The top of football are tightening, and Arsenal leads

Who said football was fun? Manchester City and Arsenal’s Sunday match was billed as a sorcerer-apprentice thriller that might decide the league title.

Three shots on target were as many as Brentford had against Manchester United between the 53rd and 55th minutes.

Admire the tactical manipulations, attention, preparation, and perfected lack of activity, but this was excrement on a stick for the TikTok age.

It was worse in many ways. Jorge Valdano wrote in Marca that “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” regarding the second leg of the 2007 Champions League semi-final between Liverpool and Chelsea. At least he was describing a knockout tie.

Any error in the 2007 Liverpool-Chelsea encounter might mean elimination. The first-leg lead was erased by Daniel Agger’s goal midway through the first half. It ended with penalties.

After their lackluster win over Brighton, Liverpool now lead Arsenal by two points with City a point behind at the Etihad on Sunday. Both clubs still have nine games to play.v

City may think the stalemate was fair given their injuries, with Ederson, Kyle Walker, and John Stones out and Nathan Aké forced out in the first half, especially because they have the easiest run-in of the three rivals.

Liverpool will be happy enough if they win every game from here on and Jürgen Klopp wins his second Premier League title in his final season.

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Arsenal undoubtedly achieved the most on Sunday. They dropped seven straight league games at Etihad. Their road games against top-tier opposition have been poor in previous years.

They stopped City from playing, limited them just one shot on target, and remain unbeaten against them for the third time this season. Arsenal has eight points in the mini-league between the top three, while the other two have three.

The fact that the top three have scored only 11 goals in six league games is also noteworthy. This season is on track to be the highest-scoring in Premier League history, averaging 3.23 goals per game.

However, the top are different. That matches the Champions League, where knockout stage goals per game have been below 3.0 for the past three seasons, having only dipped below that threshold once since 2008.

Klopp foresaw the increased defensiveness after a 2019 Anfield draw with Bayern Munich. Due to the decade-long focus on attacking, that was the competitive advantage.

The wild three-goal swings we’ve become used to in the Champions League are fun, but they reveal top teams so fatted on their resources and unused to being challenged in most domestic games that they’ve forgotten how to defend. Teams that regain resilience first have an edge.

Arsenal is now leading the way. They’ve conceded the fewest Premier League goals this season (24), beating Liverpool’s 27 and City’s 28. They also have the greatest xG against (20.4 vs. 28.2 and 34.9).

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The pattern may change once Arsenal play away games against Brighton, Tottenham, Wolves, and Manchester United, but they are the league’s best at stopping opportunities.

They’re also at the forefront of eschewing full-backs, using four central defenders so that, with Ben White getting forward, they can play narrow and have the wingers drop in as auxiliary full-backs, as happened on Sunday, and counter opposition counters when possession is lost.

Stopping City from scoring for the first time in 58 home encounters is no small feat. It may not be enough to win the league.

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