Over the course of his two decades at the top of world snooker, Ronnie O’Sullivan has carried an air few sportsman are lucky enough to possess.
The feeling has often been, no matter what his opponents do, if O’Sullivan is in the mood then the outcome is entirely in his hands. He might lose focus or get bored, but the only person who can beat peak Ronnie is Ronnie.
A keen Arsenal fan, if O’Sullivan had been watching his team on the television on Sunday, he might have seen something of himself in Manchester City’s nonchalant dominance.
By the time Raheem Sterling leapt to head home Riyad Mahrez’s cross after 75 seconds, the England forward had already swiped errantly at a left-footed volley after City’s battery of playmakers cut Arsenal to ribbons from kick-off.
For a game between two of the Premier League’s elite clubs, it was a ludicrously one-sided opening half hour. It was far, far too easy.
That is not to suggest anything about Pep Guardiola’s swashbuckling assortment is thrown together without a thought. This is not the footballing equivalent of O’Sullivan taking a year off to work on a farm before rocking up to win the 2013 World Championship.
Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were fit enough to start and that meant the now familiar sight of no recognised centre-forward for the Premier League leaders and an opposition defence in a state of panicked bafflement.
Midfielders! Midfielders everywhere! There’s another one! Isn’t he supposed to be right-back?
The shifts in positions with and without the ball – Joao Cancelo also roving all over the place from full-back – creates chaos for opponents but is a well-worn formula for Guardiola’s men. Hard work begets easy work.
The question as Kieran Tierney found himself twisted backwards and forwards by Mahrez and friends was how many City might score before half-time.
Surprisingly, the answer was just that early one, with the redoubtable Tierney turning his game around to provide an attacking threat down the Arsenal left. Guardiola probably delivered a sharper team talk than the one he imagined during the initial onslaught.
Complacent teams do not put together record-breaking winning runs where they all-but stop conceding goals. But City swaggered like a team 4-0 to the good when there was one in it and found themselves in a contest they might have avoided.
These are very much the problems of the privileged. The question at kick-off was whether City’s Premier League lead would be seven, eight or 10 points.
Nevertheless, form such as theirs is truly rare and not to be squandered. Guardiola will hope an outing of dwindling returns served to sharpen minds ahead of the Champions League resumption against Borussia Monchengladbach.
For all that the likes of De Bruyne, Gundogan. Cancelo and Mahrez are blessed with drool-inducing technique that allows an O’Sullivan-esque mastery of their craft, some of their team-mates have to reside in the muck and the weeds from time to time. Those were the players who stood tall as events trudged towards a conclusion at odds with the early promise of a masterclass.
You probably wouldn’t want Sterling hunched over a frame-sealing colour on the baize. The winger’s finishing remains erratic and he could conceivably have had a first-half hat-trick as opposed to a winning goal. But the relentless side of his game, so adored by Guardiola, was on full view as he made 15 sprints and contested 16 duels – each more than any other City player.
3 – Raheem Sterling is the third player to score in three consecutive away games against Arsenal in the Premier League after Nicolas Anelka (four games ending in May 2009) and Ian Harte (three games ending in May 2003). Itch. pic.twitter.com/lhYaMAXlIP
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 21, 2021
It’s now five goals in his past seven outings and 13 for the season overall. Pretty? No, but usually pretty effective.
Since the start of last season, no Premier League player has scored more than Sterling’s 20 away from home. Gabriel Jesus (10) is the next most prolific City player on the road during that period.
While Sterling’s value to Guardiola has never been in doubt, Oleksandr Zinchenko and John Stones looked more likely to be plying their trade elsewhere this time last year.
Having brought their City careers back from the brink, they are key pillars of a ludicrously miserly defence that has only conceded twice from open play across 13 consecutive Premier League wins.
Diminutive left-back Zinchenko won both of his aerial duels and gained possession eight times, the latter tally only bettered by veteran defensive midfielder Fernandinho (nine).
When Stones made a 65th-minute block, Ruben Dias came over to celebrate like it was a goal – a frequent and endearing feature of their formidable central defensive partnership.
The Portugal international offered more throaty congratulations when Stones dumped Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang beyond the touchline during the closing moments of a second half that began with Arsenal chasing the game and ended without the hosts registering a shot on target.
There was an absurd moment where Cancelo casually ballooned the ball into his own goalmouth and Ederson hacked at a volleyed clearance. It underlined the sense that the only team capable of beating City right now might be City themselves.
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