In different circumstances, Manchester City might have been parading Alexis Sánchez as their new A-list signing and Sergio Agüero, one assumes, might have been left wondering what it meant for his own position. It is all hypothetical now Sánchez is heading Manchester United’s way but, on this evidence, it does seem perplexing that Agüero’s place had ever come under threat and that Pep Guardiola felt it necessary to investigate changing his attacking options.
This was Agüero’s 11th hat-trick in City’s colours and he has now scored 14 times in 12 league games against Newcastle. Agüero scored 30 goals last season in what was supposedly a below-par year. He has 22 this season and his obsession with scoring could probably be gauged by his mild indignation when asked whether he had made contact with Kevin De Bruyne’s cross for the opening goal. “I think it touched my hair,” City’s record scorer clarified.
There was no doubt about the other two, his second goal coming from the penalty spot and the hat-trick originating from a brilliant slaloming run from Leroy Sané that later left Guardiola fielding questions about whether it had reminded him of Lionel Messi.
It was a satisfying way for City to bounce back from their defeat at Liverpool and there was only one part of the match, at 2-1, when they had a wobble against a Newcastle side who were probably shocked to still to be in the game. Sané’s quick feet and Agüero’s sharp instincts, firing in with his left foot, soothed the crowd’s nerves and made sure the Premier League leaders retained a 12-point lead.
A measure of how the game panned out is probably best summed up by the fact City had 81% of the possession. At other times, it was even higher in favour of the home side and, by the 38-minute mark, there was a telling statistic that Newcastle had managed a 33 passes – or to put it another way, three per player.
Nobody should have been too surprised by Newcastle’s tactics only three weeks after a similar backs-to-the wall operation at St James’ Park, but it was still something to see one team having so much of the ball and another spending so long chasing it. The corner count – 18-0 – was another accurate gauge.
With that kind of pattern, it came as a jolt when Ciaran Clark played the outstanding pass of the game for Jacob Murphy to run clear and clip the ball past Ederson four minutes after Agüero had made it 2-0 with what Rafael Benítez described as a “very soft” penalty.
Javier Manquillo had definitely clawed at Raheem Sterling’s shoulder as the winger darted past him. Whether it was enough to put Sterling off balance was another matter but the referee, Paul Tierney, ruled in favour of the attacking player and when Agüero clipped the penalty past Karl Darlow it was tempting to think Newcastle’s only remaining objective was to keep the score down.
Instead, Murphy’s clever finish encouraged Newcastle to play with a touch more ambition and in the following quarter of an hour there was some erratic goalkeeping from Ederson to encourage the away side into believing they might salvage an implausible draw against the side who had beaten them 6-1, 5-0, 4-0 and 4-0 in their previous four visits to the Etihad.
The problem for Newcastle was that chasing an equaliser meant they had to show a little more adventure than had been apparent throughout the rest of the match and they found out what can happen when Guardiola’s team are given space to exploit. In another era, City might have panicked. Not this team, however. Darlow turned one effort from Sterling against the post and Agüero sealed his hat-trick after Sané had followed up his elegant run into the penalty area by deceiving DeAndre Yedlin and picking out the striker with a low cross.
For Newcastle, it is now one point from their 11 games against teams in the top half of the table and there were loud, mutinous chants from the away end to remind the club’s owner, Mike Ashley, of his diminished popularity.
Those supporters would clearly prefer their team to operate with more ambition but, as it stands, Newcastle should not necessarily be criticised for their tactics when there was such an obvious imbalance of talent.
Agüero scored five on Newcastle’s last visit to this stadium and if City had conjured up one more goal in the last seven minutes it would have been the first time since Spurs against Blackburn in the 1960s that one side had scored four or more against a top-division opponent in five successive home matches.