Manchester City, Relentless and Ruthless, Strolls Past Arsenal

MANCHESTER, England — Quite when Arsenal knew, for certain, that it was all over is difficult to pinpoint absolutely. There was still faith, presumably, after Manchester City’s first goal, which arrived roughly 370 seconds into a game that had been billed — for weeks — as the Premier League’s great championship showdown.

Some small sliver of optimism might even have endured after John Stones scored the second, delivered on a satellite delay after a video review not long before halftime. The last couple months of a season are a time for intellectual gymnastics and leaps of faith, after all, for the ifs and buts and maybes that soccer grandly calls “permutations.” Maybe a draw would do. Maybe a draw would keep the hope alive.

The third goal, though, was different. After the third, Arsenal’s Rob Holding stood with his hands on his hips, staring off into the middle distance. Gabriel Magalhaes sunk to his haunches, as if contemplating the nature of grass. Thomas Partey started to clap, softly, his reflexes telling him to encourage his teammates. He managed two, lost heart, and stopped.

Converted by Kevin De Bruyne, the third goal had taken whatever wisps of hope that remained for Arsenal and not only extinguished them, but razed their memory from the Earth, and then salted the ground so that they might never arise again. By the time Erling Haaland, hair flowing behind him, made it 4-1, it was hard to believe any hope had ever existed.

Arsenal remains atop the Premier League, of course, 2 points ahead of Manchester City, but having played two more games. The team’s coach, Mikel Arteta, is not prepared to cede anything just yet — “I have been in this country for 22 years,” he said, “and I have seen how quickly things shift” — but that lead now seems like a technicality, the consequence of a fractured timeline, a quirk of scheduling.

There are no guarantees in sports. But common sense and recent experience would suggest that 2 points is not nearly enough to be sustained through the end of the season in late May. Arteta and Arsenal did not just lose to Manchester City on Wednesday night. They were deprived of more than just hope. The wild reverie that this might all end with a first Premier League title in almost 20 years was exposed as an illusion.

The tendency both inside and outside Arsenal will, naturally, be to suggest that Arteta and his team brought this all upon themselves. It would have been different, after all, had they not spent the last three weeks allowing the lead they had accrued over the course of the season to be eroded.

Arsenal led by two goals at Liverpool, and drew. It led by two goals at West Ham, and drew. It gave Southampton, a candidate for relegation, a two-goal head start at the Emirates, mounted a stirring comeback, and drew. At the time in the season when the pressure mounts and the great separate themselves from the merely good, the logic runs, Arsenal was found wanting.

Kinder observers would point out the various mitigating circumstances: Arsenal’s squad is among the youngest in the league, and is ahead of its anticipated development. The team has sorely missed William Saliba, the cherubic linchpin of its defense, who fell to injury at the point of the season when he was needed the most. His absence has proved that Arteta does not have the resources, just yet, to stay the course.

All of that, though, is to buy into the illusion, to fall into the trap of believing that there was any other conclusion to the one that will spool out over the next few weeks, to indulge the fantasy that Arsenal — that anyone — could realistically ever have done enough to see off Manchester City.

As it proved rather neatly against the team that it identified as its key rival from the earliest days of the season, Manchester City is not just the best team in the Premier League; it is the best in the Premier League by a gap so wide and so clear and so deep that it cannot, to all intents and purposes, be bridged.

There are, essentially, three schools of thought as to how that has been achieved. One has it that City’s supremacy is rooted in the undoubted brilliance of Pep Guardiola’s coaching, combined with the club’s almost flawless recruitment.

Another, less kind, would suggest that it has been constructed largely through spending a billion dollars, give or take, on some of the finest players in the world, building a squad that is no deeper than its rivals but of such a high grade that none of them can compete. (City signed Kalvin Phillips, then a mainstay of the English national team, last summer. You may have forgotten.)

The third, the most damning of all, would point out that the club is currently under investigation by the Premier League for 115 breaches of the competition’s financial rules, all of which are strenuously and repeatedly denied by City but may yet place a stain on every one of its achievements in the last decade.

Whatever the cause, though, the outcome is apparent. Guardiola’s team is now on course for a fifth Premier League title in six years, and a third in a row. Only one other team has done that: Manchester United. Only one other English side has won the hallowed treble of the league, F.A. Cup and Champions League, too: also Manchester United. City could do both in one season.

It is, without question, the pre-eminent force of its era. Its blend of wealth, power and intelligence — what Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, once characterized as “petrol and ideas” — has swept all opponents aside. Manchester United has been through three managers and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keep up, to no avail. Tottenham and Chelsea have imploded. Liverpool stayed the course for five years, and then crumpled.

More than that, though, City’s dominance has changed the Premier League’s algorithm. Even when United was at its peak, the league always presented itself as more open, more democratic than Germany’s Bundesliga, say, or France’s Ligue 1, those personal fiefs of the high and mighty. Manchester City has exposed that as a fantasy. The Premier League is now no longer a competition a team wins. It is one that Manchester City loses.

The idea that Arsenal, callow and naïve, might have stood in the way of that was — it turns out — nothing but an illusion. Arteta’s team has, as he was at pains to stress, led the league for “nine and a half months,” matching an “excellent side” stride for stride and, for a while, even outpacing it.

There was always going to come a point, though, when it hit the wall, when Arsenal stumbled and City did not. It is the fate that has befallen everyone else. There was no reason to believe Arsenal would be an exception. In many ways, it is to the credit of Arteta and his players that the fantasy took so long, until the end of April, to break.

But break it did, cold reality dawning under the lights of the Etihad. The game, the title challenge, the dream: They are all over now. By the time Haaland scored the fourth goal, it would not even have hurt anymore. It simply was, just as it was always going to be.

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