Arsenal have to beat the best to be the best

Arsenal are 90% of the way to becoming a title-winning team for the first time since 2004, but it is that missing 10% that might ultimately see them fail to win the Premier League this season. With eight matches to go, the fine margins that are the difference between success and failure are beginning to work against the Gunners and favour second-place Manchester City, who are six points behind and have a game in hand vs. West Ham.

Arsenal still have time, and one huge game at the Etihad on April 26, to swing the momentum back in their direction. But Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Liverpool at Anfield — when Mikel Arteta’s team raced into a 2-0 lead, lost focus and then conceded an equaliser in the 87th minute — was all about that elusive 10% and they were unable to make it count when it mattered most.

For all their progress this season and the exhilarating manner in which they have led the title race for most of the campaign, Arsenal still struggle against their main rivals when the pressure is on.

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The 3-2 win against Manchester United at the Emirates in January was a big one, but United are a side in transition under Erik ten Hag so that victory can’t be classed as one that made a significant difference. Yet the results that could return to haunt Arsenal if they miss out on the title will be the 0-0 draw at home to Newcastle in January, the 3-1 defeat against City at the Emirates in February and Sunday’s draw at Liverpool — games when a win would have felt like more than simply three points.

Arteta has corrected Arsenal’s long-term flaw of being a soft touch against teams they would expect to beat. For years the team saw finishing fourth as a success, but a new standard has been set and, with only a handful of squad members to have played under Arsene Wenger before he left in 2018, a new ethos cultivated. The final piece of the jigsaw is winning when the pressure is at its most intense against the best teams in the league.

In their head-to-head fixtures against the current top four, they have taken no points against City (one defeat), one from Newcastle (one draw) and three against United (one win; one defeat). The fact that Arsenal still have to play their return fixtures away against City (April 26) and Newcastle (May 7) — with Chelsea at home (April 29) in between — will either be a source of motivation or concern for Arteta and his players. Though, looking at their record, it will certainly be of concern for their fans.

We will only know how good this Arsenal team are at the end of the season. They have been excellent so far, showing a huge improvement on recent years, but their 2022-23 race to the title could be set to unwind in the final straight if they aren’t able to win against their rivals. Few trophies are claimed without a test of nerve during the run-in, so if they are to finish the season as champions, they will likely have to come away with victory at either City or Newcastle, or hope that Pep Guardiola’s team drop points along the way.

The harsh reality, though, is that Arsenal could end the season with 94 points and still finish second. Currently on 73, they will likely need to amass 95 (22 from the remaining 24 on offer) to finish as champions — five more than the club’s biggest Premier League points tally, which was recorded by Wenger’s “Invincibles” in 2003-04.

That Arsenal must scale such heights is a testament to the strength of their rival. City have become so ruthlessly efficient under Guardiola that they have broken the 90-point barrier three times in the last five seasons, winning four titles and even racking up 100 points in 2017-18. When Wenger’s team created history by winning the title undefeated in 2003-04 they won 26 games and drew the other 12; Arteta’s side have already won 23, drawn four and lost three. Incredibly, 30 wins this season might yet not be enough because City have raised the bar to such a level.

The questions that are still being asked of Arteta’s Arsenal don’t apply to Guardiola’s City because they have answered them emphatically so many times in recent campaigns by beating their rivals both at home and away. Last season, they finished top of the ‘Big Six’ table (vs. Liverpool, Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham) with 20 points from 30, and six wins from 10 games; Arsenal were bottom with nine points, and seven defeats in 10.

City also tend to get better during the run-in rather than fade away, Indeed, in the final 10 games of the past three seasons they took 2.4 points per game (ppg) in 2019-20, 2.1ppg in 2020-21 and 2.4ppg in 2021-22. In the same period, Arsenal managed 1.6ppg, 2.0ppg and 1.5ppg.

And, as if this isn’t already a tough enough read for Arsenal fans, City’s record against the Gunners in the Premier League since the start of 2013 is P20, W14, D4, L2, with seven of those wins from nine games coming at the Etihad.

So Arsenal know they must overcome a formidable opponent to win the title, but if they somehow emerge from the Etihad with a victory, or even a draw, then it will give them the confidence to take the final steps to glory in the last five games. Now they just have to do it.

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