With six goals and a buccaneering performance from Fernandinho, City look set to catch Arsenal at the top
Slowly but surely Arsenal are being reeled in at the top of the table.
Manchester City did their bit and then some in the first of several meetings between top four clubs before the end of the year, ending up with a goal tally that left the Gunners looking shell-shocked. Two defeats in Manchester might not sound too bad when they are the only away defeats to date, but City took on Arsenal at their own game and won with one of the most convincing attacking displays of the season. Tottenham, hit for six here last month, will know just how their neighbours feel, though Spurs have rarely been billed thus far as possible champions.
All the title contenders can familiarise themselves with each other over the next fortnight while Manchester United have a chance to make up some ground with four games against clubs in the bottom half of the table, though this game always seemed likely to have lasting significance due to the number of player-of-the-season candidates on show.
Just count them. Sergio Agüero, Yaya Touré and David Silva on one side, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere on the other, and that's not even mentioning performers such as Fernandinho and Álvaro Negredo who are weighing in with significant contributions to City's season. Perhaps that was the reason Arsenal were put in the shade. They looked a little tired after their trip to Naples in midweek, whereas City were full of beans following their victory in Munich a day earlier, but when Ramsey and Özil could not quite deliver the Arsenal support cast was not as strong as that of their opponents in spite of the crispness of Theo Walcott's finishing.
Agüero lasted only half the game but opened the scoring with a trademark far-post volley. City rather let Arsenal back into the match after that, with Touré guilty of dallying too long in possession on the halfway line, though the mistake that led to Walcott's first goal was just about the only time the tall midfielder took a breather in 90 minutes of end-to-end running. Touré's appetite was simply phenomenal, and with Silva pulling the strings with his usual effortless grace City had too much invention in attack for Arsenal to deal with, though in no small part their freedom to carry the ball forward was due to the success Fernandinho has become in the role of defensive midfielder.
That was what he was signed as, in any case, though increasingly the defensive appellation is looking notional. At the start of the season the Brazilian looked like merely an expensive extra, a luxury version of Javi García but not a conspicuous improvement. Now, like Touré, he gets involved in attack as well as defence, providing a flexible core to the City side that can deal with most questions opponents can pose while frequently providing a springboard for Manuel Pellegrini's front players.
By the end of the game, in fact, driving upfield in search of a second goal and bringing a save from Wojciech Szczesny with a venomous, dipping shot, Fernandinho appeared to have set himself the target of getting further forward than Touré and contributing just as many buccaneering solo runs.
When you consider that Vincent Kompany also chipped in a few of those it will be appreciated that City these days can launch attacks from just about anywhere. The final goal was a case in point, with Samir Nasri pinching the ball from a weary Wilshere to find Fernandinho at his shoulder doing a passable impersonation of Agüero.
It appeared the idea was to allow Nasri to score against his former club, and the Frenchman would not have been undeserving, but when that plan did not quite work out Fernandinho took over and carried on anyway, lifting the ball over Szczesny and in off a post. But for the goalkeeper's earlier save he would have ended up with a hat-trick as well as the official man-of-the-match award, which was not what City would have been expecting when they handed over £30m to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Then again, they would not have been expecting too many nine-goal thrillers against Arsenal either. Conceding three goals at home could be seen as cause for concern for a side whose man of the match was a defensive midfielder, though such was City's commitment to attack they could easily have won by a greater margin.
Some of their attacks were of the highest quality too. Arsenal are the side with a reputation for passing opponents to pieces, yet a link-up between Touré and Silva in the first half, closely followed by a first-time, high-tempo interchange between Agüero and Negredo that almost brought a goal, showed City capable of opening up a decent defence with little more than a couple of first-time flicks. The pass that helped restore City's lead before the interval was typical of their attacking panache, Touré finding Pablo Zabaleta in space on the right with an imperious clip from the outside of his right boot.