Thanks to a resilient team performance and the clinical acumen from Sergio Aguero, Man City defeated Arsenal on Sunday and reclaimed second place, thus adding more pressure on Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.
In the end, it was a comfortable enough victory for Manchester City, one that lifts it, at least until Monday evening, to within two points of the leader Liverpool. The pressure, now, is on Jurgen Klopp’s side as it travels to West Ham United – the position everybody expected five days ago. If you have players as gifted as Raheem Sterling and as ruthless as Sergio Aguero, victories that were not entirely convincing can be made to seem emphatic. But, particularly in the first half, there were signs all is not quite right with this City.
Aguero got a hat trick – his 12th for City – and by the end City was strolling, almost toying with Arsenal. Perhaps expectations are unrealistically high after last season, but there was a period before the second goal arrived just before half time when City seemed to be slipping into the stagnation that characterizes it when the rhythm is not quite right, when it was possible to believe that the blip of defeat at Newcastle last Tuesday would become a stutter. Credit, then, to City for demonstrating the character it so often seems to lack under pressure and reasserting itself with a goal was startling brilliance.
Arsenal had not won an away game against another member of the big six since its 2-0 win at the Etihad in January 2015, taking just six points form a possible 54 in that time. It looked very much as though that run would continue as Aymeric Laporte, capitalizing on a sloppy pass from Alex Iwobi crossed for Sergio Aguero to head City in front after 46 seconds, the second fastest Premier League goal of the season, bettered only by the goal the same player scored after 24 seconds at Newcastle on Tuesday. At St James’, City had seemingly slipped into a lethargy of complacency before conceding two goals in the final quarter of the game.
Here, at least, there was a little more urgency, yet dismal defending contrived to let Arsenal back into the game. David Silva lost Nacho Monreal as he flicked on a left wing corner at the near post after 11 minutes and Raheem Sterling lost Laurent Koscielny as he headed Arsenal level. At which City deflated. The passing was less slick, more labored, the patterns it can weave across the pitch with such ease seemed to become actually quite difficult.
Had Pep Guardiola perhaps overthought his selection? He had, after all, picked an XI nobody would have predicted with Fernandinho operating as a central defender. It has rarely gone well in the past when he has picked all four of Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. When he has done so before, though – four times in the league in 2016-17, only one of them one, in the labored League Cup final victory over Arsenal and the Champions League quarterfinal first leg defeat to Liverpool last season, they have all played in midfield and the result has been a fussiness, a mannered quality to City’s play. And if Guardiola was overthinking a home game against Arsenal, what did that say about his anxiety levels?
The advantage of playing Fernandinho deeper is that he can step out from the back, adding an extra midfielder who, because he is coming from an unexpected position, is difficult for an opponent to pick up. Two minutes before half time, he strode out from the back and swept a long ball wide to Sterling on the left – his willingness to stay wide an obvious contrast to the way Leroy Sane had drifted infield at Newcastle, denying City the width it needs to break down massed defences. Sterling exchanged passes with Gundogan and crossed for Aguero to tap in.
Ahead at the break, City relaxed. It dominated the second half almost absolutely, Aguero bundling in a third from another Sterling cross. But just because City found a way through, overcame that sticky period and won at a canter, does not mean the uneasy spell can be readily dismissed. A less fragile team than Arsenal might have taken advantage.
Then again, battling through those spells used to be the hallmark of champions, until City effectively abolished wobbles last season. The important issue, perhaps, is that City not merely won but ultimately did so with a deal of comfort. And the fact is that whatever reservations there may be about the performance, the spotlight now is on Liverpool.