This City side is a concussive and bruised version of Guardiola’s model

When did it become not only clear but absolutely inevitable that Manchester City were winning this game? And not just win it but offer the most refined of sports chokes?

Maybe it was the moment in the 25th minute when Rob Holding sprinted out like a drop of water on a hot pan as Kevin De Bruyne came up behind him, a moment of total positional panic, when the game seemed to suddenly fall apart in the face of that celestial pressure.

Related: Kevin De Bruyne hails Arsenal to give Manchester City the upper hand in the title race

Perhaps the unraveling really only came with the fourth goal, Erling Haaland’s first of an evening in which, frankly, he was a little scary: brutally good, but also strangely playful in the midst of all that bruised pressure.

But that wasn’t the case either. The unraveling began in the first 10 minutes, the first five, maybe the first seconds, when suddenly the air seemed to be sucked out of the roof of the stadium, and Arsenal were already gasping, spinning, trying to find space and time , a foothold in this thing.

There was finally a completeness to this 4-1 defeat to City’s only serious opponents in the league this season.

Pep Guardiola’s teams have always focused on control, on mastery of space, without giving the opponent air to breathe. This is definitely the most bruising, concussive, and hard-edged version of that model to date. Cities are thrilling to look at, but not in the fluid, decorative way of previous iterations. They came here with a plan. And that plan was: We’ll just go through you. And when you have the ball, we’ll cross you too.

Manchester City's Jack Grealish collides with Arsenal's Thomas Partey
Manchester City’s Jack Grealish collides with Arsenal’s Thomas Partey on a night when Manchester City were too strong. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

From that initial sky-blue swarm, City have taken Arsenal to a horrible place here. They didn’t let them go.

And as City focus on those highs, it’s probably time to ask those broader questions now nagging behind the action. Is this team the best, most relentless, most brilliantly effective the Premier League has ever seen? Probably. But it also feels like something else, a truly rare example of how close this incredibly complex team sport can come to total physical and technical dominance.

Related: ‘The next three games will dictate a lot’: Guardiola calls for caution after City’s victory

Unbeatable is a silly word in sports. Sport is about the game, the variables, the twists, a place where anyone can still beat anyone. But can they? In seven years City have created such an astonishingly high-level intersection of talent, fitness, movement, chemistry, systems play.

In this run, with these players in this form, it’s really not necessary for this City side to do anything outstanding or unusual to win, to be inspired, to find moments of grace. They just have to press play.

Previous releases may have offered a sense of danger, fragility, bets on overloads and space behind, the creative free jazz of playing without a recognized finisher. Those notes of clumsiness, compromises in design, are gone. And here City has produced something utterly compelling and utterly commanding.

From the outset there has been a real crackle of glamorous happenings around the Etihad. As the sun set under those huge swooping tubular stands, the pitchside was jammed with faces making shows, the basking lions of the NBC podium, the BT podium, the French TV boys, Rio and Graeme and Lee, here the sadly underexposed Noel Gallagher in army jacket saying the things Noel Gallagher always says, and even the Premier League trophy looks bright, showing off his curves in flattering neutral ribbons, here to get some air before being whisked away below a blanket from his dedicated Swat team. Set rule no. 1. Do not make eye contact with the trophy.

Related: Manchester City 4-1 Arsenal: player ratings from the Etihad Stadium

From the first whistle City were brutal, in the most controlled way. This was the non-contact version of the gearbox, road roller, strong arm work. They pressed, tormented and strangled every move at its source, turning the air sky blue, locking down lines and angles, taking away time, shaving seconds off every touch, forcing Arsenal to live right on the edge of their nerves.

Holding has been tasked here with the single most difficult job currently in world football, trying to make Haaland look human-sized, trying to stifle that irresistible blitzkrieg energy. Holding didn’t play badly and even scored Arsenal’s late goal. She was just out of his element, an analog machine being asked to exist in a maelstrom of brutally fast super-fiber broadband.

The first goal came from a Haaland breakthrough and unloaded on De Bruyne, whose shot went off the post and curled into the net from the fingers of Aaron Ramsdale.

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Second on the stroke of half-time was a delayed VAR award. John Stones’ header was accurate, he sprinted back through Ramsdale into the far corner in a descending arc, perhaps the most delicate moment of the half, a microsecond to catch his breath. Haaland made another one for De Bruyne in the second half.

And De Bruyne will make headlines. So vital in this team, counterpoint to machine-punched perfection, is the designated free radical. But above all it was a team performance that bordered on a sort of perfection: physical, technical and tactical.

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