenger had already described as his perfect week.
City are back on top of the table on goal difference. With Sergio Agüero and David Silva to return they still look to have the strongest squad in the league, and remain a sensible bet to win it even with 28 games still to play. Still, though, dropped points for the Manchester clubs – with just two now separating the four-team peloton at the top of the table – leaves an intriguingly open autumn run-in towards the real meat of the midwinter season.
From here City, Arsenal and United all have relatively easy paths towards the usual sink-or-swim Christmas shemozzle. On paper City’s toughest assignments in that six-game run are Liverpool and Southampton at home and Villa and Stoke away. United have four away games out of six, including Crystal Palace and Leicester City.
Arsenal play Tottenham at home, but have a relatively favourable schedule otherwise. The most settled-looking of the top teams, they are on a fine mini-run. Since January they have shown an increasing expertise at running and passing teams below them in the league into the ground. Given the run of fixtures it is probably reasonable to expect Arsenal to be top of the league, narrowly, by the time the play at home to City on December 21st, the first potentially pivotal-looking moment in what we can probably now call the title race.
With this in mind the 0-0 at Old Trafford could still prove a significant starting point. Despite the understandable rush to yawn loudest at what was a horribly frustrating game, it is worth making the point that neither United nor City are as bad as they looked. This was, on the bald inflationary figures, the most expensive collection of footballers ever assembled for an English league match. Between them the half a billion pounds worth of talent produced two shots on target and a sense above all of incoherence and trapped talent, energy without precision.
This should come as no great surprise. Both Manchester teams are in a state of mild flux. Both are bedding in players and finding combinations. Both are, with a steady hand, on an upward trajectory that the next six games will help to refine.
At Old Trafford four members of City's starting XI were signed this year. Their chief conductor and finisher were missing. The four players closest to the point of their attack – Wilfried Bony, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Kelechi Iheanacho – have now made just 18 league starts between them and scored nine goals. What were we expecting here? Valeri Lobanovksy's telepathic Dynamo Kyiv? Instant Brazil 1970?
If Manuel Pellegrini’s attack looked like strangers at times, maybe that is because, in elite football terms, they are. Time is City’s friend here. De Bruyne and Sterling, in particular, are excellent combination players. They will only get better.
United are also still in a state of relative chop-and-change, with two new starting players in central midfield, a teenage left-winger making his fifth start and seven outfield players who have arrived in the last two seasons. It is increasingly easy to question Wayne Rooney's presence as untouchable first choice centre forward. But consider Louis van Gaal's wider picture. Only three of his players against City are in double figures for career United league goals. Antonio Valencia has 13, Juan Mata 18 and the captain 172.
Such is the relentless turnover in the Premier League we tend to get a little blasé about this level of player-churn. But the best teams grow out of at least a core of stability, of grooved understanding, some kind of shared, evolved team groupthink. Again, time will help here, as Van Gaal and Pellegrini know better than anyone. It was no accident United went with a double-bolted central midfield at home, while for the last 10 minutes at Old Trafford City had Fernandinho, Fernando and Martin Demichelis strung across midfield like a trio of nightclub bouncers, with De Bruyne still lurking sensitively on the left wing trying to look useful. Sometimes setting out not to lose first and foremost can be a fairly sensible strategy.
If Arsenal look the most free-flowing of the top teams right now this is perhaps because they are reaping the (often overlooked) benefits of not signing new outfield players, of allowing the existing rhythms to thrum on into the new season. Injuries and tiredness will be their enemies as the season fades into winter. Aaron Ramsey has already tweaked a hamstring. Alexis Sanchez will need a break, voluntary or enforced, at some stage.
For the Manchester clubs the next few weeks are a case of heading the other way, of seeking to draw a settled attacking pattern out of a more recently hurled-together group of players. It will surely start to click, just as the Premier League’s Champions League teams, after a horrendous start, all now look vaguely capable of grappling their way up out of the group stage. Perhaps it might even be worth remembering Jorge Valdano’s original shit-on-a-stick jibe after Liverpool and Chelsea’s furious 2007 champions League semi-final was born out of anxiety at the Premier League’s burgeoning power, the start of a period of six English Champions League finalists out of 10 and just two from Spain.
Such successes might seem a long way off right now, and for much broader reasons than simply a degree of flux in personnel. But that six-game run up to Christmas could still be fascinating: as much for the spectacle of building on the hoof, as for the promise of some more fluent encounters as these relatively callow mega-money teams mature.