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IT’S AN irony the only live theatre in London this weekend was seen at the Emirates Stadium.
The compelling performance came from Premier League champions-elect Manchester City, who eased to a 1-0 victory over Arsenal through an early headed goal from an unchallenged Raheem Sterling in a crowded box.
The vibrant visitors, led by virtuoso genius Pep Guardiola, gave an outstanding performance in a mesmerising opening half-hour full of verve, in which they moved the ball with ease and artistry to leave the Gunners uneasily chasing shadows.
Such was City’s dominance, they registered four shots in the first 15 minutes, as they threatened to overwhelm the Gunners on the way to clinching a record 18 successive victories since December 15 — making it 25 games unbeaten, moving 10 points clear, with only 13 shows – sorry matches – remaining.
No wonder Mikel Arteta admitted afterwards: “The way we conceded the goal put us in a really difficult situation. To concede so early against them was tough because it put the game exactly where they wanted it. With their False No9 it made them comfortable. But after that I thought we reacted really well.
“Sterling was clever, but if you want to win against a side like City you cannot concede a goal like that.
“We started to generate chances, we started to generate momentum in our opponents’ half, but we lacked the quality when we got in those situations.
“City are a fantastic team. You can see why they are on top of the league.”
However, thanks to Arsenal’s new-found resolution, the home side refused to buckle under such fervent attacking, as City’s pre-eminence gave way to a more functional efficiency after their exceptional start.
Arteta made five changes following the 1-1 draw against Benfica in the Europa League on Thursday. Kieran Tierney made his first start in a month, in place of Cedric Soares.
Rob Holding was partnered by Pablo Mari, the pair replacing David Luiz and Gabriel, who started in Rome, as the Gunners boss made a trio of changes in the backline, while understudies Mohammed Elneny and Nicolas Pepe were also drafted into the line-up.
Guardiola also made five changes, including Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, who slotted into a chorus line you simply couldn’t keep your eyes off.
Despite Arteta shuffling the backline, from kick-off, the backline shuffled, unable to start the game with the same intensity as their rivals – and they paid dearly for it.
Despite three defenders in the box, Riyad Mahrez’s left-footed cross found Sterling in space, as the 5ft 7in attacker nodded home, despite being surrounded by a trio of six-footers in Arsenal’s static backline.
Yes, it was frustratingly poor defending, but credit had to be given to magnificent opponents, who so disorientated the Gunners, they were left chasing shadows during a spellbinding first 30 minutes.
For all those who take the view that at least one of the defenders should have been tighter on Sterling, perhaps it isn’t that easy to pick up an attacker into the box in a team without a recognised centre-forward – the False No9 tactic Arteta was referring to.
It was also a sign Guardiola’s City are an unstoppable force that never allowed the home side a kick during a torrid chasing in the opening stages, under a powder blue sky on a benign north London afternoon.
Sterling was an instructive character to analyse in the opening act.
A study revealed much about his attacking prowess. But among his understated repertoire was a willingness to work hard. All the greats have it.
Not least when he tracked back a full 70 yards to ensure a raid by Hector Bellerin and Nicolas Pepe down the right channel failed to materialise.
As Arsenal threatened, there was Sterling on City’s goalline, alert to cut out the danger, behaving as an auxiliary defender, offering a City solidity, on par with having an extra player.
Which pretty much sums up this outstanding City side in a microcosm.
Yes, they have all the talent in the world, as wave after wave of attacks proved – the visitors’ interchanges as difficult to track as fast-moving shadows.
At times, the Gunners’ bewildered backline struggled to keep track of the ball, let alone City’s stunning off the ball movement.
Attacks were invariably conducted by De Bruyne, with initial prompts starting further back with the John Stones at centre-half or Ruben Dias, who was also responsible for a pre-assist when his long ball found Mahrez prior to the goal.
That much was obvious. Yet, out of possession they were just as impressive.
The difference between the teams was the work City did off the ball, out of possession. They worked like Trojans to close down space, to harry, to pressurise their opponents.
That’s not to say Arsenal did not work hard. Of course they did. That’s what they’ve started to do under Arteta. It’s just that it wasn’t enough. They appeared positively dilettante compared to their more illustrious visitors.
