After Arsenal and Liverpool test Man City to the hilt, doubts linger if they can holdoff ‘Cityzens’ late charge

After Arsenal and Liverpool test Man City to the hilt, doubts linger if they can holdoff ‘Cityzens’ late charge


“Are you ready to follow 30 passes?” Mikel Arteta asked his players beforehand. “And then after you regain the ball, to lose it and be ready to follow another 30 passes? Yes? If so, then you are ready to play Manchester City. It’s that important. If you’re not ready to do that, then you cannot play them.”

The Arsenal manager might be inclined to discuss the wider challenge in similar terms. Are you ready to win 30 matches? If so, then you are ready to challenge Manchester City for the Premier League title. If you’re not ready to do that, then you cannot compete with them.

Arsenal won 26 Premier League matches last season, as many as they won in their “Invincibles” campaign in 2003-04. But it wasn’t enough because City won 28. Liverpool won 28 the previous season, but it wasn’t enough because City won 29. Liverpool won 30 in 2018-19, drawing another seven and losing just once, scaling heights of consistency that have barely been reached in English football history. But it wasn’t enough because City won 32.

In recent years, since City transformed the Premier League landscape under Pep Guardiola, we have come to regard 90 points as a minimum standard for a title-challenging team. Liverpool managed 97 in 2018-19 and 92 in 2021-22, but City beat them by a point on both occasions. City won it with 89 points last season (28 wins, five draws, five defeats) but that was having eased off in the final two games with the title already won and an FA Cup and Champions League final looming.

Had they needed to secure 30 wins and 94 points to overcome Arsenal’s challenge, you suspect they would have done.

This season looks different. City will not be winning 30 matches. They have won 19 of their first 29 games and they will have to win all of their remaining nine to clear 90 points. Even if they do that, they will require help from elsewhere – for Liverpool and Arsenal, first and second, to drop points. As City midfielder Bernardo Silva said after the 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Sunday, “We’re not favourites anymore.”

The bookmakers agree. All the leading UK betting firms now have Liverpool as slight favourites in a three-horse race. Opta’s “Supercomputer” predictive model, based on 10,000 simulations, goes further, giving Jurgen Klopp’s team a 47.7 per cent chance of winning the title (up from 35.3 per cent going into Sunday’s matches).

Opta suggests City’s chances have fallen from 45.9 per cent to 33.5 per cent, with Arsenal’s chances unchanged on 18.8 per cent. It is the first time all season Opta’s model has not had City as clear favourites.

You do not write off a team like City. If the Premier League, European and world champions end this season as the first team in English football history to win four league titles in a row, nobody, least of all Jurgen Klopp or Arteta, will be surprised.

Liverpool manager Klopp was quick to laud City as the best team in the world after the rivals played out a pulsating 1-1 draw at Anfield three weeks ago. Arteta said the same – “by far” – after Sunday’s stalemate in the Etihad Stadium.

Few people would disagree with those appraisals. But City are not firing on all cylinders at the moment. We know what “firing on all cylinders” looks like for City – and, for all Guardiola’s protestations, this is not it.

In the post-match press conference on Sunday evening, we asked Guardiola which of the three title challengers he feels is performing at the highest level.

“Right now? Man City,” he said with one of those smirks which leaves you wondering whether he is bluffing, double-bluffing or triple-bluffing.

He has clearly got a better poker face than his inquisitor. “Oh. Your reaction, you are not agreeing,” he said, smiling and laughing. “You are not agreeing.”

I gently suggested we are not seeing City perform at the level they have reached in the previous… “Six years, yeah,” he interjected. “Yeah, when we won five Premier Leagues, yeah right. You pretend we spend six years playing 7-0 every game, against Arsenal, this team, playing 3-0 or 4-0. I’m sorry. I don’t agree with you.”

But in the previous six seasons City scored 106, 95, 102, 83, 99 and 94 goals in the Premier League. They recorded 100, 98, 81, 86, 93 and 89 points. Right now they are on course for 83 goals and 84 points.

Sunday was the sixth time in their first 29 league matches this season they have recorded an expected goals (xG) figure of 1.0 or fewer. They won two of those games (2-1 at home to Brighton & Hove Albion and 1-0 at home to Newcastle United) but have drawn one (0-0 at home to Arsenal) and lost three (1-2 away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, 0-1 away to Aston Villa, 0-1 away to Arsenal) of the other four. Erling Haaland has scored just once across those six matches.

Clearly these are first-world problems. Even without hitting peak form, City have won 17 and drawn three of their past 20 matches in all competitions, which is a preposterous level of consistency by any other standard.

But to talk of “firing on all cylinders” means the type of performance level City reached in the final months of last season, when they scaled extraordinary heights not just in terms of results but the manner in which they swept aside opponents like RB Leipzig (7-0), Liverpool (4-1), Bayern Munich (3-0), Arsenal (4-1) and Real Madrid (4-0) in high-stakes matches between mid-March and mid-May.

That tells you they are more than capable of doing it when the stakes are highest. But that is why those last two matches against their title challengers have felt unusual.

At Anfield on March 10 they took a deserved first-half lead against a depleted Liverpool team, but then found themselves overwhelmed for long spells after the interval – a “tsunami”, Guardiola called it – and were, in the circumstances, grateful to escape with a 1-1 draw. In a very different, far less open game at home to Arsenal on Sunday, City had 72 per cent of the possession but only one shot on target.

Guardiola seemed to think his team is being held to an unfair standard. “Because we won five in six years, (people think) you have to win 10 points in front,” he said. “But when you see Liverpool play, I said you cannot take 10 points in front. When I see Arsenal play, we cannot take 16 points in front. Because they are really good. Jurgen and Mikel, with their teams, are exceptional – and the teams from behind, Aston Villa or Tottenham or other teams, are really good too.

“And still we are there. So we want to win. We play to win. Still I recognise my team. We could create more, yeah. But it’s difficult. When teams defend like this, it’s difficult.”

City’s past two Premier League matches have shown Klopp and Arteta take two very different approaches against the champions.

Liverpool went toe to toe and initially looked like being made to regret it as City took control of midfield, going 1-0 up thanks to John Stones’ goal. But after being given a way back into the game early in the second half by an under-hit back-pass that led to a penalty, converted by Alexis Mac Allister, Klopp’s team ended up making life extremely uncomfortable for City; a frantic, frenzied second half that saw chances at both ends and finished with referee Michael Oliver and VAR Stuart Attwell rejecting a strong Liverpool penalty appeal in the final minute of stoppage time.

At the Etihad Stadium, Arsenal’s approach was far more cautious.

“It’s tough because they (City) have so many different structures and move so much inside and on the base, from the winger stepping inside, from the centre-backs stepping up, the full-backs stepping up,” Arteta said. “You have to maintain certain principles to be able to keep them under pressure. When you don’t, then you are low. At that point, you have to be disciplined so they cannot pin you up at any moment.”

As an illustration of how to defend against City, it was pretty much perfect. Haaland barely had a touch, so effectively was he marshalled by William Saliba and Gabriel. When opportunity finally knocked for the striker in the 84th minute, free at the far post after Josko Gvardiol flicked on Kevin De Bruyne’s corner, Haaland seemed to be taken by surprise and the danger passed.

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