Sky blue shroud on Arsenal’s title hopes

Apr 27, 2023 09:10 PM IST

Premier League leaders misfire against City on a rampage

Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Wednesday was touted as the Premier League title decider. After all, City, in second place, trailed the Gunners by just five points with the rest well behind.

Arsenal's English defender Rob Holding (R) defends from Manchester City's Norwegian striker Erling Haaland during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Arsenal(AFP) PREMIUM
Arsenal's English defender Rob Holding (R) defends from Manchester City's Norwegian striker Erling Haaland during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Arsenal(AFP)

The onus was on Arsenal to ensure their trip to the Etihad wasn’t point-less. City’s superhuman efficiency in the home stretch of a title race, having won the league four times in the last five seasons, needed no introduction. The defending champions hadn’t lost their last 12 matches the previous season, which included nine wins.

With two games in hand, City were, effectively, a point ahead of Arsenal. A victory for Pep Guardiola’s team would hand them a huge cushion with not many games left while Arsenal had the opportunity to stay slightly ahead in the race by earning an improbable win.

Heading into the all-important match, Mikel Arteta had said something that would’ve given Arsenal supporters hope. Acknowledging the magnitude of the occasion, he said: “We really want it and we’re going to show that again. You have to deliver in the right moment, the right performance and it has to be perfection because that’s what this last level demands – absolute perfection in every single ball.”

However, in what turned out to be a rude awakening for Arsenal, it was the irresistible Manchester City team that delivered a near-perfect performance.

Kevin De Bruyne scored two goals and provided one assist, with John Stones and Erling Haaland also finding the back of the net, as City romped to a 4-1 win to take another step towards a seventh Premier League title.

Player for player the gulf in class between was unmistakable. De Bruyne, Haaland, llkay Gündoğan, Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish ran their opponents ragged.

But that would probably not disappoint Arsenal’s fans the most. Lack of intent would. For a club that won its last Premier League title 19 seasons ago, this was, to put it mildly, a massive opportunity. But their key players like Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli simply didn’t turn up.

City sealed Arsenal’s fate, as Arteta would admit later, in the first 30 minutes. De Bruyne gave the hosts the lead with a pinpoint accurate strike after a superb control and pass from Haaland. Thanks to Ben White and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, Arsenal somehow managed to avoid conceding more goals.

What made it most apparent that City were hungrier than Arsenal was the manner in which they pressed. Guardiola’s teams, since his Barcelona days, have always been known for building relentless pressure to win the ball back. Arsenal, however, showed hardly any rush to put their opponents in a spot.

And it kept getting worse. Once City tripled their lead nine minutes into the second half, it seemed they took their foot off the pedal a slight bit, perhaps keeping their hectic treble-seeking schedule in mind. But even then, Arsenal didn’t raise their intensity. City decided to play at a slower pace and the visitors simply allowed the game to meander on.

In many ways, Arsenal’s performance against Manchester City summed up why they found themselves in this desperate position in the first place. Defeat at the Etihad was always on the cards, but it was the six points they dropped leading up to this match that may truly cost them the title. Arsenal played with a similar lack of intent and intensity in the draws with Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton, and now they find themselves in a deep hole.

“The analysis is clear: the better team won the game,” said Arteta. “They were probably at their best, especially in the first half, and we were nowhere near our level. When that happens, the gap becomes too big and in the first 30 minutes we didn’t do all the basic things that you have to do against an exceptional team, in terms of competing, winning duels and understanding what the game requires. We got punished and we could have been punished even more.”

There’s no denying that it has been a memorable season for Arsenal. They have led the table for the most part and that they still find themselves at the top after the latest drubbing is proof of the good work done over many months.

Arsenal have five games remaining, with crucial clashes against Chelsea and Newcastle first up, and it all depends on how they respond. Will they keep believing?

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