The nine days that could decide the Premier League title

Arsenal, Man City, Man Utd and Tottenham all have grand ambitions that could be realised or shot down across the coming fortnight

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Saturday 14 January 2023 09:15 GMT
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'They were better than us': Man City boss Guardiola speaks after 2-0 loss to Southampton

At the top of Arsenal, the hierarchy share a view that has been discussed by supporters, and even within the squad. They believe that, if the club are to really maximise an opportunity at the Premier League title at this early stage of the team’s development, they probably need at least one significant signing in this window. They need the depth.

Manchester City’s 1-0 win at Chelsea was a warning. It wasn’t that Arsenal couldn’t manage such a victory, given they’ve already won at Stamford Bridge. It was the manner that City did it.

Just when it looked like they might be wavering following a 1-1 draw against Everton and an intense Christmas period after the World Cup, where Arsenal had initially stretched the gap, the champions again cut it by emphasising the financial gap. More than £160m worth of talent came off the bench in Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez and the two combined to win the game. The feeling within the buoyant City squad immediately afterwards was of one of those victories that means much more than the three points; that it can be the start of one of those title-winning streaks.

There’s that continuing sense City could just up it.

The next nine days will decide that and maybe so much more. This period will see what is almost a Manchester-north London mini-league that could go a long way to settling the Premier League. Both Arsenal and City will each take on Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, with the pressure of a burgeoning title race heightened by the intensity of the rivalries and grander ambitions.

To go with two huge local derbies, United and Arsenal obviously have their own long-standing rivalry, while an edge has evolved between City and Spurs after so many Tottenham Hotspur wins. There’s the sense they just know how to beat Pep Guardiola’s side.

It is one other reason there is a sense of frustration about Spurs’ season so far. Some at the club can’t help looking at Arsenal ahead of this north London derby and thinking it should have been them. Antonio Conte had privately felt the club at least had a chance at a title challenge this year given the ructions of the World Cup, which has fed into his recent agitation. There’s meanwhile a growing feeling around Old Trafford that United could overtake Arsenal, and certainly beat City on any given day, but would struggle to keep pace with the champions over a full season.

It’s why so much depends on whether City go on one of those runs. It is why this mini-league could be so instructive. It could open the gap or close it, while putting City on top, or just tell us a lot either way. These nine days will test an ability to withstand pressure as well as whether teams can immediately go again, displaying that resilience required to win titles.

We know City normally have it. It’s in fact normally around now that they show it. Their best runs under Guardiola – the streaks that have really made the difference in terms of the title – have generally crossed their 18th Premier League fixture of a season. That’s especially been the case in the last few years as the Catalan has become more ensconced in the role and has been able to further perfect the squad’s conditioning according to his staff’s preferences.

Man City’s best spells

2017-18, Games 1-22: 20 wins, 2 draws (18 wins in a row)

2020-21, Games 13-27: 15 wins

2018-19, Games 20-38: 18 wins, 1 defeat

2018-19, Games 1-15: 13 wins, 2 draws

2021-22, Games 11-25: 14 wins, one draw

2017-18, Games 27-35: 8 wins, one defeat

2021-22, Games 32-38: 6 wins, one draw

It was pretty much from around now, in terms of the number of games played, that they won the last two titles. Both the winters of 2020/21 and 2021/22 saw City just up it in the way so many fear now. That is why so much depends on whether they can do the same this season – not least Arsenal’s transfer business.

If the campaign proceeds according to normal circumstances, and there are no distortions, City will likely claim more than 90 points again. That’s no longer even an outlandish achievement, in the truest sense of the word. It’s the inevitable product of a lavishly-funded sportswashing project in the hands of one of the greatest managers in history. This is what to expect.

City are already on course for 87 points, at 2.29 per game, and that’s without yet going on one of those runs. If they do, and the forecast looks like 90-points plus, it would mean Arteta needs to bring an improvement of around 22-23 points on last season’s haul of 69. It says much about how high the threshold actually is that Arsenal have had a record-breaking start to the season and yet their 44 points doesn’t even leave them halfway there.

That shows how immensely difficult it is when the rigours of a 38-game season really start to take hold. It’s when the extra options become essential. Immensely difficult, mind, but not impossible.

