Arsenal is discovering the brutal reality about going toe-to-toe with Manchester City in the final stretch of a Premier League title race.
Perfection is pretty much essential. And at the moment, Arsenal is far from perfect.
Three straight draws — the most recent coming at home against Southampton, the league’s last-place team — has seen the long-time leaders lose the initiative, but not quite first place.
Arsenal’s credentials are being seriously questioned ahead of the ultimate test in English football and what many are billing a title decider: An away match against City.
“We really want it and we are going to show it again tomorrow night, but you have to deliver in the right moment the right performance, and it has to be perfection,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said Tuesday. “Because that’s what this last level demands — absolute perfection.”
It’s something City is getting used to producing at this stage of the season. Just ask Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, whose team fell short of the title despite posting points totals of 97 (in 2018-19) and 92 (in 2021-22) while up against the City juggernaut.
In the first of those duels, City closed the league campaign with 14 straight victories to win the title by a point. Last season, the difference between the teams was also a point after City went its final 12 games unbeaten, winning 10 of them.
And the team coached by Pep Guardiola is at it again. Heading into Wednesday’s game at Etihad Stadium, City is on a 16-game unbeaten run in all competitions, taking 25 points from a possible 27 in the league in that period.
Put simply, City has become a master at pacing its season.
“When we won our first Premier League title (under Guardiola) with 100 points (in 2017-18), we started the season like every game is a final,” Guardiola said Tuesday. “I remember perfectly that feeling — and Arsenal had that this season at the beginning.
“When we started this season, the first game, second game, third game, after back-to-back Premier League titles, they weren’t finals. But now the last few months, we had that feeling — in the FA Cup, Champions League, Premier League. That is the truth. We see the end is real, real close. Now we know exactly what we are playing for.”
That Arsenal still holds a five-point lead is testament to its extraordinary, improbable start to the season when the team had 50 points from a possible 57 at the halfway stage. These Gunners are young, though, and aren’t used to handling the pressure of a title race.
It’s why many view City as the favorite, considering its form, its two games in hand and its pedigree in these situations.
Asked whether nerves were to blame for throwing away two-goal leads in draws against Liverpool and West Ham and then dropping two more points in the 3-3 draw with Southampton on Friday, Arteta said: “I think it’s more about the situation — the key moments in games haven’t gone our way. It could have been different.”
Like Bukayo Saka missing a penalty against West Ham that would have put Arsenal ahead 3-1. Or goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale gifting Southampton the lead inside 30 seconds with a sloppy pass out from his area.
What might really be hurting at the moment is the back injury to center back William Saliba, which has robbed Arsenal of one of its most reliable defenders and appears to have unsettled central defensive teammate Gabriel, too.
Saliba will be absent again on Wednesday, Arteta said, while midfielder Granit Xhaka remains a doubt after missing the game against Southampton because of illness.
What might have gone unnoticed amid Arsenal’s recent slip-ups is that the team is still on a 10-match unbeaten run in the league itself. It’s why Arteta retains hope and belief in his players, even if they lose to City.
“We are toe-to-toe with them,” he said. “We knew we had to go to the Etihad and we knew after that we’re going to have another five very difficult games.
“So is it going to define our season? The answer is no.”
As for Guardiola, he is just happy Arsenal has let City back in the race.
“After the first (half) of the Premier League that Arsenal has done,” he said, “it’s difficult to think at that moment that we’d be here now.”