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

WHo said football should be fun? Sunday’s meeting between Manchester City and Arsenal was billed as an epic showdown between wizard and apprentice that could decide the league title. It resulted in a total of three shots on target, i.e. as many as Brentford scored between the 53rd and 55th minute against Manchester United. Admire the tactical machinations if you will, the levels of concentration and planning that went into it, the clearly sophisticated level of lack of action, but this was shit on a stick for the TikTok generation.

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

In the 2007 match between Liverpool and Chelsea, there was a sense of danger, that any mistake could lead to elimination. Daniel Agger’s goal midway through the first half canceled out the lead Joe Cole had given Chelsea in the first leg. Afterwards there were penalties. At the Etihad on Sunday there was never any prospect of anything decisive: both sides have nine games remaining and the only immediate consequence was that Liverpool, after their less than convincing victory over Brighton, now have a two-point lead over Arsenal with City one point further back.

City may feel that given the injuries they had, with Ederson, Kyle Walker and John Stones out and Nathan Aké forced off in the first half, the stalemate was a fair enough outcome, especially as they made the simplest decision seem to have. run-in of the three challengers. Liverpool will probably be happy too as the title is now in their hands: win every game from now on and Jurgen Klopp’s final season at the club will culminate in his second Premier League title.

And yet Sunday’s greatest performance was probably Arsenal’s. They had lost seven consecutive league games at the Etihad. They have usually failed in away matches against top-level opponents in recent years. But they effectively stopped City from playing, limiting them to one shot on target and coming away from a match against them unbeaten for the third time this season. In the mini-league between the top three, Arsenal are at the top with eight points, while the other two teams both have three points.

But what is just as telling is that those six league games between the top three have yielded just eleven goals. This is on course to be the highest scoring season in Premier League history, with an average of 3.23 goals per game as a whole, but the picture is very different among the elite. That is in line with the picture emerging from the Champions League, where goals per match in the knockout stages have been below 3.0 in each of the past three seasons, having fallen below that mark only once since 2008 had dropped.

Klopp predicted the new defensive posture after a goalless draw against Bayern Munich at Anfield in 2019. Given the focus on attack over the past decade, that’s where the competitive advantage was to be found. The wild three-goal swings we’re used to in the Champions League can be loads of fun, but they’re not a sign of a game in good health; rather, they show top teams who have no idea how to turn the tide when it turns against them, so fat on the advantages their resources have given them, so unused to being challenged in most domestic competitions, that they effectively forget were how to defend. The first teams to rediscover their resilience would have a clear advantage.

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And at the moment it is Arsenal who are in charge. Not only have they conceded fewer goals than any other side in the Premier League this season – 24, compared to Liverpool’s 27 and City’s 28 – but they have by far the best xG against: 20.4 to 28, 2 from City and 34.9 from Liverpool. That may be reset to some extent after Arsenal’s away games against Brighton, Tottenham, Wolves and Manchester United, but the pattern is clear enough: they are the best team in the league at preventing the opposition from creating chances.

They are also leading the trend to eschew full-backs, using four centre-backs so that, although Ben White does come forward, they can play narrow and have the wingers fill in as auxiliary full-backs, as happened on Sunday. , and may be set to counter opposition counters when possession is lost.

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

This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, the Guardian US’s weekly look at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email and he will provide the best answer in a future edition