When did it become not only obvious but inevitable that Manchester City were going to win this game? And not only win it but offer the most refined sports strangulations?
Perhaps it was the moment on 25 minutes when Rob Holding came out screaming wildly, like a drop of water on a hot pan, as Kevin De Bruyne was crying behind him, a full minute of positional panic, when the game suddenly seemed to be falling apart. except in the face of that blue sky pressure.
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Perhaps the solution really only came with the fourth goal, Erling Haaland’s first night when it was, ironically, a little scary: brutally good, but also a little fun in the middle of that brutal pressure .
But it wasn’t that good either. The solution began in the first 10 minutes, the first five, maybe the first few seconds, when suddenly the air seemed to be pulled out through the roof of the stadium, and Arsenal were panting, already whirling, at try to find space and time, step into this thing.
In the end this was a 4-1 win against City’s only real rivals in the league this season.
Pep Guardiola’s teams were always in control, controlling the space, not giving air to the opponent. This is definitely the most brutal, concussive, hard-running version of that template to date. The City is thrilling to watch, but not in the fluid, decorative way of previous iterations. They came here with a plan. And that plan was: we just run through you. And when you have the ball we will run right through you too.
From that open sky-blue swarm, City led Arsenal into a terrible place here. They didn’t let them go.
With City zero in the three, it’s probably time to ask those broader questions that are going back to the action. Are this team the best, most relentless, most efficient and most effective team the Premier League has ever seen? Probably. But it also feels like something different, a very rare example of how close this incredibly complex team sport is likely to come to total physical and technical dominance.
Related: ‘The next three games will tell a lot’: Guardiola urges caution after City’s win
Unbeatable is a silly word in sport. Sport is about play, about variables, about twists, where anyone can still beat. But can they? More than seven years City has created such a high-grade scary crossing of talent, fitness, movement, chemistry, fun systems.
On this run, with these players in this form, this City team doesn’t need to do anything exceptional or unusual to win, to be motivated, to find moments of friendship. They just need to play pressure.
Previous versions may have given some sense of danger, brittleness, gambling on overloads and space behind, the free and creative jazz of playing without a known finish. Those notes of awkwardness, compromise in design, are no longer there. And here City did something that was completely exciting, and completely dominant.
From the start there was a real glamor of events around the Etihad. As the sun went down under those huge tubular stands, the side of the pitch was awash with faces making the scene, the lions basking on the NBC podium, the BT podium, the French TV guys, Rio and Graeme and Lee, over there here and there without disclosure. Noel Gallagher in a coat of arms saying what Noel Gallagher always says, and even the Premier League trophy itself looking shiny, showing off its curves in neutral ribbons, here to take a brief breather before going away under cover with his dedicated Swat. team. Set rule No. 1. Do not make eye contact with the coil.
Related: Manchester City 4-1 Arsenal: player ratings from the Etihad Stadium
From the first whistle City were brutal, in the most controlled way. This was the non-contact version of the reducer, the steamrollering, the strong arm job. They pressed and strangled every move at the source, turning the air sky blue, blocking the lines and angles, taking time, shaving seconds from every touch, forcing Arsenal to live on the edge of their nerves .
Here Holding was charged with the single most difficult job in world football right now, trying to make Haaland look human-scale, trying to channel that irresistible blitz-football energy. Holding didn’t play badly and even scored Arsenal’s goal late on. He was just out of his element, and an analog machine was called upon to exist in some ultra-fast super-fiber broadband whirlwinds.
The first goal came from Haaland’s spin and offload to De Bruyne, who started his shot off the post and curled into the net from Aaron Ramsdale’s fingers.
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The second on the stroke of half-time was a delayed VAR award. The header from John Stones was precise, it floated back across Ramsdale into the far corner in a falling arc, perhaps the sweetest moment of the half, a microsecond to catch its breath. Haaland made another for De Bruyne in the second half.
And De Bruyne will grab the headlines. It is so vital in this team, contrary to the machine-drilled perfection, the designated free radical. But above all, this was a team performance aimed at a kind of perfection: physical, technical and tactical.