It was also instructive to watch Guardiola on the touchline in the opening half an hour, when his sartorial elegance grabbed the eye even more than usual.
The 50-year-old sported a grey hoodie with the words Open Arms printed on the back, black trousers and immaculate black shoes. The motto referred to a non-profit organisation based in Catalonia, dedicated to helping refugees who attempt to reach Europe by sea. A stylish man sharing an important cause.
Yet, if Marcelo Bielsa was a study in constant motion for Leeds last Sunday, the Catalan was positively statuesque in the opening half-hour, even sitting down at one stage. For there was nothing for him to critique, knowing the reviews would be positive. City were simply majestic. With or without the ball.
At one stage, the mere presence of Fernandinho forced Bellerin to cede possession by miskicking miserably.
Guardiola simply scratched his chin studiously, as an eminent director would, when confronted with a particularly prodigious cast, aware that there wasn’t much he could teach them, so long as they continued to stick to the script, work hard and keep learning.
When Arsenal did apply pressure of their own, City simply passed their way out of trouble. Sterling and Oleksandr Zinchenko dovetailing well when finding Gundogan along Arsenal’s right channel. But in reality it could have been any trio of City players linking well.
For anyone who savours good football, it was a spectacle to watch.
De Bruyne serenely idling through the gears was impressive as he moved effortlessly with the ball, engine purring as he eased past the pedestrian Arsenal midfield of Granit Xhaka and Elneny. As a supporting character, Bernardo Silva was an impish delight.
Yet this Arsenal side are growing under Arteta and steadfastly refused to wilt, deserving credit for such resolution, even fashioning a chance of sorts when Bellerin and Pepe combined for the latter to fire narrowly wide as they attempted to gain parity.
And when Gundogan went down under a fierce but fair challenge from Xhaka, which saw referee Jon Moss award a free-kick, Holding’s exhortation that it was a “50/50” heard his Lancastrian tones echo around the Emirates. Good to hear from a Gunners centre-back.
De Bruyne dinked a chance past Leno’s far post immediately after the restart, while Gundogan drew a fine save from the German keeper as, again, Arsenal refused to yield under City’s quality, while Bukayo Saka forced a yellow from Silva after he was felled, when about to embark on a drive.
City were a constant threat. Silva denied by a full-length save from Leno ten minutes into the second half, prior to De Bruyne volleying over, while Joao Cancelo’s near post attempt was gathered by the German.
As Guardiola rang the changes, you felt his side had given such an ethereal performance they surely didn’t need to summon Jesus. But they did. For a soon to be City god, as De Bruyne was replaced.
Holding suffered a head injury as he collided with Cancelo’s foot, as the defender required treatment on the pitch. The new concussion rules allowed him to be substituted, with the fourth official presenting the first ever green card at the Emirates to signify the swap, with Luiz coming on in his place.
There was just time for Cancelo to fire wide with the outside of his right boot after Jesus teed him up, but, as Moss blew the final whistle, more records tumbled.
The shutout saw City’s 23rd clean sheet of the campaign, more than any other team in the top five European leagues or top four divisions in England, with the win, also meaning they have not been behind in any of their past 17 league matches.
The triumph also equalled a club record 11 successive away wins in all competitions on their procession to a third league title in four years.
For their part, the Gunners remain in tenth after a third league defeat in the last four, with all eyes on their Europa League clash with Benfica on Thursday.
Speaking afterwards, a gracious Guardiola hailed his friend and former colleague, Arteta, saying: “It was as hard as we expected it to be. We suffered…it was difficult to play against Arsenal. At the end, it’s Arsenal away, it’s at the Emirates. People think it’s easy, but to achieve this number of victories in a row is so difficult.
“Mikel knows everything. He’s so good. It’s not because he’s my friend, I know what he planned, I know what he was working on - he’s so clever.”
Whisper it to an Arsenal audience on Twitter after their seventh successive league loss to City, but it was a joy to watch Guardiola’s side display their finely honed craft.
With only 13 further live performances this spring, you are advised to catch this scintillating ensemble while you can.
Because Premier League champions-elect offering live theatre this good doesn’t come round too often.
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