In a season of three very good teams, rather than one or two sides, final 90 minutes will decide EPL champions

In a season of three very good teams, rather than one or two sides, final 90 minutes will decide EPL champions


By popular consensus, the best performance against Manchester City by any team this season came from Aston Villa, who beat them 1-0 in December. That was an extraordinary display – of an intensity and a level that Unai Emery’s team might struggle to reach when they go to Manchester for the return game this Wednesday.

But the point is that there have been a number of occasions this season when opponents, not least a much-maligned Chelsea, have made life very uncomfortable for the champions.

At their best under Pep Guardiola, it is rare to see City subjected to questions they struggle to answer.

During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns they had such a variety of creative and goalscoring threats. In 2017-18 their five highest scorers in the Premier League ended up with a combined total of 71 goals: Sergio Aguero 21, Raheem Sterling 18, Gabriel Jesus 13, Leroy Sane 10, David Silva nine. So far this season they have Haaland on 18, Foden on 11, Julian Alvarez on eight and Rodri and Bernardo on six, for a total of 49. In 2017-18 they had the Premier League’s four leading players for assists (De Bruyne, Sane, Sterling, David Silva). So far this season they have just two (Alvarez and Foden) among the top 30.

That suggests that Jeremy Doku and Jack Grealish, in particular, are not producing enough. Doku made some eye-catching contributions earlier in the season and an excellent impact from the bench at Anfield, but his past 20 appearances in all competitions have yielded just one goal (the fifth in an FA Cup tie against Huddersfield Town in January) and no assists. Grealish is only just back after five weeks out with a groin problem, but his attacking output this season (three goals and one assist in the Premier League) has been underwhelming to say the least.

The big-game impact of Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez has not yet been replaced.

The past two results have left City three points behind Liverpool and one point behind Arsenal going into the final nine games. They have also indicated that, this season, City’s aura might not be quite what it was.

But they didn’t lose the games, either. They remain right on the heels of the top two. Not quite where they want to be, but not a million miles away. Under the circumstances, both Klopp and Arteta might regret that they haven’t put a little more daylight between themselves and the champions with City having not been at their best.

It brings us to the question of whether, as Guardiola suggested, the competing teams have risen to City’s world-beating standard – or whether perhaps the champions might have met them halfway.

Liverpool and Arsenal are, as Guardiola says, “very good”. But exceptional? Exceptional in the way that City and Liverpool have been at their best in the Guardiola-Klopp era? Perhaps not.

Maybe this is a season of three very good – or very, very good – teams rather than one or two exceptional sides. Perhaps that makes for a more enthralling title race: more twists, more turns, more scope for slip-ups rather than the near-faultless form City and Liverpool showed in the run-in in 2018-19 in particular.

In January 2019, with Liverpool four points clear at the top of the Premier League, Klopp said he expected City to win their final 15 games, which meant there was little margin for error for his team. In fact City lost their next one, away to Newcastle, but they won all 14 after that.

Liverpool won 11 and drew four over the same period, including winning all of their last nine, and missed out by a point.

Klopp will not need reminding where Liverpool faltered on the run-in in 2018-19: draws away to West Ham, Manchester United and Everton. Those fixtures loom large when he looks at the tests that await his team over the final months of this season. Likewise a home game against Tottenham, who held them to a costly 1-1 draw at Anfield in the final weeks of the 2021-22 campaign, and a trip to Aston Villa.

In declaring on Sunday evening that his team were no longer favourites for the Premier League title, City midfielder Bernardo said they were now reliant on Liverpool and Arsenal dropping points – although “a lot can happen,” he told Sky Sports, “because it’s seven games”.

It is actually nine games to go, Bernardo was told. “Oh, then nine is better for us,” he said with a laugh. He repeated his message about City’s destiny being out of their hands, but he seemed happier with the feeling that more games meant more time for their rivals to slip up and for his own team to take advantage.

It’s funny. Guardiola made the opposite mistake at Anfield three weeks ago, suggesting there were still “12 or 13” games to go when in fact there were 10. Now there are only nine left. Better than “seven or eight” Bernardo had in mind, but there is less than a quarter of the campaign to play out.

City were five points adrift of Arsenal at the corresponding stage of last season. Arsenal managed just 12 points from their final nine games – a loss of nerve, a loss of energy, a loss of momentum – and City took full advantage, not dropping a point until the league title was secured.

The deficit City face right now is only three points. But there are two teams in front of them, not one. Arsenal look far more battle-hardened for last season’s experience. Their performance on Sunday was that of a more mature, grown-up, resilient team.

Liverpool? Less battle-hardened in one respect, perhaps, given the number of new faces in their squad and in their team over recent months, but they have found belief, positive energy and momentum that has characterised their frequent late-season surges under Klopp. This team has still to demonstrate it has the all-round quality and resilience of the one that won the Champions League in 2019 and Premier League a year later, but the more momentum they build up, the harder they will be to stop.

It is unlikely to require 90 points this time. As for 30 wins, that is already off the table.

The beauty of this season, for all three teams in this title race, is that it might be won with 28 wins, or 27, or even 26. Seven different opponents have managed to frustrate City (including Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea twice) and maintain their focus when the champions are playing their 30 passes and turning the knife in the way Arteta described.

It has given us a different kind of title race – and it has left City in the unfamiliar, unwanted position of needing two teams in front of them to stumble.

  • The Athletic report
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