Manchester City’s relentless pursuit of silverware arrives at verge of history

Arsenal show marked improvement in mentality and final-game win would put side one point shy of title-winning Invincibles

The Manchester City fan base likes it to be known that they’re “not really here”. But as the club stands on the verge of history, it is a line from Pep Guardiola which offers the clarity, the explanation; a sense of wonder, too.

“We are there,” City’s manager has said repeatedly throughout this season and those that have gone before. His team are pushing yet again to secure the Premier League title and he has often posited that the very act of being there and competing, the sheer consistency, is the real measure of them, the thing that must be celebrated.

Nobody believes that. When a club such as City buy as they have, it is to win trophies, which Guardiola has done — 16 so far, to be precise. It is the next one that could gild the dynasty. Never in 135 years of English league football has a club won four consecutive top-flight titles. If City can hold off Arsenal tomorrow, they will break ground that has always felt out of bounds.

Arsenal have been outstanding challengers and they take conviction in their approach, if not belief in a City slip, into their final game against Everton at the Emirates. Two points behind City — who entertain West Ham at the Etihad — and with a better goal difference, they know what they have to do and what a story it would be if it came off for them.


It is the one that many neutrals want, which probably says as much about the suffocating nature of City’s dominance as the transformative work of Mikel Arteta, who took over as the Arsenal manager in December 2019 with the club at a low ebb.

Arsenal pushed City close last season and they have taken them even further this time; to the final set of fixtures, the numbers stunning. If they were to beat Everton, they would reach 89 points; only once have the Gunners finished with more in the Premier League — the 90 that the Invincibles collected in 2003-04, the club’s most recent title-winning campaign. Arteta’s team have set club records for goals scored (89) and wins (27) in a Premier League season.

The period under Arteta has been finessed by increasingly smart recruitment; witness the stellar performances of last summer’s signings David Raya, Declan Rice and Kai Havertz.

Arteta’s tirade at the video assistant referee system after Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle last November was not to everybody’s taste and the club’s statement in support of his stance attracted derision. It was viewed as a decisive show of top-down unity. The relationship between the team and the supporters, meanwhile, is reflected in the atmosphere at the Emirates. It has not been better since the stadium opened in 2006.

If City are teak-tough in terms of mentality, then Arsenal have made strides in this area. When Rice declared on the eve of the trip to City at the end of March that it was a “new Arsenal”, a club “ready to change what people say”, there were several conclusions.

Rice’s words could have rebounded on him; he knew that and so did the club’s media department. Neither party cared. A collective conviction held sway, a desire to own the narrative and, by extension, the game. This kind of thing has simply not happened in previous seasons; giving the players a voice in the newspapers before showpiece fixtures. Others have given insightful interviews. It can be empowering. Arsenal’s 0-0 at the Etihad was in the point-gained category.

The search for jeopardy in City’s season has been real, especially in Guardiola’s eyes. After the treble triumph of last year, he was worried about the potential for a hangover. Then came the loss of Kevin De Bruyne for five months to a hamstring tear after 23 minutes of the opening league game at Burnley. Erling Haaland missed two months from early December with a foot injury and Guardiola said on Tuesday night after the 2-0 win at Tottenham that the Norwegian centre forward had been “maybe not at his best”. City’s record against the other teams in the top six has been indifferent — W2 D6 L2 — and there have been low periods, the first when Rodri was suspended and they lost back-to-back league games against Wolves and Arsenal having just exited the Carabao Cup at Newcastle.

The second culminated in the 2-2 home draw against Crystal Palace in mid-December, when they threw away a two-goal lead, after which they headed to Saudi Arabia for the Club World Cup. Earlier in the month, with Rodri again suspended, they lost 1-0 at Aston Villa, having conceded late equalisers in the previous three league matches, against Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs. Yet the impression with City is that there is not too much friction. Haaland has not hit the heights of his 52 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions from last season. He still has 38 in 43 — 27 of which have come in the league, virtually guaranteeing him another Golden Boot.

City have walked the walk and the loudest criticism from their jealous rivals (apart from those to do with the 115 charges) is that, if anything, it has all been too precise and perfect, too easy and therefore cold and boring. City are too good, it’s not fair, we want our ball back and we’re going home. When this is the tenor of the discourse, City are winning. And laughing.

Has Guardiola coached a squad that is stronger mentally? He was asked the question in midweek. “Yes,” he replied. “Quite similar. I was in Barcelona and the guys there, my friend. In Bayern Munich, as well. That’s why I had success. No secrets. It’s beyond normal … how they put themselves again and again and again. And not be arrogant to think that we are done.”

It is Guardiola who has harnessed the remorselessness and imparted his obsessive will to win. It is buried in the muscle memory of players such as Ederson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne —veterans of the first of his five City titles in 2017-18; Phil Foden, as well, who took his first-team baby steps as a 17-year-old that season. What about Rodri, who has now played 49 Premier League games without defeat — seven shy of the record held by Arsenal’s Sol Campbell?

When Arsenal reflect on the season, they will pinpoint the weeklong reset in Dubai in early January as pivotal. Before the break, which featured warm-weather training and family time, the team had taken four points from an available 15 and gone out of the FA Cup to Liverpool. Since their return, their league record reads: W15 D1 L1.

But whatever any rivals do, City tend to go one step further. The Club World Cup came at a good time for them. Since their return from the Middle East, their league record reads: W17 D3 L0.

Regular City watchers believe the club’s Champions League victory of last season has lifted some of the pressure off Guardiola. He has been more relaxed in his media briefings, for example. It was also noted that he seemed to enjoy a renewed burst of enthusiasm after Jürgen Klopp’s announcement in late January that he would leave Liverpool at the end of the season.

Guardiola has not only seen off Liverpool’s title challenge, he has done likewise with his greatest adversary. And so he continues to pour himself into one of those eviscerating runs down the stretch, the sort that Klopp knows only too well. Arsenal have an omen on their side. The last team to win the title having begun the final day below top spot were Arsenal in 1988-89 when they beat Liverpool — who were top — at Anfield. The dynamics are different this time. Only City have control of their destiny. Just how Guardiola likes it. —Guardian