MANCHESTER, England — Leroy Sané took a touch, and flicked the ball to Raheem Sterling. Ashley Young, the Manchester United captain, tracked the pass. Sterling controlled the ball and slipped it back to Sané. Young shuttled back the way he came. Sané waited until he arrived, and then rolled the ball to Phil Foden. Young set off again. Foden back to Sané, Sané to Sterling, around and around, again and again, hypnotic and unstoppable and relentless.
In reality, the dance lasted for no more than a minute, but to Young, grasping at shadows, it must have felt much longer. Only at length did reinforcements arrive, Alexis Sánchez and Marouane Fellaini trotting over, eventually, to relieve their captain.
By then, they did so in forlorn hope. Manchester City was leading United, 3-1. The derby was lost. The fans at Etihad Stadium, their arms outstretched, their voices hoarse, were starting to sing. Anthony Taylor, the referee, had already drawn his whistle from his pocket.
Still, Sánchez and Fellaini closed down Sterling: there are always appearances to keep up. Sterling shook his hips once, twice, his legs starting to twirl over the stationary ball. Sánchez heaved a huge, visible sigh. Fellaini looked a little angry, lunging at Sterling just as he darted away. He made contact enough to put an end to it all, though: The ball ran out for a corner.
It was then that Taylor decided enough was enough and blew his whistle, drawing the curtain on this season’s first Manchester derby. As City’s fans celebrated, Juan Mata, the United substitute, walked toward Sterling, clearly unhappy. Mata is, as elite athletes go, a pretty placid soul. He spends his days off taking photographs. He keeps a blog.
But Sterling had angered him. Players will forgive one another a vast array of transgressions. But for many, showboating — willfully, gleefully taunting a vanquished opponent — is a step too far.
Even Sterling’s manager, Pep Guardiola, thought the same: Sterling had “made some movements with the legs,” Guardiola said later, but “he is young, and we can avoid it” in the future. Mata, wagging his finger, had made much the same point, though presumably in less gentle tones. Sterling had, briefly, crossed a line. Manchester City’s superiority was, by that stage, as obvious as it was effortless. It was a little gauche to revel in it.
It is not just United, of course, that is trailing in City’s wake, unable to match its potent blend of efficacy and aesthetics. Indeed, it is perhaps only through the prism of its supposed peers and rivals that it is possible to see just how good this City team is.
A couple of hours before City and United took the field, the final whistle blew on Liverpool’s straightforward, if unspectacular, victory over Fulham at Anfield. Jürgen Klopp’s team is unbeaten in the Premier League this season. Liverpool has never had a better start to a campaign. It is in second in the standings.
As the players finished their warm-ups in Manchester and headed back to the changing rooms for a final few words from their coaches, Chelsea’s game with Everton in London ended in a goalless draw. No coach has ever taken to life in the Premier League quite so well as Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri: His team has not been beaten, either. It is third.
Tottenham is fourth, another point back, after its best-ever start to a season. Arsenal, the winner of seven straight games at one point and unbeaten domestically since losing at Chelsea in August, is fifth. Of English soccer’s giants, only United is stuttering.
The others, in Guardiola’s words, all have “the numbers to be champion.” In an ordinary season, Liverpool and Chelsea would be the early pacesetters in the title race. Against ordinary opposition, Spurs and Arsenal would be considered championship contenders.
There is nothing ordinary about this City team, though. Its opening and closing goals here illustrated that neatly: perhaps one or two of its rivals could match the rapid-fire, incisive passing that led to the first, scored by David Silva; at a push, one or two might be able to conjure the swirling intricacy of the 44-pass move that allowed Ilkay Gundogan to score the third. Most likely only City, though, can do both.
If the question before the start of the season was whether Guardiola and his players could repeat the intensity with which they stormed through the Premier League last season, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. It is not simply a case, as Guardiola put it, that City has been able to “maintain our level.” If anything, a team that dropped only 14 points last year has improved.
José Mourinho, the United manager, might have insisted in the aftermath of this defeat that only “those who do not understand football go for statistics,” but it is worth examining some of the data to establish how sustainable City’s form is. According to an analysis by Gracenote Sports, a data analytics firm, City is not only creating more chances than it did last season, those chances are, on average, of a higher quality.
Simultaneously, the team is allowing its opponents fewer chances to score; those shots that do break through are of a lower quality. “They are maybe unlucky not to have a couple of points more than they do,” said Simon Gleave, Gracenote’s head of sports analysis.
Guardiola’s explanation for that is relatively simple. “The key is the depth,” he said. “Everyone wants to play and to be on a level.” He did not institute wholesale changes to his squad in the summer, adding only Riyad Mahrez, but he did not need to: His players are driving one another on to greater heights, beyond even what they achieved last season.
In that light, perhaps Liverpool, Chelsea and the others deserve a little more credit than they have received for managing to cling to City’s coattails for as long as they have. This is a team setting a record-breaking pace, yet again; it is an achievement in itself that City has not yet disappeared over the horizon.
That is not quite how it works, of course. This extent of excellence has a distorting effect. Should City, as seems likely, streak away to a second successive title, there will be questions about whether Klopp will ever be able to deliver silverware to Anfield, about whether Mauricio Pochettino has reached a glass ceiling at Tottenham, about why Sarri or Unai Emery, Arsenal’s coach, failed to keep pace. They may all find themselves under scrutiny for no other reason than having to compete with one of the finest sides the English game has seen.
They are not the only victims. There is a growing sense of unease at how unbalanced the Premier League — so long defined by its competitiveness — has become.
Only once this season has a member of the top five been beaten by anyone outside it: Watford’s victory against Spurs. For a league that trades on its unpredictability, far too many games have the air of processions.
City cannot be blamed — or credited, depending on your perspective — for that entirely; its closest competitors deserve praise for the work they have done, while the rest of the league might warrant a little censure for not spending their own fortunes more wisely.
Guardiola’s team’s flawlessness is a relevant factor, however. Knowing how high City will set the bar has lifted the rest of the top five to a level where few teams can live with them over the course of 90 minutes. None of the elite can afford to drop points any more. Mistakes come at a greater cost now, and so they are making fewer of them.
What the long-term consequences of that will be remain to be seen. Greater pressure for those teams tasked with matching City, certainly, and less hope — and possibly less interest — for everyone else, too. There is, at this stage, no sign of City slowing down, of taking its foot from the floor. It is hypnotic and unstoppable and relentless, a superiority so great that it does not need to be highlighted.