Arsenal look like title contenders more than ever before

MANCHESTER, England — The points were shared, but a point was made.

Arsenal are used to leaving Etihad Stadium bruised and battered by an annual reality check that created an inferiority complex to Manchester City. But Sunday’s 0-0 draw gives the Gunners tangible proof that their building self-confidence has been rightfully earned and they have what it takes to last the distance in the Premier League title race.

If this season’s run-in to the end of the season is about avoiding the mistakes of last year for Mikel Arteta’s side, then here is a positive way to start. In the midst of blowing an eight-point lead from the beginning of April 2023, Arsenal came to the Etihad and were taught a harsh lesson in a 4-1 defeat that all but re-established the natural order of things with City pre-eminent once again.

This time, the Gunners were almost excessively safety-first, but that approach was understandable: Arsenal have not won on this ground since January 2015, and quite often since then they were blown away by half-time. Not this time.

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Manchester City had their chances. Nathan Aké wasted a chance as Kevin De Bruyne‘s 15th-minute corner found him inside the six-yard box. Erling Haaland missed his kick late on from another De Bruyne delivery in the final six minutes. But despite 72% possession and 198 passes completed in the final third compared with Arsenal’s 43, City ended with just one shot on target.

It is the first time in 58 matches City have failed to score at home — a statistic Arteta rolled out in multiple interviews afterwards. This was also only the 11th time in Pep Guardiola’s 459 competitive matches in charge that City have had one shot on target or fewer in a game. Arteta has been responsible for three of those — no other manager has achieved it more than once. The apprentice learned well from the master.

“It generates belief,” said Arteta of Arsenal’s stoic performance. “It continues momentum and the good position that we’re in. The fact that the boys are there and they want more and they’re demanding individually from themselves saying. ‘I could have done better, I haven’t done this as well as when we trained,’ that tells you just how much the boys want it. We’ll try our best to continue what we’re doing.

“We are improving, we are competing better and we are understanding how to compete in these games. There’s another step to make to win championships and that’s that you have to win. Today we were able to draw and we have to improve a lot still to win.”

Arsenal were unable to capitalise on the odd threatening moment. Gabriel Jesus failed to meet Bukayo Saka‘s 52nd-minute cross and Leandro Trossard could not find fellow substitute Gabriel Martinelli four minutes from fulltime when City were caught out at the back. But a smash-and-grab victory would have been harsh on Man City, who kept it tight throughout albeit without their typical potency.

While Arteta has gradually improved Arsenal’s record against the traditional “Big Six” top clubs of the Premier League, City had the best record last season, taking 21 points, with the Gunners second on 19. But this draw extends a significant drop from City in these big games this term.

City have only beaten Manchester United (home and away) this season and, having taken six points from Arsenal last season, they can count just Sunday’s single point against the Gunners 12 months on.

There was perhaps a sense that Guardiola would not be overtly upset with a draw, too, given the defensive vulnerabilities exposed by influential absentees including Éderson, Kyle Walker and John Stones. City dictated the rhythm of the game but did not risk it all, perhaps subconsciously relying on their track record of surging to the finishing line first over the final two months of the campaign.

Nevertheless, Guardiola is resorting to what could be termed “mind games” by insisting City are third-favourites after a weekend in which Liverpool moved two points clear at the top courtesy of their 2-1 win over Brighton at Anfield.

“Always who is first is favourites, second is Arsenal and we are third,” said Guardiola. “It’s not in our hands. All we can do is think of (next opponent) Aston Villa. If you are top of the league, like we’ve been before, you are favourites.

“They defend really well, low block, solidarity. It is not easy to break them. We take a point, nine games, we see what happens.”

Arsenal’s attacking numbers have generated headlines in 2024 but their defending has been a key improvement from last season. Arteta is surely mindful that the 43 goals they shipped in the league last season was too high a number: the title-winners on average have conceded 32.1 goals since the Premier League began in 1992.

William Saliba‘s absence is widely cited as one of the key reasons behind for Arsenal’s faltering run-in last year, and the evidence continues to reinforce that point. On Sunday, the Frenchman and Gabriel Magalhaes were excellent at centre-back, nullifying Haaland in impressive fashion and frustrating the prolific Norweigan to the extent heated words were exchanged at full time.

Who has the last word in the title race remains to be seen. Liverpool have the lead, City have the pedigree but Arsenal look better placed than before to remain part of the conversation until the very end.