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Friday, June 14, 2024

The Premier League has a title race problem – but Arsenal can fix it

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As Mikel Arteta addressed the Arsenal squad on Wednesday morning, the message was the same. That was to keep focusing on what they must do and forget about Manchester City.

It wasn’t quite predecessor George Graham ahead of Arsenal’s famous last game in 1988-89, when he came in the morning after title rivals Liverpool thumped West Ham United 5-1. “Best thing for us, they’ll think they have it won,” was the message before that historic title showdown at Anfield.

This season’s final day obviously doesn’t have those dimensions, where the top two directly met, but also feels unlikely to reach the heights of previous Premier League climaxes.

This is the ninth time the title has gone down to the final day since the competition was founded in 1992, but it feels illusory, closer to 2010 or 2014 rather than 1995 or 2012.

Let’s face it, does anybody seriously think Man City are going to slip up at home to West Ham United? Far more likely is that they beat them easily, just as they did on that last day in 2014 and just as Chelsea did against Wigan Athletic in 2010. It’s why Arteta has to tell the Arsenal players to simply concentrate on their own jobs.

The truth is that the entire tension of the day is predicated on something that sheer probability suggests is highly unlikely. Even if City fall behind, as they did to Aston Villa on a more stirring day in 2022, does anyone doubt they’d also come back from that?

This was always the one issue hanging over the prospective three-way title race, too. All three would have been at home with winnable games. As it is, Liverpool only have Jurgen Klopp’s farewell, but they’ve still got over 80 points.

Manchester City players celebrate scoring against Tottenham (AP)

There are issues beyond what Man City are, as a state project, and their own dominance. Wider financial disparity in football has created a situation where, if the major clubs get it right, it becomes far too easy to win games against the bottom half. Guardiola’s City have just taken this to another level again. It will almost be symbolic if, as expected, Arsenal reach the 89 points that was required last season but City take it that bit further to 91 points.

It makes it all the more pointed that it is West Ham that the Premier League is dependent on for final drama, since this was the club that was involved in the most defiant last-day response of all. That was the 1-1 draw against Manchester United in 1994-95, which directly denied Sir Alex Ferguson the title. The actual champions, Blackburn Rovers, also lost – 2-1 at Liverpool.

It was one of the most astonishing days the Premier League has seen, as much because of the depths of resolve that West Ham went to in order to keep United out. Much of the memory of that has centered on Andy Cole’s perceived misses, although they were all difficult chances. The standout was Ludek Miklosko’s astounding acrobatic save against Lee Sharpe’s header.

Erling Haaland celebrates after scoring his second goal for Manchester City against Tottenham (PA Wire)

Is there much chance of Alphonse Areola doing similar on Sunday to at least make it interesting? Form suggests not. City’s win over Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday was the first game in eight where they didn’t score in the first half. It was only the second match in that spell when they didn’t score in the first 17 minutes, too.

History suggests otherwise, too. That West Ham result on the last day of the 1994-95 season – to go with Newcastle United’s 1-1 draw with Spurs in 1996 and Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Bolton Wanderers in 1998 – were among just three of 16 such matches that offered surprises. That’s why those teams were at the top, of course. That’s also the way football has gone.

Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are only one win away from four consecutive titles (AP)

None of these facts fit all the hype about the “thrill” of the final day. And if this all feels downbeat, it’s only the reality.

It’s why it’s difficult to indulge any talk of the unique tension of a day like this, of nervous players offering up poor touches and bad misses.

What might have made it interesting would have been if City had drawn at Spurs on Tuesday, and this Sunday was a shoot-out for goal difference. Sean Dyche’s Everton could have been exactly the worst opponents you’d want in that situation. For all the problems they’ve had this season, Dyche would surely have reveled in the opportunity to deny this Arsenal. It could have made for a hugely engaging afternoon, especially as City sought to chase down Arsenal’s three extra goals.

Mikel Arteta must keep his Arsenal side focused on their job at home to Everton (PA Wire)

As it was, City just won on Tuesday, in the manner they tend to in these run-ins. There’s another coincidental quirk in how, of all the proper title race games Guardiola has faced in his time at the club, David Moyes’ West Ham were the only team to actually take points off the champions. That was a 2-2 draw in 2021-22.

That was a West Ham at a different point of development, though, just as they were in 1995.

This is instead a team where Moyes is leaving because the era has run its course, and they don’t actually reliably defend in the way they used to. That doesn’t tend to provoke drama.

Moyes himself literally laughed at the question of stopping City in his last press conference this week – although it should of course be stressed his answer was a joke.

“It would be difficult to stop their Under-14s winning the title,” the outgoing West Ham manager said. “Professional is the word I would use. We will try and do the best we can.”

Mikel Arteta has urged his team to focus on their own job (Getty Images)

It’s probably going to require something beyond that for drama. This isn’t even like 2012, when City were facing Queens Park Rangers but also the ghosts of their own past. It is a team that has been there and done this, to the point of being 2-0 down and needing a win with 12 minutes to go of the 2021-22 season. Guardiola still ensured they went through the processes and claimed that victory.

The only possibility for anything similar this time is if City unexpectedly start poorly, or maybe miss a few early chances. Events can then generate their own emotional momentum. The day also probably needs Arsenal to go ahead first, just to create that element of pressure.

It says a lot about the Premier League in 2024 that there are attempts to bill all this as a tense showdown, but very few people see it like that.

Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero celebrates his stoppage-time winner against QPR in 2012 (PA Wire)

It has almost got to that with the likely champions. The Premier League is virtually certain to hand City the trophy on Sunday for an unprecedented fourth successive occasion, to make it six in seven years. There has never been a spell of concentrated domination like that in English football. But then there have also never been champions who are being investigated for alleged breaches of financial rules in the way City are now.

It’s just one of many reasons that investigation needs resolving, since it is beginning to present a real problem for the Premier League.

That’s why the competition badly needs a compelling final day, for the same reasons it could have done with a proper three-way race. This has been a season characterised by so many off-pitch cases and potential legal issues.

Jurgen Klopp will leave Liverpool after their final game of the season on Sunday (Getty)

Instead, the showdown is likely to be boringly predictable for many tangentially connected reasons. One argument that clubs have made – and why the cost-control rules are being changed – is that it’s so difficult for anyone else to compete. That can be seen in the results.

City fans will still go to the stadium feeling that same anxiety, since these feelings are difficult to shake. Arsenal fans will travel thinking maybe, just maybe.

For everyone else, though, it’s going to take something huge for Sunday to move us.

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