Manchester City has been the favorites to win the league for a while but after its 4–1 win over Arsenal on Wednesday, it now has the title in its own hands. It’s still not top, but City is now just two points behind Arsenal with two games in hand and, given how well it is playing and the fact that Arsenal is without a win in four, it’s surely just a matter of time before a fifth Premier League in six years is wrapped up.
Arsenal’s three draws in a row had taken some of the heat out of this game—had it held on to two-goal leads against Liverpool and West Ham, had it managed to beat last-place Southampton, it would have been 11 points clear, which might have changed the dynamic. Arsenal really needed a win to restore credibility to its title hopes and there wasn’t a second on Wednesday night when that looked likely. City dominated from the start and just kept dominating.
The early goal clearly helped. Arsenal was bold in its press, perhaps seeing how Bayern had unsettled City at times in its Champions League quarterfinal (albeit Bayern ended up losing 4-1 on aggregate). But Kyle Walker, a slightly surprising selection, slotting in on the right as Manuel Akanji moved to left back to cover for the injured Nathan Aké, lofted a ball over the phalanx of Arsenal shirts and the away side, suddenly, was exposed. Erling Haaland easily held off Rob Holding and headed the ball down to Kevin De Bruyne, who had got in front of Thomas Partey, and the Belgian ran on before clipping a crisp finish past Aaron Ramsdale from outside the box.
Holding’s presence in recent weeks, in place of the injured William Saliba, has been indicative of how unlikely it was that Arsenal could win the title. Arsenal simply doesn’t have the squad depth, which is why very few people thought it could win the title at the beginning of the season. To get as close as it has, to keep at least some sort of pressure on a City side this good for so long, has been remarkable.
At the beginning of the season, Champions League qualification was the target and that will be achieved. There will be frustration given how long Arsenal led for, and chances to win the title do not come along often, but this has still been a good season. No normal club can measure itself against City, a brilliantly coached state project: Five league titles in six seasons for City is not good for the Premier League’s claims to be the most competitive championship among Europe’s top five leagues.
But that first goal was not just about Holding, or about City’s excellence. It was also about Partey, whose form has dipped sharply over the past few weeks. He struggled throughout to deal with Haaland dropping deep to link with De Bruyne. Perhaps a fully fit Granit Xhaka might have offered more support, but the Switzerland international has only just recovered from illness.
If not for a fine block from Ben White and a series of good saves from Aaron Ramsdale, City could have had the game wrapped up within the first quarter of the game. As it was, it wasn’t until first-half stoppage time that City got its second, John Stones heading in De Bruyne’s free kick.
Again, that followed a theme: Arsenal had not conceded a goal from a crossed set-play until losing at Everton at the end of January and has since leaked four further league goals from that route as opponents realized Ramsdale’s lack of command of his box. Similarly, set plays are an area in which City is far more threatening this season than Guardiola teams have often been in the past.
De Bruyne, running off Haaland again, added a third goal nine minutes into the second half, after which the pace dropped. Holding slammed in a late consolation before Haaland got his inevitable goal. This was a lesson, startlingly one-sided.
This is an exceptional City. The question at the beginning of the season was how it could accommodate Haaland. It did take time: Going more direct to the Norwegian has meant a slight sacrifice of control and before the World Cup, its form was patchy. But those issues have been resolved and City can now beat teams in the way it always did, by dominating possession and strangling opponents, but also without the ball.
No trophy is yet confirmed, but that versatility means City looks closer to a treble than ever before.