There was no Kevin De Bruyne. No David Silva. Neither of the experienced center backs that brought the Premier League trophy home. And yet Manchester City, in the opening act of its title defense, reigned as supreme as ever.
Manchester City, despite its personnel suggesting otherwise, looked like Manchester City.
City was short-handed, and Arsenal supposedly refreshed by the arrival of Unai Emery. But not much changed on either side. The Citizens pressed the sloppy Gunners into oblivion. Raheem Sterling danced by overmatched defenders and gave the visitors an early lead. A couple of second-season breakout candidates combined to double it.
City, save for one or two Arsenal chances at 1-0, was untouchable. It cruised to a 2-0 victory. Less than an hour after Liverpool’s 4-0 win over West Ham was interpreted by some as a statement of intent, the champions quashed any speculation they were vulnerable.
City’s dominance, and the quality gap, were alarming
City went ahead through Sterling. And frankly, Arsenal was lucky to escape into the bowels of the Emirates for Emery’s halftime team talk at 1-0.
The onslaught rarely relented. Within the opening 10 minutes, Riyad Mahrez had slipped in Kyle Walker on the overlap toward the byline; the fullback’s cross was parried away by Petr Cech. On the other side, Sterling wove his way to point-blank range, only to have his shot smothered by Cech as well.
Soon thereafter, the English winger cut inside and fired through traffic to put City ahead. He exposed the absurdity of Emery’s decision to start Matteo Guendouzi – a 19-year-old signed from the French second division, thrown into the fire against arguably the best team in the world. Guendouzi and Hector Bellerin were hesitant to step to Sterling and failed to cut him off. Cech and Arsenal paid the price.
The Gunners, at times, were all over the place. Cech had a few near-calamitous moments with the ball at his feet. Guendouzi and others were misplacing passes in their own defensive third and giving away possession. The back four were scrambling. Aguero was fouled on the edge of the area, and Cech had to come to the rescue twice from the ensuing free kick.
Throughout the first half, the difference in quality was alarming. City was spraying balls around the vast Emirates pitch. Arsenal was spraying them to nobody in particular. City was streaming forward in numbers. Had De Bruyne and David Silva been on the field, the Gunners surely wouldn’t have escaped with a one-goal deficit.
The second half, one Alexandre Lacazette narrow miss aside, was more of the same. City had countless chances to go two goals to the good. Bernardo Silva finally took the champions out of reach.
The new Man City signings you forgot about
City made just one summer signing of note, Mahrez, and his debut was moderately encouraging. More encouraging were the performances of 2017-18 signings who, for various reasons, failed to make massive initial impacts.
One of the trends of the Pep Guardiola era at City has been second-season explosions, and there were hints Sunday that 2018-19 could bring a few more.
Chiefly, there was the buccaneering brilliance of Benjamin Mendy. Signed from Monaco last summer, Mendy tore his ACL less than two months into his City tenure. He returned to the field late in the season, and for the World Cup as a French reserve, but didn’t quite look himself.
On Sunday, he did.
With more Guardiola training time under his belt, he very nearly bossed a game from fullback, which isn’t easy to do. He was positionally astute, inverting to give City a numerical advantage in the middle of the park in possession. His charges forward – sometimes in wide areas, sometimes through the half-spaces – spurred City attacks. He capped his day with an inside run, then an overlap, then a pull-back to Bernardo for goal No. 2:
Silva is another second-season breakout candidate. He was outstanding in the Community Shield seven days earlier. A winger by trade – or at least most of last year – Guardiola has tutored him in the “free 8” role – the one in which De Bruyne has starred in, and the one which Bernardo played at the Emirates. His versatility will be a major asset.
There was also Aymeric Laporte, who played sparingly after joining for a then-club-record fee in January. On Sunday, he partnered John Stones, forming the central defensive duo of the future at the Etihad. And he was excellent. Stones was as well. Both were alert and clean on the ball. They won their individual duels. They made City’s afternoon comprehensive.
What did Sunday say about City’s title defense?
There is a thought that City can’t realistically better its record-breaking 2017-18 outputs. And there are a few doubts – a few shortcomings that have the potential to derail the title defense. One or two of them – including the general flukiness of soccer – still loom.
But the development of players like Mendy and Laporte might just render any regression irrelevant. Bernardo Silva might just counteract David Silva’s aging. City might not hit triple-digits again. But it legitimately could be better in year three under Pep. That’s a scary thought.
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