The Arsenal fixation that gave up the title race to Manchester City

Arsene Wenger summed it up best when he insightfully and instinctively spotted a crucial difference in Arsenal’s recent displays

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 27 April 2023 12:40 BST
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Mikel Arteta looks anguished on the touchline
Mikel Arteta looks anguished on the touchline (AFP/Getty)

Sitting there defeated, in demeanour as well as result, Mikel Arteta was asked a pointed question. Has the Premier League got to the point where it needs Manchester City to have a bad season in order for anyone else to win the title? The only time anyone else has won the Premier League in the last six years, after all, was the only time City got fewer than 86 points.

Arteta was naturally not in the mood to get into this.

“I don’t know the answer to that. We lost today here, we have to accept that. We lost in a very different way at the Emirates. Today the quality of the performance was very far from what was required.”

It prompts another question, a remarkable one when you consider that Arsenal are still top of the league with just five games left. Do Arteta’s side have what it takes to continue the title race – let alone win it?

The problem Arsenal face is inherent to the emphatic defeat they suffered.

It is certainly difficult to remember a supposed title showdown in which the victory was so emphatic, where the true gap between the teams was so brutally revealed.

Liverpool did beat Manchester United 4-1 in 2008/09 and, while that was a well-deserved victory, the scale of it felt borne of the relatively freakish circumstances of the match. Not so here. This felt like reality asserting itself, after Arsenal had pushed themselves to the limit to offer the illusion of a title race.

The Gunners can still disprove that, of course. It’s just that the evidence of the game indicates the way this season is evolving.

Arsenal look like they are falling away, unable to maintain the same level as senior players drop off. They really need to win all five of their remaining matches but that looks a far greater task than even a month ago.

One of their next games is probably the most difficult challenge in the Premier League right now after City: away to Newcastle United. Before that, they at least face a farcical Chelsea, who are now on the brink of going a remarkable six games without a win. A visit from Frank Lampard’s men is likely to get Arsenal firing again, and back on track.

Except that’s what everyone thought before their match against the team in bottom place, that 3-3 draw at home to Southampton.

This is what happens when a team is in bad form. It is not about the difficulty of any given fixture, it’s that every fixture involves the team having to get over its own issues. Arsenal, it is clear, are in a funk.

Arsene Wenger summed it up best when he insightfully and instinctively spotted a crucial difference in their recent displays. He noted that Arteta’s side had stopped doing what they needed to do, stopped going through the processes that had launched them to the league’s summit. They had instead become fixated on needing to win. That brought a hesitation and a rushed nature to their performances. It was visible in their play, to the point that they couldn’t possibly hope to match City at their own game.

Manchester City players celebrate after VAR awards their second goal (PA)

It is why there might be fair criticism about why Arteta didn’t change his approach for this match. Why didn’t he sit deep and seek to hit City on the break? He was asked this and offered fair rationale.

“We wanted to tweak a few things, especially there. But when they are able to execute and score an early goal you have to understand where we’re coming from, you have to be loyal to what has brought us all this way. We’ve done it in the past in different ways and that doesn’t guarantee you anything. It’s time to look in the mirror at what we could have done better or differently.”

Arsenal’s fears have come true. They’ve surrendered their lead and now given the initiative to City.

Does anyone doubt that Pep Guardiola’s side will continue their run to win the games they need to win the title, and probably the treble? There was something else inherent to this match. It was the complete nature of City’s display.

It could, however, have a releasing effect on Arsenal. The pressure has dissipated; City are favourites now. It may bring a rise after the recent flatlining of performances. The problem is there is a new pressure.

Arsenal have to stop this season spinning away. Arteta was ultimately asked about arresting this.

“First of all, accept the reality. That’s the best way to move forward. Accept that today they were better than us, that they deserved to win the game, that we never had a chance to win the game and that we have to improve and be better and humble to accept that. You have to do that even though they were better.”

They now need to be much better just to keep the title race going.

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