The most damaging blow Manchester City inflicted on Arsenal with victory in the biggest Premier League game of the season may just have been a psychological one.
City’s 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium saw them swap places with the Gunners, returning to the top of the table for the first time since 5 November.
Scratch beneath the surface and it is hard to escape the sense that this highly-charged encounter in north London might just have been the night when the momentum in the title race shifted decisively.
Arsenal have been outstanding this season, showing steel and character to pass the sternest tests placed in front of them – Liverpool and Manchester United beaten at home, Chelsea and Tottenham overcome on their travels.
When Arsenal won at Spurs on 18 January, they were eight points clear of City with both having played 18 games. They had momentum as well as a formidable advantage.
City, by contrast, have been short of their imperious best despite the avalanche of Erling Haaland goals – losing at home to Brentford, drawing with Everton and recently slipping up at Spurs.
For all that, for all the feeling that City were missing the old spark and fluency, an Arsenal stumble sees Pep Guardiola’s side back in that old familiar position.
Arteta’s side have claimed only one point out of the last nine, losing at Everton, drawing at home to Brentford then slipping against City. It has proved an expensive spell.
Arsenal are still right in this title race, make no mistake, but as they trooped off to sympathetic applause and City’s players fist-pumped in front of their joyous fans, there was a feeling of deflation around the stadium.
The Gunners have been full on and thrilling to watch. City have often looked like a team in search of their usual “X Factor.”
And yet City are now back at the summit. It will be tough for Arsenal to take.
Arsenal nursed a justifiable grievance after the 1-1 draw with Brentford here on Saturday, Ivan Toney’s equaliser the result of incompetence by those running VAR.
Here, Arsenal could not blame anyone but themselves. They were guilty of the sort of individual errors that invited City to inflict heavy punishment. They duly did and Arsenal ended up well beaten.
Takehiro Tomiyasu did not see Kevin de Bruyne lurking when he found him with a misplaced back-pass in the first half, then Gabriel summed up a performance where Arsenal’s defence often lived dangerously with a cheap concession of possession that ended with Jack Grealish restoring City’s lead after Bukayo Saka had levelled from the spot.
Haaland, whose physical presence bullied Arsenal into mistakes in the second half, added a third for his 26th goal of the season, his 32nd in all competitions, as City demonstrated the ruthlessness that marks out champions.
The self-styled kings of possession under Guardiola only had 36%, their lowest in a league match in his time at the club, but still recorded their most important league win this season without even being at their best.
Indeed, City were poor in the first half, infuriating the home crowd with time-wasting that resulted in goalkeeper Ederson receiving a yellow card.
It was different story after the break, especially when Guardiola gave Bernardo Silva a more accustomed attacking role.
City grew in threat, Grealish got himself on the scoresheet while Haaland’s goal – one touch with the left foot and another with the right to beat Aaron Ramsdale – ensured no late nerves for the reigning champions.
Arsenal looked callow in those closing stages, undoubtedly missing the midfield authority they lost with Thomas Partey’s injury.
City have the psychological edge over Arsenal on many levels. After the recent FA Cup win at Etihad Stadium, this result means Arsenal have now lost their last 11 league games against City, the longest losing run against any opponent in the competition.
Guardiola and City will feel order has been restored at the top of the table, particularly with a home game to come against Arsenal in April, while the Gunners must avoid the sinking feeling that their big chance in the title race has come and gone as they chase their first crown since 2004.
Arsenal have shown great resolve as they made their way to the top of the Premier League. They will need to show it again now, starting at Aston Villa on Saturday.
City, by contrast, will feel they are back in their rightful place.