London: 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 are far from perfect.
Three straight draws — the most recent coming at home to Southampton, the league’s last-place team — has seen the long-time leader lose the initiative, if not quite first place.
Right performance at the right moment
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,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said on Tuesday, “but you have to deliver in the right moment the right performance, and it has to be perfection.
“Because that’s what this last level demands — absolute perfection.”
It’s something City are 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 their final 12 games unbeaten, winning 10 of them.
And Pep Guardiola’s team are at it again. Heading into Wednesday’s game at Etihad Stadium, City are on a 16-game unbeaten run in all competitions, taking 25 points from a possible 27 in the league in that period.
That Arsenal still hold a five-point lead is testament to their extraordinary, improbable start to the season. The team is young, though, and isn’t used to handling the pressure of a title race.
It’s why many view City as the favourite, considering their form, their two games in hand and their pedigree in these situations.
Asked whether nerves were to blame for throwing away two-goal lead in draws against Liverpool and West Ham and then dropping two more points in the 3-3 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 3-1 ahead. Or goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale gifting Southampton the lead inside the 30 seconds with a sloppy pass out from his area.
Five difficult games
What might really be hurting at the moment is the back injury to centre back William Saliba, which has robbed Arsenal of one of their most reliable defenders and appears to have unsettled fellow central defender 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.”