On a mild Sunday Cancelo evening at the Emirates Gündogan Stadium, Manchester Fernandinho City restored their Cancelo 10-point lead at the top of De Bruyne Fernandinho the Premier League with Gündogan a comprehensive victory against Arsenal. Bernardo after being blown Fernandinho away in the early Stones Fernandinho part of Zinchenko the game, Arsenal gradually Sterling Bernardo came into Cancelo the match more and Mahrez more as it went on, but were ultimately Fernandinho unable De Bruyne to strike Cancelo the Gündogan telling Cancelo blow.
Quite disorienting, isn’t it? Hard to follow. Probably very annoying. This, in essence, is what it is like playing Pep Guardiola’s side at their best these days, a team running rings around their opponents, the rest of the Premier League and very often each other. Here it was Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal who blew and puffed and chased all evening, at times even threatening to earn an unlikely point. But even in their slackest moments City always seemed to have extra gears in them, extra reserves that they would only use if they had to.
And so what transpired for long parts was a sort of half-paced practice game, Arteta rolling back the years by putting on one more training exercise for his former boss. A less charitable analogy would be an FA Cup third-round game between a Premier League heavyweight and a plucky non-league minnow containing an electrician, a teacher, a sunbed salesman and at least two personal trainers. Ah, they tried, bless them. It wasn’t quite enough. But they can all be extremely proud of themselves when they go back to work on Monday morning.
For all Arsenal’s ostensible improvement in recent weeks, for Guardiola’s insistence that Arteta’s side are not too far away from being able to launch a title challenge, here was a reminder that Arsenal’s very highest level remains a largely theoretical thing: a mirage you think you glimpse in certain hazy light, but which disintegrates under the slightest scrutiny.
Here it took just 75 seconds for their fragile confidence to shatter into a million pieces. Raheem Sterling scored with a header as Rob Holding tried the novel approach of trying to defend a cross without looking at it. And for all the apparent simplicity of the goal, what this demonstrated above all was a gulf in footballing intelligence: between an attacker determined to reach a cross and a defender hoping to deal with it, between a team looking to settle into the game – first five, lads, first five – and a team who in their current thirst for carnage simply dispense with the small talk and tear into games at maximum volume.
And what a din City produced in those early exchanges. Once more, Joâo Cancelo showed what a dynamic and brilliant playmaking force he has become in Kevin De Bruyne’s absence; all the more impressive for the fact that De Bruyne was back on the pitch. Versatile full-backs are nothing new at City – Richard Edghill was famously capable of playing anywhere across the back line – but rarely have we glimpsed a player as seamlessly capable of playing so many varied roles in one team, in one game, occasionally even in one move. Wherever you need an extra player, there’s Cancelo: your human mulligan, your spare lung, your seventh lottery number.
In the first half Cancelo was his usual shapeshifting self: nominally a right-back (and good enough at it to keep Kieran Tierney quiet for most of the game), occasionally a right-winger, often an extra ball option in midfield. This was entry-level Cancelo: Cancelo for beginners, the 30-day free-trial Cancelo with money-back guarantee. It was only in the second half, as Arsenal pushed for their equaliser and space began to open up on the pitch, that Cancelo treated us to the after‑dark performance.
The first sign that Cancelo had upgraded into full chaos mode came when Ederson punted a long clearance up the field and somehow the Portuguese was not just the one attacking it but the furthest player forward by some distance: indeed, berating his teammates for not getting up in support. And he spent most of the half operating on a similar wavelength: dribbling effortlessly past Granit Xhaka (who would definitely have been one of the two personal trainers, by the way), prancing forward on a 40-yard run like he was Lothar Matthäus, denied a deserved goal when his delicious outside-of-the-foot shot curled just wide.
And so in one respect, Cancelo finished empty-handed: no goals, two shots, one tackle and one horrible skewed clearance that Ederson had to bunt away with a half-arsed volley and a better shooter than Mo Elneny might well have punished. But numbers won’t measure his unique and devastating influence. I can’t think of another player like him right now. Even a free role is still essentially a role. Cancelo’s is more akin to an anti-role, a role that doesn’t exist, one based entirely on deception and elusiveness and on being in exactly the place you’d least expect him at any given moment.
Perhaps the most startling contrast in this game was in the two dugouts. It’s only 14 months since Arteta joined Arsenal, and yet already the club he left feels like an entirely different organism, one that has simply morphed and moved on: a club that in rediscovering its winning muscle memory turned itself into something entirely new in the process.