Titles races often hinge on single moments – or at least our memories of them, the narratives we construct to process them, do. Stan Cullis’s non-tackle, Ray Tinkler’s idiosyncratic interpretation of offside, Steve Bruce’s header, Newcastle’s 4-3 defeat at Anfield, Sergio Agüero’s finish, Riyad Mahrez skipping by Nicolás Otamendi – far more uplifting to remember the moments of brilliance and infamy, to isolate heroes and villains, than to consider the grand sweeps of economic determinism. Gossip and goals tend to be more fun than Marxist analyses.
Manchester City will almost certainly win the Premier League and they will do so because of the collection of great players gathered under a great coach, all funded by Abu Dhabi as part of the wider geopolitical strategy of the oil-and-gas-rich Gulf states. Or, if you prefer your history more event-driven, it may be that the key moment of this campaign has already happened.
The week before last, Arsenal were scheduled to meet Manchester City but had instead to play a Europa League game against PSV Eindhoven that had been postponed after the death of the Queen. Arsenal were rampant, on a run of seven straight wins. In their previous two home games they had beaten Tottenham and Liverpool. The atmosphere at those two games was perhaps the best it has ever been at the Emirates Stadium (speaking of the geopolitical strategy of the oil-and-gas-rich Gulf states). There was a real sense of momentum.
City had just lost to Liverpool, a game in which the familiar failing of Pep Guardiola sides to balls played behind the high defensive line had been exposed. Guardiola himself had seemed a little fraught. It is perhaps a slightly misleading stat given that two of the games were in the Champions League with progress already as good as secured but still, City failed to score in any of their last three away games before the trip to Leicester, a rare gumming of a usually hyper-reliable mechanism.
The reality is that City may have beaten Arsenal and done so comfortably, but Arsenal risk being nagged always by the possibility. What if City had turned up rattled? What if Guardiola, spooked by the possibility of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli running in behind City’s defensive line, had had one of his counterproductive tactical brainwaves? What if Arsenal had beaten a third Big Six side in successive home games, extending their lead at the top of the table to seven points? Suddenly there would have been breathing space, a significant lead to protect until the break for the World Cup, then a 23-game charge for the line with a meaningful head start.
As it was, Arsenal beat PSV to secure at least a playoff place in the Europa League but then, after taking the lead away to Southampton, looked weary in being pegged back after half-time. Too much, perhaps, shouldn’t be read into Thursday’s defeat to PSV but that was another sluggish performance from a side that wasn’t too far removed from a standard league lineup.
Before the weekend’s fixtures, the lead was two points after 11 games and given Arsenal go to Chelsea next Sunday (after a Europa League clash with FC Zürich), that could easily have vanished by the time the World Cup comes around. In Arsenal legend this could become a championship lost because of the timing of the Queen’s death.
It says much about the standards City have set that one postponed fixture can bear such freight, that a draw at Southampton can provoke gloomy introspection. Manchester City are such a relentless force, the sense is that no opportunity can be missed, that everything has to go right for any challenger. The mood already has turned.
Yet what Arsenal have done this season is already remarkable. The previous four teams to win nine of their first 10 games have gone on to win the title. The draw at Southampton came after 13 wins in Arsenal’s previous 14 games. In historical terms, these are astonishing figures; it is only in the very modern age that they have come to seem necessary to compete at the top of the league.
But equally, Arsenal can’t simply shrug and move on. There were warnings in that second half at St Mary’s of fatigue, as Mikel Arteta acknowledged. “We stopped doing all the simple things right,” he said. “The distances on the ball positions were too far, we gave too many simple balls away in very dangerous areas without much pressure – the game becomes more open and there are more transitions and you are fatigued.”
That is where the issue of squad size and City’s financial might becomes significant. Before Sunday’s game at home to Nottingham Forest, seven Arsenal players had played more than 900 minutes in the league this season, while only three of City’s had before their game at Leicester.
City simply have more options to rotate, to give players a rest. In every league game this season, Arsenal have started with the Saka, Jesus, Martinelli front three. It is true that had Emile Smith Rowe not required groin surgery there would have been more rotation, but there are few alternatives: Eddie Nketiah is a useful Europa League option, but there is a reason all of his 11 league appearances this season have been from the bench.
And that’s where a little context is important. Football has a habit of elevating expectations based on a good run at the start of the season, so there were some who saw Leicester’s two successive fifth-placed finishes as a disappointment rather than a significant achievement. In July, what would Arsenal have considered a good season? Given the Big Six may be on the verge of expansion to a Big Seven (or, perhaps more realistically, City plus a Big Six), Champions League qualification is an achievement.
It is six seasons since Arsenal took more than 70 points; they already have 28. The bookmakers had Arsenal as sixth-favourites going into the season. They may be the likeliest challengers to City the Premier League currently has, but few thought them capable of a title run. And whatever happens now, that’s the standard by which they should be judged. It would be extraordinary if they did not fall away. To be in the race at all is progress: there should be no sense of shame for failing to win it.