Liverpool and Arsenal are testing Manchester City in a new way – which of the three will prevail? – The Athletic

Oliver KayApr 2, 2024

“Are you ready to follow 30 passes?” Mikel Arteta asked his players beforehand. “And then after you regain the ball, to lose it and be ready to follow another 30 passes? Yes? If so, then you are ready to play Manchester City. It’s that important. If you’re not ready to do that, then you cannot play them.”

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The Arsenal manager might be inclined to discuss the wider challenge in similar terms. Are you ready to win 30 matches? If so, then you are ready to challenge Manchester City for the Premier League title. If you’re not ready to do that, then you cannot compete with them.

Arsenal won 26 Premier League matches last season, as many as they won in their “Invincibles” campaign in 2003-04. But it wasn’t enough because City won 28. Liverpool won 28 the previous season, but it wasn’t enough because City won 29. Liverpool won 30 in 2018-19, drawing another seven and losing just once, scaling heights of consistency that have barely been reached in English football history. But it wasn’t enough because City won 32. 

In recent years, since City transformed the Premier League landscape under Pep Guardiola, we have come to regard 90 points as a minimum standard for a title-challenging team. Liverpool managed 97 in 2018-19 and 92 in 2021-22, but City beat them by a point on both occasions. City won it with 89 points last season (28 wins, five draws, five defeats) but that was having eased off in the final two games with the title already won and an FA Cup and Champions League final looming.

Had they needed to secure 30 wins and 94 points to overcome Arsenal’s challenge, you suspect they would have done.

City’s players claimed the Premier League last season with matches still to play (Xinhua via Getty Images)

This season looks different. City will not be winning 30 matches. They have won 19 of their first 29 games and they will have to win all of their remaining nine to clear 90 points. Even if they do that, they will require help from elsewhere — for Liverpool and Arsenal, first and second, to drop points. As City midfielder Bernardo Silva said after the 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Sunday, “We’re not favourites anymore.”

The bookmakers agree. All the leading UK betting firms now have Liverpool as slight favourites in a three-horse race. Opta’s “Supercomputer” predictive model, based on 10,000 simulations, goes further, giving Jurgen Klopp’s team a 47.7 per cent chance of winning the title (up from 35.3 per cent going into Sunday’s matches).

Opta suggests City’s chances have fallen from 45.9 per cent to 33.5 per cent, with Arsenal’s chances unchanged on 18.8 per cent. It is the first time all season Opta’s model has not had City as clear favourites.

You do not write off a team like City. If the Premier League, European and world champions end this season as the first team in English football history to win four league titles in a row, nobody, least of all Jurgen Klopp or Arteta, will be surprised.

Liverpool manager Klopp was quick to laud City as the best team in the world after the rivals played out a pulsating 1-1 draw at Anfield three weeks ago. Arteta said the same — “by far” — after Sunday’s stalemate in the Etihad Stadium. 

Few people would disagree with those appraisals. But City are not firing on all cylinders at the moment. We know what “firing on all cylinders” looks like for City — and, for all Guardiola’s protestations, this is not it.

In the post-match press conference on Sunday evening, The Athletic asked Guardiola which of the three title challengers he feels is performing at the highest level.

“Right now? Man City,” he said with one of those smirks which leaves you wondering whether he is bluffing, double-bluffing or triple-bluffing. 

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He has clearly got a better poker face than his inquisitor. “Oh. Your reaction, you are not agreeing,” he said, smiling and laughing. “You are not agreeing.”

I gently suggested we are not seeing City perform at the level they have reached in the previous… “Six years, yeah,” he interjected. “Yeah, when we won five Premier Leagues, yeah right. You pretend we spend six years playing 7-0 every game, against Arsenal, this team, playing 3-0 or 4-0. I’m sorry. I don’t agree with you.” 

But in the previous six seasons City scored 106, 95, 102, 83, 99 and 94 goals in the Premier League. They recorded 100, 98, 81, 86, 93 and 89 points. Right now they are on course for 83 goals and 84 points.

Sunday was the sixth time in their first 29 league matches this season they have recorded an expected goals (xG) figure of 1.0 or fewer. They won two of those games (2-1 at home to Brighton & Hove Albion and 1-0 at home to Newcastle United) but have drawn one (0-0 at home to Arsenal) and lost three (1-2 away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, 0-1 away to Aston Villa, 0-1 away to Arsenal) of the other four. Erling Haaland has scored just once across those six matches.

