Manchester City are stuck in neutral until Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta return

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This time last year, talk of Vincent Kompany’s inconsistency began defining his reputation, with the once vaunted central defender reduced to a precarious place among soccer’s elite. Now, with Manchester City undefeated in the league when the imposing Belgian is in the lineup, the debate about his value has gone silent. Whatever ground Kompany gave last year to the world’s best defenders, he made up during a dominant start to City’s season.

Unfortunately for City, performances like Monday’s 1-2 loss to Arsenal make that start evermore irrelevant. With an injured Kompany watching from the stands at the Emirates, City fell to their fifth loss of the season, leaving them six points off the pace atop the English Premier League.

But to imply results like today’s would be reversed by Kompany’s health would be to overlook another key absence. Yes, the team has yet to lose without their captain in the lineup, but as former Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna continues to deteriorate before our eyes, the absence of Pablo Zabaleta, the Premier League’s best right back, becomes more pronounced. Until Zabaleta joins Kompany in City’s lineup, the team’s title chase is stuck in neutral.

The goals City gave Arsenal illustrated it perfectly. The first (below) was an exquisite Theo Walcott finish from the left of the penalty area, a shot that seized on one, maybe two, feet of space Joe Hart had to give at his far post. From one perspective, it was an unstoppable blast, one for the best finishes you’ll ever see from Walcott. Yet it also a shot that shouldn’t have been so easy to line up. Perhaps in the face of more urgency from Sagna, or positioning that made it more difficult for the attacker to cut onto his right foot, Walcott still releases an unstoppable shot, but no defender should be content with hypotheticals.

Then there was Sagna’s countryman, Eliaqium Mangala, who continues to show he’d be better placed with a title contender in Italy, France or Portugal. Thanks to some quick and precise execution from Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, the 24-year-old’s demoralizing attempt to switch the ball to the right flank became Olivier Giroud’s game winning goal. But unlike Arsenal’s first, where Walcott’s execution some credit, Giroud’s winner felt thoroughly preventable. Had Mangala’s pass been better executed, or a safer decision been made in the first place, Nicolas Otamendi wouldn’t have been left pursuing Giroud into a vulnerable channel, left helpless to prevent Arsenal’s second goal.

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