Kenny Archer: Arsenal have been so much better but Manchester City are the best

Kenny Archer

Kenny Archer

Kenny is the deputy sports editor and a Liverpool FC fan.

Bukayo Saka after missing a penalty against West Ham at the London Stadium on Sunday, a match the Gunners led 2-0 but ended up drawing 2-2 as they battle to stay ahead of Manchester City in the title race
Bukayo Saka after missing a penalty against West Ham at the London Stadium on Sunday, a match the Gunners led 2-0 but ended up drawing 2-2 as they battle to stay ahead of Manchester City in the title race Bukayo Saka after missing a penalty against West Ham at the London Stadium on Sunday, a match the Gunners led 2-0 but ended up drawing 2-2 as they battle to stay ahead of Manchester City in the title race

Back in January, Arsenal supporters I spoke to were worried men. Not about their chances of winning the English Premier League, but their ability to finish in the top four.

Ludicrous, of course, as I told them – but that’s what years of fear and failure can do to football fans. Arsenal should have won the title in 2016, after beating Leicester City twice, but the Foxes outran them.

Last season, Arsenal fell out of the top four, made worse by arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur beating and overtaking them late in the campaign.

The Gunners will obviously be in the Champions League next season; the only question is whether they enter Europe’s elite club competition as English champions or as runners-up.

It’s long been my view that Manchester City would retain their crown, completing that club’s first hat-trick of titles, and that’s looking an increasingly likely outcome.

Both City and Arsenal can claim to have the title ‘in their hands’ – if either wins all their remaining league matches they will top the table. The crunch clash should come at the Etihad next Wednesday night, when City host the current leaders.

Even if Arsenal don’t finish first, that won’t be a ‘failure’, or a ‘flop’; Mikel Arteta’s men certainly won’t have ‘choked’.

Arsenal have already finished ahead of Liverpool. They will also end up at least 14 points clear of London rivals Chelsea, even if the Gunners don’t collect another point and the Stamford Bridge side somehow win their last seven games.

St Totteringham’s Day, when Arsenal finish ahead of Spurs, is almost assured already; Tottenham can only match their north London rivals’ current tally of 74 points with that same improbable combination of the Gunners completely misfiring and Spurs winning every game.

Those are all achievements of note.

Liverpool, Chelsea, and Spurs all qualified for this season’s Champions League.

Arsenal were not expected to take any of the top four places, never mind pole position, so their progress in this campaign has been remarkable. City, those three clubs mentioned in the previous paragraph, and Manchester United would all have been rated above the Gunners.

Indeed this had the feel of a ‘make or break’ campaign for Arsenal. The club has invested heavily in recent years, yet if they didn’t reach the riches and the heights of the Champions League then some of their younger stars might well have thought about moving on this summer.

If Arsenal do win the title, ending a 19-year wait, then Manchester City will regret letting them buy striker Gabriel Jesus and left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Yet City don’t appear set for many, if any, regrets.

The acquisition of the phenomenal Erling Braut Haaland, even with the cost of more than £30m in agent’s fees and massive wages, was a no-brainer.

The scariest statistic about the Norwegian goal machine is that he is still only 22.

Talk that Haaland had somehow made City a worse team overall was utterly daft.

Their slightly below-par form in the first half of the season was due to a combination of fatigue from their efforts last year (and over several years) and the weirdness of a World Cup during a northern hemisphere winter.

Now they appear completely imperious: on a 10-match winning streak, part of a 14-game unbeaten run. During those 10 victories they’ve scored 37 and conceded just four goals.

It hasn’t been mentioned much, but they’re still on course for ‘The Treble’, of League, FA Cup, and Champions League.

Huge credit, of course, goes their manager Pep Guardiola.

He once commented that he wins so many trophies because he has ‘the best players’.

Many construed that as a joke, perhaps sarcasm, but it was completely true.

Guardiola does have the best players, partly due to expenditure, but also partly due to his management.

City have spent plenty, but so have Manchester United and Chelsea – and neither of those teams comes close to Pep’s side.

After years of the importance of full-backs in the modern game being accepted as a truism, the Catalan has, astonishingly, decided to play without any.

Joao Cancelo was let go on loan to Bayern Munich and Kyle Walker cannot get into the starting side, despite his physical attributes, particularly his pace.

Instead Guardiola has first converted Nathan Ake into an auxiliary left-back, then more recently deployed John Stones as a ‘false 2’. The England centre half does a job on the right side of defence, but his much more innovative, imaginative role now is as a passer from the base of midfield, alongside the excellent Rodri.

Pep isn’t even making up for the absence of natural full-backs by fielding wingers. Raheem Sterling was sold to Chelsea, while Riyad Mahrez isn’t a guaranteed starter.

Wide midfielders Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish create and score goals – but both also work back like demons when required.

Slot in the under-rated but always effective Ilkay Gundogan and with the best creative midfielder in the world, Kevin de Bruyne, supplying the finest finisher, Haaland, City are solid defensively and superb going forward.

City really should have reached the Champions League Final last year, only to be bamboozled by the white magic of Real Madrid, as Chelsea had been and Liverpool would be too.

The season before, Guardiola’s tactical tinkering backfired, fielding no defensive midfielder against Chelsea, for whom Kai Havertz ran through ther middle to score what proved to be the winner. De Bruyne getting literally taken out of the game didn’t help, admittedly, but Pep appears to have seen the error of his ways and they now have Stones at the heart of defensive midfield, blocking the way alongside Rodri.

With other options including Aymeric Laporte, Kalvin Phillips, and Julian Alvarez, City may not have as much depth as in previous campaigns, but their first 15 is good enough to complete the treble.

Arsenal can still have a say about that, of course, with no European or FA Cup involvement to distract them, but they must not lose next Wednesday – as I can’t see City dropping points in any other match.

Arsenal have been so much better than anticipated; but City are the best team in Europe, not just England.