Haaland has found life trickier this season in the Premier League (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Clearly these are first-world problems. Even without hitting peak form, City have won 17 and drawn three of their past 20 matches in all competitions, which is a preposterous level of consistency by any other standard.

But to talk of “firing on all cylinders” means the type of performance level City reached in the final months of last season, when they scaled extraordinary heights not just in terms of results but the manner in which they swept aside opponents like RB Leipzig (7-0), Liverpool (4-1), Bayern Munich (3-0), Arsenal (4-1) and Real Madrid (4-0) in high-stakes matches between mid-March and mid-May.

That tells you they are more than capable of doing it when the stakes are highest. But that is why those last two matches against their title challengers have felt unusual.

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At Anfield on March 10 they took a deserved first-half lead against a depleted Liverpool team, but then found themselves overwhelmed for long spells after the interval — a “tsunami”, Guardiola called it — and were, in the circumstances, grateful to escape with a 1-1 draw. In a very different, far less open game at home to Arsenal on Sunday, City had 72 per cent of the possession but only one shot on target.

Guardiola seemed to think his team is being held to an unfair standard. “Because we won five in six years, (people think) you have to win 10 points in front,” he said. “But when you see Liverpool play, I said you cannot take 10 points in front. When I see Arsenal play, we cannot take 16 points in front. Because they are really good. Jurgen and Mikel, with their teams, are exceptional — and the teams from behind, Aston Villa or Tottenham or other teams, are really good too. 

“And still we are there. So we want to win. We play to win. Still I recognise my team. We could create more, yeah. But it’s difficult. When teams defend like this, it’s difficult.”

City’s past two Premier League matches have shown Klopp and Arteta take two very different approaches against the champions.

Liverpool went toe to toe and initially looked like being made to regret it as City took control of midfield, going 1-0 up thanks to John Stones’ goal. But after being given a way back into the game early in the second half by an under-hit back-pass that led to a penalty, converted by Alexis Mac Allister, Klopp’s team ended up making life extremely uncomfortable for City; a frantic, frenzied second half that saw chances at both ends and finished with referee Michael Oliver and VAR Stuart Attwell rejecting a strong Liverpool penalty appeal in the final minute of stoppage time.

At the Etihad Stadium, Arsenal’s approach was far more cautious.

“It’s tough because they (City) have so many different structures and move so much inside and on the base, from the winger stepping inside, from the centre-backs stepping up, the full-backs stepping up,” Arteta said. “You have to maintain certain principles to be able to keep them under pressure. When you don’t, then you are low. At that point, you have to be disciplined so they cannot pin you up at any moment.”

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As an illustration of how to defend against City, it was pretty much perfect. Haaland barely had a touch, so effectively was he marshalled by William Saliba and Gabriel. When opportunity finally knocked for the striker in the 84th minute, free at the far post after Josko Gvardiol flicked on Kevin De Bruyne’s corner, Haaland seemed to be taken by surprise and the danger passed.

Saliba and Gabriel were outstanding at the Etihad (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

By popular consensus, the best performance against City by any team this season came from Aston Villa, who beat them 1-0 in December. That was an extraordinary display — of an intensity and a level that Unai Emery’s team might struggle to reach when they go to Manchester for the return game this Wednesday — but the point is that there have been a number of occasions this season when opponents, not least a much-maligned Chelsea, have made life very uncomfortable for the champions.

At their best under Guardiola, it is rare to see City subjected to questions they struggle to answer.

During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns they had such a variety of creative and goalscoring threats. In 2017-18 their five highest scorers in the Premier League ended up with a combined total of 71 goals: Sergio Aguero 21, Raheem Sterling 18, Gabriel Jesus 13, Leroy Sane 10, David Silva nine. So far this season they have Haaland on 18, Foden on 11, Julian Alvarez on eight and Rodri and Bernardo on six, for a total of 49. In 2017-18 they had the Premier League’s four leading players for assists (De Bruyne, Sane, Sterling, David Silva). So far this season they have just two (Alvarez and Foden) among the top 30.

