There are days when, no matter how much possession a side has or how much pressure they exert, there is no substitute for a predator. This was one such.
Sergio Aguero’s 14th Manchester City hat-trick came from a grand total of about 12 yards. There are far more beautiful finishes – especially compared to the Argentinian’s contentious third – but Aguero overcame Arsenal to allow City to leapfrog Tottenham Hotspur and go two points behind Liverpool.
If one of football’s odder theories is that you can score too early, City seem to have spent the past week putting it to the test. This time, a game with a swift start had a happy ending for them.
Aguero has scored the two quickest goals of the Premier League season and having lost to Newcastle United, City gave up an early lead again. This time, the finisher-in-chief secured three points.
It extended Arsenal’s wretched record. They have now gone four years and 21 games without an away league win at the big six.
They conceded five goals at Anfield and, such was City’s dominance of a one-sided game, perhaps they were lucky to only sieve three here as their defensive inadequacies were apparent again. Aymeric Laporte had a goal disallowed when he was narrowly offside.
The overworked Bernd Leno denied Raheem Sterling during City’s forceful start and later made four saves within a 13-minute spell from a determined Kevin de Bruyne. He then prevented Aguero from scoring a fourth and David Silva from finding the net.
In the end, a City side with five players who are central midfielders by trade – Bernardo Silva operated on the right flank and, in a hybrid formation, Fernandinho was a centre-back when Arsenal were in possession but advanced when his side had the ball – prospered because of a specialist striker.
The Etihad has become Aguero’s playground. He now has 22 goals and five assists in his last 15 home league starts.
Having struck after 24 seconds at St James’ Park, he took all of 46 seconds on Sunday. It still amounted to an immediate impact and early vindication for Pep Guardiola. He had moved Laporte to left-back and the Frenchman dispossessed Alex Iwobi to cross. Aguero stooped to head in.
His other two were each supplied by Sterling, who was preferred to Leroy Sane on the left. The first was the classier and the less controversial.
After Fernandinho spread play, Sterling exchanged passes with Ilkay Gundogan and met the German’s dinked return ball with a volleyed low cross. Aguero had the simplest of tasks to finish.
His hat-trick goal appeared to go in via his arm – not the most famous handballed goal by an Argentine – as he slid in to meet another Sterling centre.
Yet, and while Arsenal are hindered by injuries, their own failings mean they should not blame the officials.
Unai Emery’s search for the optimum shape for his mismatched squad continues but he hampered his side by choosing a 4-4-2 formation. Despite evidence of Matteo Guendouzi’s promise, it left them outnumbered and overwhelmed in the centre of midfield, a department where City are famously proficient.
They nevertheless drew level against the run of play. An unmarked Laurent Koscielny headed in after Nacho Monreal flicked on Lucas Torreira’s corner. The Arsenal captain had scored against Chelsea on his previous league start.
But Aguero illustrated he is the master at finding the net in top-six clashes.