Biggest year-on-year points jump in 38-game Premier League seasons

Points jump

Club

Years

Positions

Manager

43

Chelsea

2016 to 2017

10th to 1st

Antonio Conte

40

Leicester

2015 to 2016

14th to 1st

Claudio Ranieri

26

West Ham

2020 to 2021

16th to 6th

David Moyes

24

Liverpool

2005 to 2006

5th to 3rd

Rafael Benitez

23

Liverpool

2021 to 2022

3rd to 2nd

Jurgen Klopp

23

Liverpool

2013 to 2014

7th to 2nd

Brendan Rodgers

22

Liverpool

2018 to 2019

4th to 2nd

Jurgen Klopp

22

Everton

2004 to 2005

17th to 4th

David Moyes

22

Man City

2017 to 2018

3rd to 1st

Pep Guardiola

21

Blackburn

2005 to 2006

15th to 6th

Mark Hughes

20

Aston Villa

2020 to 2021

17th to 11th

Dean Smith

20

Newcastle

2001 to 2002

11th to 4th

Bobby Robson

Such leaps have happened more often than might be expected, especially on Merseyside, and particularly at Anfield. Liverpool might even represent the best guide for Arteta here. While the eye will naturally be drawn to Chelsea and Leicester City as overwhelming evidence it can be done, the extent of Conte’s 2016-17 improvement was partly down to how badly Chelsea had underperformed the previous season, while Claudio Ranieri’s victory was a “miracle” for precisely that reason. It was a freak, not something to be repeated.

Beyond that, the greatest leaps have involved teams getting closer to the top but not quite there. Three of Liverpool’s biggest jumps have been to finish second. Part of that is because of the crucial difference between being on a wave without too much pressure, almost carried by momentum, and then having to do it when it’s really required. There is a difference in application. Clubs often have to learn what it takes to make the final step.

It’s why the introduction of Grealish and Mahrez against Chelsea felt so crucial. Guardiola could just introduce two players now well versed in those final steps. That informs Arsenal’s thinking now.

That thinking nevertheless remains very optimistic going into the north London derby, though, as it should be.

Even if that 44 points doesn’t put Arsenal halfway there, after all, it gets them pretty far. They’re currently on a return of 2.59 points per game, which would translate to 98 points. That might be unsustainable over a longer period but it’s come from a distinctive emotional momentum from the start of the season. That can be enough if the lead remains big enough, as happened with Liverpool 2019/20 and Leicester. They found themselves far enough ahead before things could get pressurised.

That is admittedly less likely with this City, but that’s why signings might be so crucial.

Mykhailo Mudryk will add depth to Arsenal’s squad
Mykhailo Mudryk will add depth to Arsenal’s squad (Getty)

The sense from within Arsenal is that they need purchases such as Shakhtar Donetsk’s Mykhailo Mudryk to match City’s depth but also to deepen belief. Purchases of that scale would show the squad this challenge is being fully backed. It could have a psychological effect on multiple levels, even beyond introducing something different in the most difficult of matches. Such signings could propel that momentum just enough.

There’s then the fair question over whether any of this will actually be required. All of this is of course predicated on 2022/23 being a “normal” season and circumstances going as they usually do.

It already hasn’t been a normal season due to the World Cup, though, and the reality is that we don’t have anything close to an idea of what the total effect will be. Figures who work with physical conditioning at the top clubs all share the view that there is “almost a sense of people waiting for something to happen”. They don’t feel “out of the woods” and all fear that the “World Cup hangover could sneak up at any point through injury”.

It is where minutes played at the World Cup could become so important. This is the other side of being such a well-equipped team as City in a season like this.

The champions are far out in front as regards minutes from outfield players in Qatar, with a cumulative figure of 4,535 minutes, with some allowances made for injury time. United are on 3,407. Arsenal are on a mere 1,309, which is close to a quarter of City’s.

These could be the margins that really make the difference this season. It is why something sensational from another sportswashing project in Newcastle United can’t be discounted. They only had just over 400 minutes at the World Cup, and have no European football. This weekend could even allow them back in, and closer to the top due to the rest of the top five playing off.

Others within these clubs see it a different way. They believe the focus should be on the difference that players who weren’t at the World Cup could make.

It is unprecedented that elite stars have had this recovery time in mid-season. It may well see Martin Odegaard, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz, Miguel Almiron and – of course – Mahrez and Erling Haaland have immense impact.

Mohamed Salah could benefit from the World Cup recovery period
Mohamed Salah could benefit from the World Cup recovery period (PA)

In which case, it’s quite a season for City to have signed a goalscoring revelation who wasn’t in Qatar.

All of which brings us back to Arsenal, and the market. They have the opportunity. They have the money. They have all the rationale.

Even if City don’t go on one of these runs, it could make signings like Mudryk and one other all the more important.

It also makes the timing important. Those who work in the market believe it’s imperative they do a deal in the next week, as selling clubs will have considerable leverage over them going into the last few days of the window. They will know how much Arsenal want reinforcements.

Shakhtar have already been stubborn because they feel they lost a lot in potential sales due to Fifa’s ruling that foreign players could leave Ukrainian clubs for free after the invasion.

It is just one more reason why these next nine days could be so decisive.

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