Arsenal’s trip to Manchester City on Wednesday has been circled for months as a potentially decisive date in the Premier League title race, but the Gunners must now wrestle back a huge swing in momentum towards the defending champions.
Mikel Arteta’s men travel to the Etihad five points clear at the top of the table, yet many see the title as City’s to lose thanks to two games in hand and home advantage in midweek.
Arsenal could have amassed an 11-point advantage in recent weeks to pile the pressure on City, as they try to balance their effort in a bid to win a treble of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup.
Instead, Arteta’s young guns have showed their inexperience of dealing with a title race in the run-in as three consecutive draws have gifted City back control of their own destiny.
Twice Arsenal blew 2-0 leads to draw at Liverpool and West Ham. On Friday, it was the league leaders’ turn to produce a late fightback from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 against Southampton.
But the silence that greeted the final whistle at the Emirates, accompanied by Arteta’s head in his hands and Arsenal bodies strewn across the turf illustrated that even salvaging a point felt like defeat against a side sitting bottom of the table.
The consistent problem across all three games has been Arsenal’s inability to defend.
William Saliba’s absence due to a back injury has proved a massive blow, with the Frenchman not expected back in time for Wednesday.
Saliba had been an ever-present in the Premier League prior to suffering the issue in a Europa League clash against Sporting Lisbon in mid-March.
In five games since, Arsenal’s number of goals conceded and big chances on offer to the opposition has doubled compared to the first 27 Saliba started.
“We have to look in the mirror because we gave three really easy goals away and when you do that it’s extremely difficult to win in this league,” said Arteta after his side’s struggles against Southampton.
“The confidence is there, it’s those moments that we need to cut back. At this level, we cannot give away the goals that we have given. It’s as simple as that.”
‘It’s a final’
Showing any weakness against Pep Guardiola’s men in a title race is likely to prove fatal, but Arsenal simply cannot afford a similar defensive display against City’s array of attacking talent.
The English champions have won all 11 of their games at the Etihad in 2023, scoring 43 goals in the process.
Erling Haaland is just two goals away from matching the all-time Premier League record of 34 goals in a season and 50 in all competitions in his first year in English football.
Even when the Norwegian drew a blank in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Sheffield United, Riyad Mahrez stepped up with the first FA Cup semi-final hat-trick since 1958.
As an example of City’s firepower, Mahrez is still likely to drop back to the bench with the in-form Jack Grealish, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva supporting Haaland in attack.
Haaland’s arrival precipitated Gabriel Jesus’ departure from City after winning four Premier League titles in the past five years.
The Brazilian is one of the few Arsenal players with experience of getting over the line to win trophies and issued a rallying cry for his side to bounce back on the biggest stage.
“We have to manage ourselves to come back and be focused again and strong, because anything can happen from now until the end of the season,” said Jesus.
“Even if you don’t drop the points we dropped in the last games, nothing changes – it’s a final. Each game is a final, we have to face them like a final. This is the most important game of the season for us.”
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