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Monday, June 24, 2024

History says Manchester City will win the title – but one statistic gives Arsenal hope

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For a game that literally has the title on the line, Tuesday at Tottenham Hotspur might be one of those where the stands are more interesting than the pitch. Demand for tickets at the stadium has been huge all season, but not for this one. There are a lot of available seats on the official website’s exchange. Many fans evidently don’t want to be in the position where they’re supporting their team to help Arsenal – that’s especially to help Arsenal do something historic.

The view from many Spurs supporters – as articulated to the Independent by match-goer Aaron Sutton – is “we can’t be the reason they win the league”. That’s what it may come down to. With Manchester City and Arsenal both facing winnable home games on Sunday, Tuesday is likely to be the winning of the league.

Manchester City have the title race in their hands but Spurs can stop them (Getty Images)

Spurs fans, no matter the sentiment about always supporting your own team no matter what, can’t escape that reality. It’s an invidious position to be in, that ensures it’s going to be a very strange night at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

There is still one point worth stressing, that both managers actually involved in the game were insisting on. None of this will change the players’ motivation.

“We have a game of football to win,” Ange Postecoglou said. Given that typically spiky demeanour, Pep Guardiola had reasonably warned “don’t ask this question to Ange or the players… they’d be offended”.

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean the strange atmosphere won’t influence them. That can happen on these occasions, and even work both ways. Players sometimes become so determined to prove a point they end up overexerting. Spurs actually did it for Arsenal on the final day of the 1998-99, going ahead against Manchester United, only for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to come back in the way they always did.

The problem is that there’s already a potential quip about this being the third time Arsenal win the league at Spurs, after 1971 and 2004 – not that anyone around Mikel Arteta’s squad is even indulging in such lines. They don’t want to tempt fate.

With so many confusing emotions swirling around this match, it’s natural to point to the certainty of numbers, and records.

One is a stat that has come up a lot around City. That is their dismal record at this stadium, after half a decade of its existence. City have lost all four of their league games here, with their first match – a 1-0 defeat in the 2018-19 Champions League quarter-finals – setting the tone. Such numbers naturally bring talk of negative emotions and hoodoos.

Some of it is much more simple than that, which is also why this need not be so complex for this City team. Every single one of those victories was based on a specific tactical approach. You might even call it the Jose Mourinho gameplans, which makes it all the more fitting that he was responsible for half of those league wins. That is to sit deep, frustrate and counter with pace.

From that, you can already see a specific issue for this game, that was foreshadowed in City’s FA Cup fourth-round win this very season.

Postecoglou has basically declared himself ideologically opposed to this approach. While there was a tactical compromise in Spurs’ own recent match against Arsenal, that basically amounted to just playing a defensive midfielder. It’s not even like Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg worked out that well.

Spurs boss Postecoglou (Getty Images)

The wider point is that it’s almost impossible to go from the ideology that Postecoglou has been trying to ingrain this season to the type of finely-tuned defensive gameplan that has previously won this fixture. It doesn’t work that easily. There would be too many gaps for City to exploit. The only real approach for Spurs is to go for it. That largely worked in the 3-3 at City back in December, but Guardiola’s side were in very different form.

That brings us to the other, opposing, figures, that feels like it carries much more weight. City are now on a run of seven consecutive victories, with an average of exactly four goals a game. None of those wins have been by less than two goals. Two have been by three goals. Three have been by four goals. Six of the matches, meanwhile, have involved City scoring before the 18th minute.

It is form that is strikingly like last season, and why we would be talking about another treble had Real Madrid not somehow managed to reduce their Champions League quarter-final to the finest margins.

City can instead get two more points in the league than last season’s 89, to achieve 91. That might be symbolic, given that 89 is the maximum Arsenal can get, and what they might well rise to. Mikel Arteta’s side may get there, only for City to go that bit further.

This is why Guardiola was asked about it being “demoralising” before the game, even though he of course said that Arsenal are right there and defiant. His team still have to go and do it.

Just as the widespread feeling is that the champions will always just have more, though, the sense going into this game is that they will indeed do what they always do in run-ins rather than what they always do at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium stadium. That is just win with maximum focus. City have almost just industrialised this process, to go with the general club approach under this ownership.

Pep Guardiola has backed City to win the title (Action Images via Reuters)

There’s another telling stat in that regard. In proper “run-in” games – when the title has been on the line with just seven games left – Guardiola’s City have only dropped two points. That was a 2-2 draw at West Ham United, and is the only such example from seven years of victory. It’s why it’s asking so much for Spurs to do something here, before you even get to their own form, and the emotional context of this game.

If we’re reducing this to numbers, it’s likely City just take all of this out of the equation. That has after all been “normality”.

The wonder is whether the strange circumstances are sufficient to distort that normality. Guardiola tellingly referred to it as like a knock-out.

“We know what we’re playing for, it’s a knockout like a quarter-final second leg, we won’t get it back. Win, or lose – bye bye.”

But that’s where there also might be an outcome that yet suits everyone – not least the broadcasters and neutrals. If Spurs don’t lose, but it ends in a draw, it means the final day is a shoot-out on goal difference.

Stranger things have happened. Tuesday might well illustrate that, not least in the stands.

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