Two months, two teams, one winner: Premier League title race starts here

There are 10 games remaining for the league leaders, 11 for their main pursuers, without breaks or interjections or anything to break the concentration
Two months, two teams, one winner: Premier League title race starts here

RACE TO THE FINISH: Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta applauds the fans after the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Pic: PA

It has been a Premier League season of distractions, pop-up windows and one vast and disorientating hiatus. Exactly 34 weeks have passed since Arsenal kicked things off with a Friday night trip to Crystal Palace. 

The good news, as March folds into April, is that we do now have some clarity. The set-up is good from here. There are 10 games remaining for the league leaders, 11 for their main pursuers, without breaks or interjections or anything to break the concentration. By happy coincidence this comes as the league still has what is, because of the nature of the participants, a genuine two-way title race.

This process starts today with Man City at home to Liverpool, a regular source of dropped points and stubbed toes. After which the Super Showdowns and Startling Sundays come thick and fast. Next weekend Arsenal go to Anfield, where they haven’t won in a decade in the league. Wednesday 26th is the pivotal date as City host Arsenal, a chance for either team to inflict a decisive wound, and an occasion that is already flashing and whooshing and zinging with shiny graphics. The following weekend, the last of the month, Arsenal play Chelsea at home, a fixture Arsenal have won four times in their past 14 attempts.

After that both have to play Brighton. Arsenal still have to go to Newcastle and get something. City host Chelsea. But April looks all set to be the coolest month, studded with epic head-to-heads, klaxon-flaring match-ups, five-pundit Sunday lineup energy.

There are a few reasons why this feels noteworthy. First, that prospect of an uninterrupted Premier League run is in itself a break with recent tradition. Lest we forget – actually, please, please do try to forget – the past three seasons have been fogged and muddled by disease and strange scheduling. 

And second this is, of course, all very good for the product, at a time when the product is, for the first time, facing its own existential threat, the need for a little fluffing and primping of the brand. 

Beyond that this is just an excellent, cinematic two-hander. Here we have Arsenal’s peppy new-build team versus the supreme imperial juggernaut of the age, the classic master and pupil dynamic on the touchline, plus the fact Arsenal’s eight-point lead looks either impenetrable or alarmingly fragile depending on how it catches the light.

From here City could end up playing a maximum of 18 games in all competitions, with the three biggest trophies still within their grasp. Arsenal have just those 10 left to play. This seems to suit both teams. City are ice cold in title chases, with the capacity to hit one of those elevated winning streaks where they seem to play with a kind of light around them, where the opposition become simply a piece of staging. More fixtures is probably good.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will be coming at each of these games with a self-contained fury, fuelled by a week of pent-up adrenaline and Mikel Arteta’s bespoke coaching plans. Ten games suits them too.

Certainly the response since losing to City in mid-February has been impressively aggrieved: six straight league wins, three clean sheets, nine different scorers of 19 goals. There have been moments of jeopardy, but also resilience. There is a chance they could just walk though this thing without looking down, as Leicester did seven years ago.

But Arteta will also be aware that this version of City is getting better, that their stumbles in the first half of the season are no real comfort now. It is an agreeable paradox of the City project that it can secure the best manager, the best hired brains, the best squad, with the absence of fear and risk and destructive profiteering that comes with state ownership, and still remain interesting as a football team.

It looks a fairly simple equation. Talent + money = success. This machine should be unstoppable. And while it might be hard to be too blown away by the feat of improving a team by adding a supercharged 22-year-old goal-monster, for Guardiola this has still involved coaching on the hoof, altering the rhythms, and finding ways to bring more out of Erling Haaland while retaining his basic essence.

More touches, more involvement, more goals has been the basic version of the plan. City have won their past six in all competitions with an aggregate score of 23-1. Haaland has nine in his past three games, although he did also miss training this week.

Arsenal taking the title would probably be a good thing for the Premier League. City have dominated to the extent their domination starts to become an issue for the product. The way Arsenal win is good. Players have been improved, a system coached, academy players embedded. The stadium has been re-energised. Plus, of course, the Premier League needs that shiver of excitement.  A battle has been in train for some time over football’s future, a collision of competing interests, from private profiteering to nation-state propaganda needs. 

There is even a note of gallows humour in the way the Premier League title race will dramatise this process directly, oil-state soft power versus the standard global capitalist model. April will go a long way toward deciding one element: for City confirmation of an all-time era; for Arsenal’s players a career-defining run to the wire.


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