Football’s elite are tightening up – and Arsenal lead the pack

Football’s elite are tightening up – and Arsenal lead the pack

Who said football was supposed to be fun? Sunday’s meeting between Manchester City and Arsenal was billed as an epic showdown between sorcerer and apprentice that might decide the league title. It produced a total of three shots on target – which is to say as many as Brentford had against Manchester United between the 53rd and 55th minutes. Admire the tactical machinations if you like, the levels of concentration and the planning that went into it, the obviously refined level of the lack of action, but this was shit on a stick for the TikTok generation.

In fact, in many ways it was worse. When the great former Argentina forward Jorge Valdano came up with his line in Marca to describe the second leg of the 2007 Champions League semi-final between Liverpool and Chelsea – “Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a shit hanging from a stick” – he was at least describing a knockout tie.

In that 2007 Liverpool-Chelsea match, there was a sense of jeopardy, that any mistake could lead to elimination. Daniel Agger’s goal midway through the first half cancelled out the lead Joe Cole had given Chelsea in the first leg. There were penalties at the end of it. At the Etihad on Sunday there was never the prospect of anything decisive: both teams still have nine games to go and the only immediate consequence was that, after their not entirely convincing win over Brighton, Liverpool now have a two-point lead over Arsenal with City a point further back.

City, perhaps, will feel that, given the injuries they had, with Ederson, Kyle Walker and John Stones out and Nathan Aké forced off on the first half, the stalemate was a reasonable enough outcome, particularly given they appear to have the most straightforward run-in of the three challengers. Liverpool will probably be happy enough as well, given the title is now in their hands: win every game from here in and Jürgen Klopp’s final season at the club will culminate in his second Premier League title.

And yet the greatest achievement on Sunday was probably Arsenal’s. They had lost seven successive league games at the Etihad. They have, in recent years, habitually faltered in away games against top-level opposition. But they effectively stopped City from playing, restricted them to a single shot on target and, for the third time this season, emerged unbeaten from a game against them. In the mini-league between the top three, Arsenal are top on eight points with the other two sides both on three.

But what’s equally telling is that those six league games between the top three have yielded just 11 goals. This is on course to be the highest-scoring season in Premier League history, with an average of 3.23 goals a game as a whole, but among the very elite the picture is very different. That tallies with the picture that is emerging in the Champions League, in which goals per game in the knockout stage has been below 3.0 in each of the past three seasons, having previously fallen below that mark only once since 2008.

Klopp predicted the new defensiveness after a goalless draw against Bayern Munich at Anfield in 2019. Given the focus that had gone into attacking over the previous decade, that’s where the competitive advantage was to be found. The wild three-goal swings we’ve become used to in the Champions League may be huge fun but they are not a sign of a game in good health; rather they reveal top teams with no idea how to check the tide when it turns against them, so fatted on the advantages their resources have given them, so unused to being challenged in most domestic games, that they had effectively forgotten how to defend. The first teams to rediscover resilience would clearly have an advantage.

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And at the moment it’s Arsenal leading that charge. Not only have they conceded fewer goals than any other side in the Premier League this season – 24, to Liverpool’s 27 and City’s 28 – but they have by far the best xG against: 20.4 to City’s 28.2 and Liverpool’s 34.9. That may reset to an extent after Arsenal have faced away games against Brighton, Tottenham, Wolves and Manchester United but the pattern is established enough: they are the best side in the league at preventing the opposition from creating chances.

They’re also at the forefront of the trend for eschewing full-backs, using four central defenders so that, although Ben White does get forward, they can play narrow and have the wingers drop in as auxiliary full-backs, as happened on Sunday, and are perhaps set for countering opposition counters when possession is lost.

They stopped City from scoring for the first time in 58 home matches, and that is not an achievement to be dismissed. Whether it is enough to win the league is another matter.

This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Have a question for Jonathan? Email [email protected], and he’ll answer the best in a future edition