That suggests that Jeremy Doku and Jack Grealish, in particular, are not producing enough. Doku made some eye-catching contributions earlier in the season and an excellent impact from the bench at Anfield, but his past 20 appearances in all competitions have yielded just one goal (the fifth in an FA Cup tie against Huddersfield Town in January) and no assists. Grealish is only just back after five weeks out with a groin problem, but his attacking output this season (three goals and one assist in the Premier League) has been underwhelming to say the least.

The big-game impact of Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez has not yet been replaced.

Could City have expected more from Grealish and Doku? (Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The past two results have left City three points behind Liverpool and one point behind Arsenal going into the final nine games. They have also indicated that, this season, City’s aura might not be quite what it was.

But they didn’t lose the games, either. They remain right on the heels of the top two. Not quite where they want to be, but not a million miles away. Under the circumstances, both Klopp and Arteta might regret that they haven’t put a little more daylight between themselves and the champions with City having not been at their best.

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It brings us to the question of whether, as Guardiola suggested, the competing teams have risen to City’s world-beating standard — or whether perhaps the champions might have met them halfway. 

Liverpool and Arsenal are, as Guardiola says, “very good”. But exceptional? Exceptional in the way that City and Liverpool have been at their best in the Guardiola-Klopp era? Perhaps not.

Maybe this is a season of three very good — or very, very good — teams rather than one or two exceptional sides. Perhaps that makes for a more enthralling title race: more twists, more turns, more scope for slip-ups rather than the near-faultless form City and Liverpool showed in the run-in in 2018-19 in particular.

In January 2019, with Liverpool four points clear at the top of the Premier League, Klopp said he expected City to win their final 15 games, which meant there was little margin for error for his team. In fact City lost their next one, away to Newcastle, but they won all 14 after that.

Liverpool won 11 and drew four over the same period, including winning all of their last nine, and missed out by a point.

Klopp will not need reminding where Liverpool faltered on the run-in in 2018-19: draws away to West Ham, Manchester United and Everton. Those fixtures loom large when he looks at the tests that await his team over the final months of this season. Likewise a home game against Tottenham, who held them to a costly 1-1 draw at Anfield in the final weeks of the 2021-22 campaign, and a trip to Aston Villa.

In declaring on Sunday evening that his team were no longer favourites for the Premier League title, City midfielder Bernardo said they were now reliant on Liverpool and Arsenal dropping points — though “a lot can happen,” he told Sky Sports, “because it’s seven games”.

It is actually nine games to go, Bernardo was told. “Oh, then nine is better for us,” he said with a laugh. He repeated his message about City’s destiny being out of their hands, but he seemed happier with the feeling that more games meant more time for their rivals to slip up and for his own team to take advantage.

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It’s funny. Guardiola made the opposite mistake at Anfield three weeks ago, suggesting there were still “12 or 13” games to go when in fact there were 10. Now there are only nine left. Better than “seven or eight” Bernardo had in mind, but there is less than a quarter of the campaign to play out.

City were five points adrift of Arsenal at the corresponding stage of last season. Arsenal managed just 12 points from their final nine games — a loss of nerve, a loss of energy, a loss of momentum — and City took full advantage, not dropping a point until the league title was secured.

The deficit City face right now is only three points. But there are two teams in front of them, not one. Arsenal look far more battle-hardened for last season’s experience. Their performance on Sunday was that of a more mature, grown-up, resilient team.

Liverpool? Less battle-hardened in one respect, perhaps, given the number of new faces in their squad and in their team over recent months, but they have found belief, positive energy and momentum that has characterised their frequent late-season surges under Klopp. This team has still to demonstrate it has the all-round quality and resilience of the one that won the Champions League in 2019 and Premier League a year later, but the more momentum they build up, the harder they will be to stop.

Klopp and his team will be hard to stop if they maintain momentum (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

It is unlikely to require 90 points this time. As for 30 wins, that is already off the table.

The beauty of this season, for all three teams in this title race, is that it might be won with 28 wins, or 27, or even 26. Seven different opponents have managed to frustrate City (including Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea twice) and maintain their focus when the champions are playing their 30 passes and turning the knife in the way Arteta described.

It has given us a different kind of title race — and it has left City in the unfamiliar, unwanted position of needing two teams in front of them to stumble.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design Eamonn Dalton)

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Before joining The Athletic as a senior writer in 2019, Oliver Kay spent 19 years working for The Times, the last ten of them as chief football correspondent. He is the author of the award-winning book Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius. Follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverKay

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