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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The absurd truth behind Arsenal’s title challenge and why Mikel Arteta has already overachieved

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The contrast said almost as much as the numbers on the table. In the final minutes of Arsenal’s win at Manchester United, Mikel Arteta was “nervous”. How couldn’t he be? This was the title. This was the last chance. It was not a pretty victory, as the manager also admitted, but that’s almost predictable at this point. You don’t go as deep into a title race like this without enduring wins that are just about getting through it. That ensured the feeling in the dressing room afterwards was one of relief, and release.

“They’re all buzzing in there,” Arteta said. “We really wanted to live the moment.” The squad had said as much in the dressing room before the game, that they had to “earn it”.

It now marks a contrast with virtually every Arsenal season in this generation. This squad go to the last day of the season with the title still alive.

They haven’t been so close since 2004 when they, of course, won it but even that wasn’t this. That’s because Arsene Wenger’s invincibles were so good they inevitably had it wrapped up early. This is something else, that Arsenal haven’t felt since 1998-99. Arteta’s squad have actually surpassed that team 25 years ago and not just because they have already won eight more points with a game to go. That Arsenal lost their penultimate game of the league, away to Leeds United, to decisively cede the advantage to Manchester United.

This Arsenal beat United in their second-last fixture, to put pressure back on Manchester City for Tuesday at Tottenham Hotspur. It is still the Gunners needing a favour as they go up against a treble team, sure, but from a totally different vantage point.

It also makes the next few days a different experience for almost everyone at the club. There are few left who will remember that week in 1998-99 – or indeed 1988-89 – but they will doubtless be consulted. The old stories are perfect to alleviate the pressure.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta applauds the club’s fans at a soggy Old Trafford (PA Wire)

That is one thing that Arteta has been conscious of throughout this challenge. As suffocating as a week like this can feel, the Spaniard wants his players to enjoy it, to feel it. This is what they play for, to be in contention when it matters.

“That’s part of our journey, to have a big chance of winning the Premier League,” he explained. “We wanted to experience that. We’re going to have a normal preparation week to try to be in the best space to compete and beat Everton and then live the occasion as well.”

That has also been the message throughout this title challenge, going right back to January – to play, to relish it.

It was one reason Arteta beamed about his pride for the team. There is of course another element. One that the Arsenal manager is unlikely to ever really address given that he was Manchester City’s assistant manager before this.

That is the sense that Arsenal are up against the near-impossible. It is now likely that Arteta’s side will get to 89 points and that still won’t be enough to win the title. There was a hint of defiance about that subject in the manager’s comments after the United victory.

He spoke of how they had “no margin for error since January – we have to keep winning and winning and winning in any context”. That’s pretty much what they have managed, bar one defeat to Aston Villa. In the 17 games since the turn of the year, Arsenal have won 15 and drawn one, a draw at the Etihad that so few have managed.

They have had to be close to perfect and pretty much have been. That run has contributed to 27 league wins this season, which is a club record. Arteta was keen to bring that up, too.

Leandro Trossard’s goal handed Arsenal victory at Old Trafford (AP)

“It’s the most in the history of this club in 130 years,” the manager said. “That’s not progress, that’s history.” This was a line that stood out in the manager’s post-game press conference, and there’s undeniably a significant element of self-service to it.

There’s also a deeper truth. Arteta is right that it’s history, but not in the way people think. Put bluntly, and as Liverpool repeatedly found, it is absurd that a team can get that many wins and that many points and not win the title.

It has been a growing issue, stemming from the Premier League’s financial disparity, for over two decades but City have taken it to extremes. This has been the level required. Even if Pep Guardiola’s side won’t get to the 100, 98 or 93-point marks of previous title victories, the challenge of just keeping up with them in any context is immense. Teams really have to push themselves and it is exceptionally difficult to sustain, as Jurgen Klopp has found.

The German’s departure also touches on how this is a point worth stressing: to just keep up with City until the final day is a massive achievement. That is essentially what Arteta was getting at. People will snipe, but it’s true.

Others will point to that defeat against Aston Villa or the expenditure as reasons they should have won this title but they’re wrong. One defeat in the final 17 games shouldn’t knock a team out of contention in this way. Such setbacks should be a normal part of the run-in, that actually enrich the football. Twists and turns and responses are usually what make title races.

It has already been remarked that, for all the pace of this run-in, it hasn’t so far felt that entertaining. That is because of the knowledge that City are highly unlikely to slip up. They’re too good. There’s too much long-term power and strength. Perhaps the greatest manager of all time has been put in almost perfect conditions, with little expense spared, so he has this team almost exactly as he wants it. That is the scale that Abu Dhabi’s City have been able to work to.

Arsenal’s players celebrate after winning (AP)

And that’s the thing about the expenditure. If you want to keep up with them, you have to spend. There’s no choice. This is the minimum threshold. Arsenal have actually overachieved in that regard, since their wage bill is much lower than City’s. That remains the best metric for assessing expenditure, given there is a 90 per cent correlation between that figure and league position. Arsenal are in as good a position as they can be at this point. They’ve improved from last season and pushed the champions all the way.

City need to go and win their final two games. The penultimate one, away to Tottenham, will be strange given the emotional context. The home fans may not necessarily want to win, since it could gift their great rivals the title. Arsenal meanwhile need a favour. Arteta will of course be watching that game, as he does with every big match. Some of the players will, too. Others will seek to do anything else.

It all plays into how distinctive this week will be. Arsenal need to just feel it and not really think about any of that.

They shouldn’t even really think about City. They’ve done their part and it is an achievement on its own terms. That is a significant contrast with the two decades that have gone before. You only have to look at the numbers on the table.

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