Season-defining. Critical. Decisive. The recent first-versus-second clash between Arsenal and Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium was billed as the be-all and end-all of the Premier League season.
Only it wasn’t. It never was going to be, in truth. Sure, it took Arsenal to a position where they had gained only one point from their last three games. Yes, City regained the lead at the top of the table for the first time since August.
But three days later the Gunners were back at the summit and if they win their game in hand against Everton on Wednesday night they’ll have a five-point lead that leaves Pep Guardiola with all the big questions to answer with three months of the season to go.
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Of course, people’s opinions are coloured by history. Arsenal haven’t been in this position for over a decade, while City have won four Premier Leagues since the Gunners last fought a title battle, and six since Arsenal last won one. But to disregard what Mikel Arteta and his side have done to this point is to disrespect them.
Arsenal are top because they are the best team in the country. That’s how league tables work. The bookies might have City as odds-on favourites, with Betfred offering 10/11 on the champions and evens on Arsenal, but the evidence of the current season tells you that it is the north London side who are actually best equipped to see this one out as it stands.
Too many people expected that once City had won in N5 in the middle of February, Pep Guardiola would take on the role of a sea captain. “Take her to sea, Mr Haaland. Let’s stretch her legs.” But within three days they were hitting what might turn out to be an iceberg in Nottingham as they dropped points to a Forest side they really should have dispatched with ease. And that is where titles can be won and lost just as much as can happen in the so-called deciders.
Between now and the next international break in late-March, Arsenal meet Everton, Bournemouth, Fulham and Crystal Palace, with three of them at home. That doesn’t sound like too taxing a month. They’ve already beaten the latter three this season and will need no reminding of how alert they will have to be to Everton’s threat having dropped three points to them at Goodison just four weeks ago.
This is all to say that there is no greater sign that Arsenal are about to miss out than there is that City will do the same. Sure, the Cityzens have a 33-goal striker in Erling Haaland, but where is their left-back? And what happens when opposition teams stifle the supply line to the Norwegian? These have been the question marks hanging over City for some time, and while they have been limping along for the entirety of 2022-23 with only one three-match winning streak all season, Arsenal have had one sticky spot which they have come out of the back of and have been otherwise exemplary.
The 4-2 victory at Aston Villa the weekend after their loss to City was a show of true champion mentality, especially having fallen behind a second time and then battled their way over the line in injury time. In their visit to Leicester City which followed they were utterly dominant, limiting the Foxes to an xG of 0.01 in a mind-boggingly one-sided affair.
If that was City turning in such a performance from two points clear, bookies would be paying out already just as Betfred did with Guardiola’s side still 18 games shy of the finishing post last season. So where is the respect for Arsenal?
Maybe people still won’t believe it if the Gunners end up lifting the trophy come May 28. Perhaps they’ll still be putting them down, claiming City blew it or it was just a bad league this year. But the truth is that Arsenal are top on merit. Arteta has got one hell of a tune out of the Ben Whites, Granit Xhakas and Gabriel Martinellis of this world.
They still have 14 big tests ahead of them, but this Arsenal is not like the chokers of old. This is an Arsenal team worthy of a bit more respect.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change