For all the money invested, the returns for Manchester City can look patchy even if they do happen to be the reigning Premier League champions. In an undistinguished encounter it was only right that there should be a draw. The 1-1 score was born out of muddle and mistake, particularly when no one in the Arsenal defence prevented Joleon Lescott from heading the opener in the first half.
Even so, the deeper impression was of uncertainty in both sides. It often looks as if City are still engaged in the search for an identity that will lead to victories and also win over the public with enticing football. Somewhere along the way, the balance between stringency and entertainment has been lost.
There might also be a suspicion that the manager, Roberto Mancini, has mixed purposes. The public will not remember with much fondness the conservatism that used to be so marked in City's play, but a free-wheeling approach has its own difficulties. Defending is a bit of a conundrum for the time being.
Lescott did not even get off the bench in the Bernabéu on Tuesday, when City let a 2-1 lead slither into a 3-2 defeat by Real Madrid over the course of the last four minutes. Here they might at least see the key error as one whose consequences were remarkable. When a corner falls to a defender such as Laurent Koscielny no one anticipates chest control and a handsome shot into the top corner.
Arsenal still have potency despite a disturbing sale that they felt unable to prevent when the player in question was entering the last year of his contract. There may have been anguish at the Emirates eover the loss of Robin van Persie to Manchester United, but the real ache that the club feels is not concerned primarily with the scoring of goals.
The comparisons are biting. While Arsenal's defence was breached 49 times in the Premier League last season as they finished third, Sunderland, 10 places beneath them shipped three goals fewer. The loss of the centre-half Thomas Vermaelen to illness looked ominous before this match had even begun.
Arsenal, however, have been aiming for more stringency of late and had seemed sound until that unanticipated breakthrough by the hosts. The goalkeepers Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski are both injured at present, but Vito Mannone hardly looked as if he were quaking until he was party to the lapse that cost a goal. In truth, each team were well-intentioned rather than lethal.
These two clubs, despite the contrast between City's extravagance and Arsenal's comparative austerity, had blandness in common. Mancini's men are still in the throes of shaping the identity of his lineup. On occasion, there are days when the rigour of old is beyond reach and the intention of playing expansive football does not lead to any sort of brilliance.
There is no question that Mancini has a very good set of players, but virtuosity is not especially apparent. David Silva is gifted indeed, yet no one would quite say he is among the small elite of footballers who can change the course of a key match at the highest level.
A mercurial presence does exist, but it is understandable that Mancini does not count on Mario Balotelli. The forward came on for just the last five minutes. His partial estrangement is no shock and his volatility is undisputed. Not starting him is a tacit admission of failure so far by Mancini. This is a most taxing case and anyone can guess that it drives him to anger and exasperation.
In all likelihood, however, Balotelli's first touch and obvious potential mean that he ought to be at the heart of City's ambitions. It is no fault of Mancini's that the forward is an erratic player who can bring havoc on his own club as much as the opposition, but the manager cannot really enjoy the luxury of dispensing with him.
Edin Dzeko, who started, can be relied on for a steady contribution and some goals, but he will not strike fear into defences. Carlos Tevez, too, is renowned for good reasons and he can commit himself in a way that is alien to Balotelli, but it is the latter, at the age of only 22, who still has it in him to evolve into an even more devastating attacker.
Mancini is to be envied for the budget and the means already at his disposal, but he will know that City, before long, must show they are genuine contenders for the Champions League. There was no indication of that against Arsenal. If City are to join the elite, they will have to find a way of tapping Balotelli's ability to the full.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © wonker