Pep Guardiola has developed Man City into an elite counter-attacking side
With the amount of possession that Manchester City enjoy in virtually all of their games under Pep Guardiola, it seems remarkable to think that the manager has turned his team into one of the best counter-attacking sides the Premier League has seen. Onlookers will consistently remark about how well the leaders can pass the ball and how they wear their opposition down through sheer methodical pushing and probing of the space.
Little is said about how dangerous City can be when they look like they're at their least threatening. It's a lesson Arsenal were taught quite harshly when Guardiola took his side to the Emirates on Thursday night -- and stormed to a 3-0 victory, needing a little more than half an hour to earn that lead.
Arsenal, for all of their ills (and there are a substantial number), could actually have done very little about any of the goals that City scored, such was the quality of the build-up and finish of each.
Maybe Sead Kolasinac could have got tighter to Bernardo Silva before he curled his effort over Petr Cech. Maybe Leroy Sane could have been stopped before he cut inside for David Silva's strike. But these weren't mistakes in the traditional sense, these were the sorts of errors for which defenders wouldn't reasonably expect to be punished as ruthlessly as they were.
It always used to be said that the great Manchester United side of the late 1990s and early 2000s were at their most dangerous when their opponents had the ball. When they could steal possession on the edge of their own box and break to the other end without giving the other team a chance to regroup.
Under Guardiola, City are reinventing that idea. Not only can they spring the surprise attack in that way, but they are also able to play their way out of trouble to such an extent that it sucks their opponent into trouble at the same time.
At 2-0 in Thursday's match, City regained possession on the right side of their defence. Vincent Kompany and Kyle Walker were forced into some risky touches as they poked and prodded the ball to each other by the corner flag and Arsenal sensed the opportunity to put some pressure on. They closed down the space and tried to force City into giving the ball up.
What happened instead was remarkable. Nobody in the City side panicked. Sure, some of the passes that followed were driven at teammates and were in awkward positions to control, but everybody stuck to their principles -- they pushed the ball on to somebody else and moved into space to provide an option.
It lulled Arsenal into thinking there was one loose pass to be stolen and a chance they could attack City while they weren't in full control. What happened instead was, just 15 or 20 seconds later, Cech was picking the ball out of his net for a third time.
Some quick one and two-touch passing in their own half opened up space for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Walker to break further forward. Guardiola's method is simple: spread the play all over the pitch and create overloads, leaving defenders with too many players to deal with and too much space to be able to stop them. It couldn't have been more on display when his team made it 3-0 just after the half hour.
That goal was the culmination of 18 months of hard work at the Etihad. Every time the manager was questioned last season while he was still laying the foundations of what he wants to achieve with this team, and every time the quick passing under pressure around their own box didn't work, there were suggestions the manager couldn't hack it in England.
It turns out he actually knew what he was doing all along, and that change in attitude and approach in the last campaign is bringing about results this season. Of course, to claim that City are simply a counter-attacking team underplays the amount of work they put in to create those opportunities.
Equally, it's not the only weapon in City's armoury. The second goal at the Emirates -- immortalised by a deft right-foot-to-left-foot touch by David Silva before the Spaniard smashed a shot home -- was an example of what the leaders can do when they're not being pressed up the pitch.
It's win-win for Guardiola. Either his opposition push up and try to pressure his defenders, leaving gaps in behind; or the other team sit off and wait to be picked off with some precise passing and moving.
There can be little doubt that City fans are watching one of the best ever Premier League teams, perhaps the best ever in top flight history. They're racking up a record points-haul and scoring goals at a rate never before seen in the competition. After the last week, Arsenal will be sick of the sight of them, too.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney