It was sort of the perfect hat-trick: a header, one with the right foot, one with the left, er, elbow. Still, that is not what will be concerning football’s historians in the years to come. This was the 14th hat-trick of Sergio Aguero’s Manchester City career, and his tenth in the Premier League – bringing him one short of Alan Shearer’s modern era record of 11.
How impressive is that? Well, consider the context. As of Monday morning Aguero has scored as many league hat-tricks as Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Mo Salah, Eden Hazard, Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona – combined. Take Drogba out and put Steven Gerrard in, and he’s got more.
This is a phenomenal, match-winning, title-winning goalscorer, one of the greatest English football has seen. Will he win the title again this year? If not, it won’t be for want of trying.
Sergio Aguero slid in at the crucial moment in the second half to bundle the ball over for 3-1, though it did touch his arm
The striker watched on as the ball flicked off his elbow and made its way into the bottom corner for his and City’s third goal
Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno tried desperately to claw the ball back, but it had already gone well over the goal-line
Arsenal players immediately protested for handball as Aguero raced away in celebration and the Etihad began to cheer
The prolific forward soaked up the adoration of the home crown after completing his hat-trick in the crucial league fixture
The Gunners surrounding referee Martin Atkinson – but their protests for handball were ignored by the referee
PLAYER RATINGS, LEAGUE TABLE AND MATCH ZONE
MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Ederson 7, Walker 7, Otamendi 7, Laporte 7.5, Fernandinho 8, Gundogan 7, Bernardo Silva 7, De Bruyne 8 (Mahrez 88′), Silva 7, Sterling 8.5, Aguero 9 (Gabriel Jesus 81′)
SUBS UNUSED: Danilo, Stones, Delph, Sane, Muric
GOALS: Aguero 1, 43, 60
MANAGER: Pep Guardiola 7
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Leno 7, Mustafi 6, Koscielny 6, Monreal 6, Lichtsteiner 5.5, Torreira 7, Guendouzi 6, Kolasinac 5 (Denis Suarez 66′ 5), Iwobi 5 (Ramsey 66′ 6), Aubameyang 5.5, Lacazette 6.5
SUBS UNUSED: Cech, Elneny, Ozil, Mavropanos, Nketiah
GOAL: Koscielny 10
MANAGER: Unai Emery 6.5
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson 5
Player ratings by Jack Gaughan
CLICK HERE to view Sportsmail’s Match Zone – including the move for Sergio Aguero to break the deadlock inside just one minute
Aguero’s hat-trick on Sunday wasn’t spectacular but it was the striker’s art encapsulated – yes, even the one that shouldn’t have been allowed. All three were from close range, the result of an innate understanding of where the ball would arrive. That sort of talent is instinctive.
‘I turned up and the ball turned up,’ Jimmy Greaves once recalled. ‘I didn’t know what made me go there.’ That is what happened to Aguero. He turned up and the ball turned up: three times, the sum total of his scoring attempts. Each time he found a way to get it across the line – by fair means or foul. If that makes him sound duplicitous, rest assured the foul play was unintended.
Aguero was trying to complete his hat-trick legitimately when fortune intervened. What should have been deemed handball went unnoticed, and Aguero took the game beyond Arsenal’s reach. To be fair, he also had what looked a justified penalty appeal denied, and City would probably have won anyway.
Arsenal did not have a shot on target in the second-half, despite trailing 2-1. It was their most toothless 45 minutes since a first half against Manchester United in May 2015. Make no mistake, City were very much worth the three points.
It was a sign of their comfort that when, after 66 minutes, Arsenal coach Unai Emery decided to introduce new loan signing Denis Suarez, late of Barcelona, Pep Guardiola took four steps sideways to pat his countryman on the back and wish him well. A manager doesn’t do that if he feels greatly worried about what is going to happen next. City were where they had hoped to be by then – two points off Liverpool, who have a game in hand at West Ham tonight. Just imagine. Had they won at Newcastle, City would be leading the league by now.
Aguero answered Man City’s call on the cusp of half-time and popped up at the back post to slot home and restore the lead
The Argentine remained focused to latch onto Raheem Sterling’s squared ball across to score his and City’s second goal
New boy Denis Suarez entered the action late in the second half to make his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt
Unai Emery remained animated on the touchline and continually attempted to conduct his men into action at the Etihad
German defender Shkodran Mustafi required some treatment after going down painfully during the physical encounter
And for a while, there must have been a fear of history repeating. As at Newcastle, City took the lead inside the first minute and, for a spell, failed to capitalise on it. Maybe it’s because their standards are so impossibly high, but it really is quite mystifying that Guardiola’s players can hit such a giddying height and then, just as suddenly, go to sleep.
