The chasm between Manchester City and Arsenal was extraordinary. Erling Haaland bullied Rob Holding and Martin Odegaard was well and truly put in his place by Kevin De Bruyne.
‘What the f*** are we supposed to do about that?’ all the Arsenal players presumably thought, having been drilled endlessly on the importance of pressing by Mikel Arteta, with a view to games like this, doing it to a tee, only for John Stones to boot the ball to the biggest freak after six minutes, who gave it to the next biggest freak, who scored a quite glorious goal.
From one goal line to the other in a matter of seconds, in a move that Erling Haaland has made possible and has made Manchester City the multi-faceted monster who now look as likely to secure the Treble as any team since 1999.
Arsenal fans will question whether William Saliba would have done more than Rob Holding against Haaland, and he probably would have done, but the Arsenal defender couldn’t have been any tighter. In fact if Haaland had gone down he may have got a free-kick. Instead he took the sort of delicate touch his wiring and machinery shouldn’t allow, before laying the ball off for Kevin De Bruyne.
He still had a hell of a lot to do, but ran at the Arsenal defence at speed, with the ball perfectly under control, before shooting at a point he (and we) felt certain he would score, despite that point being 20 yards from goal.
Running at Arsenal was the order of the day. Mikel Arteta was asked about Pep Guardiola’s tatical genius before kick-off and pointed to the inclusion of Kyle Walker to evidence his unpredictability. But it looked quite simple really. Rob Holding isn’t very good – let’s get our two best players to run at him.
Haaland perhaps hasn’t had so much joy in a game all season. He scored his 49th goal of this extraordinary campaign with the last kick of the game, had six shots and added a second assist for De Bruyne in the second half with the freedom of the Etihad allowed by a fragile defence and an absent midfield.
There was a moment late in the first half, where Holding was running back towards the corner flag and could have passed the ball back to Aaron Ramsdale, but instead kicked it out for a throw-in with Haaland galumphing along behind him. Holding smiled as he turned to see Haaland staring right through him. It was a spine-shivering display of dominance from a world class striker against a mediocre Premier League centre-back. A complete mismatch.
And it was one of eleven mismatches. Manchester City were, to a man, so much better than Arsenal.
Pep Guardiola said this week that he was “happy” to see Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko leave for Arsenal. A strange emotion perhaps given those two summer additions have played such a huge role in the success of their rivals for the Premier League title. But when you’ve got Stones and Haaland, it’s not nearly as strange.
Stones scored City’s second, beautifully directing his header beyond Ramsdale from a perfect De Bruyne free-kick. The England international played in a more customary defensive position on Wednesday, moving into midfield rather than staying there, but has been impeccable wherever he’s played in recent weeks, whether enacting a role similar to Zinchenko or not.
It’s almost as though the individual City players have taken praise of their Arsenal counterparts as personal affronts. Stones vs Zinchenko, Haaland vs Jesus and, more so than anyone, De Bruyne vs Odegaard.
The Arsenal captain, quite reasonably, is second, above De Bruyne in fourth, in the betting for the PFA Player of the Year. But after that truly magnificent display from De Bruyne, who cut Arsenal ribbons, he’s probably got some boots Odegaard couldn’t lace.
There’s surely no way back from here for Arsenal, who are now just two points clear having played two games more than City. They can expect to finish at least four points adrift, with this a performance from the champions-elect making us question whether they will ever not win a game of football again.