The game-changing reason why Man City are now big title favourites over Liverpool and Arsenal

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After Man City's 3-2 win over Newcastle United, they look more likely to remain Premier League champions than ever

It only took 20 minutes and two seemingly effortless strokes of Kevin de Bruyne’s boot for a tense game to be turned on its head. Newcastle United had been excellent, had battled hard and had earned their 2-1 lead, but a wearied and overworked midfield was simply no match for Manchester City's returning king. Now that the Belgian is back, it already feels hard to picture anyone other than City lifting the Premier League trophy in four months’ time.

In his absence, City have been… good. More than competent, at least for the most part. But they have not been the relentless winning machine that we have become so accustomed to watching and fearing, and they have lacked the kind of creativity and dynamism in midfield that they used to such good effect in winning the treble last year. And until De Bruyne came off the bench in the second half, they were dearly lacking in the spark and vision needed to break down a determined Newcastle. He gave them everything they were missing and more.

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His goal was superb, of course, and the kind of goal few other players seem to be able to score – side-footed with such accuracy that it very deliberately nutmegged a defender on the way into the side netting, and with such timing that it zipped along the turf too quickly for the goalkeeper to react to. And the ball with which he set Oscar Bobb through for his ice-cold finish was sublime, a trademark piece of precision engineering. 20 minutes down the comeback trail and Pep Guardiola’s side already look terrifying again.

Arsenal and Liverpool will have their chance to respond, of course, but based on what we saw last season, the Gunners will be hard-pressed to keep pace while Liverpool’s two-point lead suddenly looks extremely slender. For a while, City looked vulnerable and started losing games – now, you worry that the rest of the title contenders haven’t taken sufficient advantage. Guardiola’s City sides almost always come on stronger in the second half of the season, and now they have something to galvanise them.

In his 21 minutes of playing time, De Bruyne touched the ball 35 times – the equivalent to over 150 touches of the ball across a full game. Even the most influential players in possession-based systems don’t always hit 100. To have had such a huge influence on a match in such a short space of time is the preserve of great players.

It’s also remarkable just how many of those 35 touches resulted immediately in a shot or a ball into a dangerous area. Two of the touches were attempts on goal. Nine were crosses, and three were ‘key passes’ – either potential assists or balls that led directly to a shooting opportunity. A remarkable percentage of the amount of time he receives the ball, he does something consequential with it very quickly. His vision, speed of thought and technique get mentioned a lot, but his extraordinary efficiency doesn’t come up so often. He makes things happen with quality but also in quantity.

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Guardiola has coped well enough without De Bruyne, and indeed without İlkay Gündoğan, the other spark at the heart of midfield who offered the treble-winning side such constant penetration through the middle, but there’s no doubt that they have lacked the same degree of threat through the centre, and they have been a less balanced side as a result. They have adapted – by pushing Julián Álvarez up into a support striker role, which has worked extremely well, or by using Bernardo Silva through the middle with a brief to look for gaps out wide, or with Mateo Kovačić sitting deeper and forming something akin to a double pivot with Rodri – but they have also threatened far more from out wide than they have through the centre. That has made them that little more predictable, that little more vulnerable, and has opened up opportunities for teams to beat them which may not have existed before. Would Wolves have beaten a City with De Bruyne? Perhaps, but it would have been even harder.

De Bruyne’s return offers them more control of the flow of the game, more versatility, and more threat from a greater number of angles. When he is paired up once again with a fully fit Erling Haaland – De Bruyne directly set up eight Premier League goals for the Norwegian last second, just one behind the league record – then it is easy to imagine City motoring along at a pretty ominous rate. They also have a relatively gentle run of fixtures to look forward to between now and March, when they face Liverpool and Arsenal in the same month. Odds are that they will be looking at their closest title rivals through their rear-view mirror.

None of which means that the title race, which is otherwise set up to be the closest in several years, is a foregone conclusion already. A lack of spark through the centre has not been City’s only weakness, and De Bruyne’s return will not solve their sudden and somewhat inexplicable habit of conceding needless goals. The defence has yet to quite get up to full speed this season, at least relative to those set before.

But you worry that City will travel at a canter now. Arsenal have been cumbersome of late and look tired. Aston Villa are clinging on grimly, but seem destined to fall away based on recent efforts against Burnley and Everton. Liverpool hold the advantage, but will now have to make do without Mohamed Salah for anything upwards of a month while he competes at the Africa Cup of Nations. City, meanwhile, are close to full strength and just starting to look like they will be at full steam very soon. And there are very, very few teams that have looked like they will be able to contain De Bruyne.

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