City could have been three up inside five minutes, but were level after ten, and only restored their advantage just before half-time. Maybe it is simply impossible to maintain such a high level of technical excellence, just as Liverpool cannot always sustain the exhausting intensity of gegenpressing.
It is hard to uphold City’s explosion from the traps for 90 minutes, either. Of all the goals scored in the first minute since the inception of the Premier League, 1.4 per cent of them have been the work of Aguero in the last six days. A 50-second opener here to go with the 24-second goal he scored in Newcastle on Tuesday, the two fastest goals of the season so far; City certainly know how to hit the ground running, even if they are not always capable of continuing at such a ferocious pace.
So, as at Newcastle, Aguero got City off to a flyer and what followed was something of a puzzle. City are becoming quite the enigma. Periods of drift, punctuated by explosions of white hot genius. Aguero’s first was a lightning strike, his second was forged by one of the finest passages of play of the season; but Guardiola looked quite perturbed by the bit in between. He knows he has the players to be substantially better than Arsenal; as that second half proved.
Laurent Koscielny planted his head on the ball and sent it past Ederson to equalise before the goalkeeper even had a chance
The Frenchman stooped low to connect his header and fire the ball past a helpless Ederson at close quarters in the first half
The Brazilian flung his arms up in vain, but the ball had already rocketed past him and bulged in the back of the netting
The Gunners skipper wheeled away with arms outstretched after cancelling out City’s early goal and pulling his side level
Nacho Monreal had initially jumped highest to meet the corner ball and make a flicked assist for Koscielny to head it home
Pep Guardiola looked concerned on the touchline as his side surrendered their early lead at the Etihad on Sunday evening
Anyway, start at the beginning – and what a beginning it was. Alex Iwobi dawdled on the ball, as Arsenal repelled an attack and was caught in possession by Aymeric Laporte. He crossed and Aguero finished with a diving header – an all-too-rare means of conversion in the modern game. Within five minutes, City could have had two more.
They were short-changed by referee Martin Atkinson when Shkodran Mustafi undoubtedly tugged at Aguero as he attempted to get in behind to receive a pass from Kevin De Bruyne. It should have been a penalty, but Atkinson waved it away.
A superb save from Bernd Leno kept out a 30-yard effort from Raheem Sterling out with merely five minutes gone but in that short time City looked capable of anything. And then, somehow, Arsenal ended up back in the game.
Kyle Walker conceded a corner, much against the run of play, which was whipped in by Lucas Torreira, as City’s marking twice let them down. Nacho Monreal won the first header, at the near post, Laurent Koscielny converted it, stooping, inside the six-yard box. Half of the goals City have let in this season have been from set pieces – the poorest ratio of any team in the Premier League.
Defender Aymeric Laporte thought he had made it 2-0 to City early on, but his headed goal was ruled offside from a free-kick
Monreal took a tumble as Unai Emery rushed to the touchline to bark commands at his Arsenal players
Aguero launched himself at full stretch to get his head onto the ball and break the deadlock after just a minute of play
Aguero beat Monreal to the ball and used his striker’s instinct to finish clinically and take first blood for champions City
The Argentine hit the turf after making connection and kept his eyes on the ball as it made its way towards the far corner
Goalkeeper Leno could only look back and watch as the ball careered past him and nestled into the far corner of the net
Aguero peeled away in celebration after putting City into the lead and adding to his goal haul for the season
The big screens at the Etihad beamed the image of the Argentine hitman as the home supporters made lots of noise
Just as well they are occasionally touched by angels, then. Having offered little bar the odd pot shot after, City burst into life and back into the lead on 43 minutes, with a goal of exquisite beauty and clinical execution. Fernandinho played a crossfield pass to Sterling on the left, the England man cutting it back on the diagonal for Bernardo Silva.
What followed constituted a one-two, but of a type few teams can conceive, let alone play. Silva returned the ball to Sterling, now slightly inside, with the deftest chip taking Arsenal’s back line by surprise and enabling him to pick out Aguero once again, at the far post. It lacked the show favoured by the highlights reels, but was no less of a goal for that.
The same combination brought City’s third, after 61 minutes. Sterling cut the ball back, Bernd Leno pushed it – he should have gathered it, have no doubt, and the top strata of goalkeepers certainly would – and Aguero bundled it over the line. It touched the top of one leg, his flank, maybe his chest, and most crucially an elbow, but Atkinson let it stand. It was an accident, but it was most definitely handball.
Next year, if rule changes are passed and with VAR introduced, it almost certainly wouldn’t stand. This year, it cooked Arsenal’s goose, and placed a little more weight on Liverpool’s shoulders.
With City due to visit Everton on Wednesday, if Liverpool fail to win at the London Stadium on Monday night, they could be in second place by the middle of the week. Aguerooo, indeed.