Arsenal and Liverpool must show the Premier League title race isn’t over – The Briefing

Arsenal and Liverpool must show the Premier League title race isn’t over – The Briefing


Whether the circumstances of the teams involved dictate this to be a fair assessment or not, April 14 may come to be known as the day the title contenders choked.

Liverpool at home to Crystal Palace, Arsenal at home to Aston Villa, two painful defeats at just the wrong moment, like two thoroughbred horses stumbling near the finish line while the pre-race favourite, 115 charges for horsing around notwithstanding, saunters to victory.

In a way, both results could have been forecasted. Liverpool’s vulnerable defence and their penchant for falling behind, be that against Luton Town, Brighton & Hove Albion, Manchester United, Manchester City or Atalanta (all of those have been in the past two months) was going to dent their title challenge sooner or later.

Arsenal wildly differed in that they had not been behind in a Premier League match in 2024 (this was their 12th league game of the calendar year), but this coming in between their huge, energy-sapping double-header versus Bayern Munich and against the fourth-best team in the country, plus the Unai Emery narrative, meant it was never going to be straightforward.

All logic of English football in recent years says that the title race is probably over. Manchester City have the easiest run-in, they have won three titles in a row, they have the best manager in the country/world, the top goalscorer in the league, Arsenal floundered this time last year, etc.

This is why the mood at the Emirates Stadium (which quickly began emptying after Villa’s second goal despite there being eight minutes of stoppage time added on) and Anfield was downbeat yesterday.

This is why Mikel Arteta stated that in any other league, they would be six or eight points clear at the top of the table by now.

This is why you can already get odds of 1/3 that Man City will win the league and Liverpool are already out as high as 6/1.

But hang on. The lead is only two points. Two! There are six games to go… any newcomer to English football, anyone who doesn’t follow the league that closely, would consider it folly that the title feels over.

City have to travel to Tottenham Hotspur, a league fixture in which they have not scored a goal or earned a point since 2018. They still have to travel to Brighton. They, like their title rivals, have a huge European game in midweek but also an FA Cup semi-final next weekend. When they next play in the league, Arsenal and Liverpool will both have played twice and could pile the pressure back on.

Arsenal underperformed… but are still only two points behind (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

This has probably been City’s weakest season of the last four. Erling Haaland was being compared to a League Two player last weekend, Kevin De Bruyne’s superpowers are on the wane.

And yet, there remains a feeling you require perfection to beat the Manchester City machine. It’s a crazy notion, yet it’s probably right.

What Arsenal and Liverpool cannot do from this juncture is allow their seasons to unravel; if Man City do drop points, it would be sacrilege for them not to take advantage.

What that requires is an extreme level of mental toughness. They have both shown it repeatedly in recent months, but now is when it really counts. As City have shown us so many times.

Alonso’s Leverkusen title is a truly great achievement

In the excitement/obsession over Xabi Alonso’s career trajectory — ie, pondering when he is going to abandon the club he is working wonders at — it has perhaps been lost just what Bayer Leverkusen have achieved.

They have not just won the league for the first time in the club’s history (you can read the inside story of their season here), they have obliterated the competition; ahead by 16 points and champions with five games to spare.

They have won 10 league games in a row to storm over the line, they are unbeaten in all competitions across their 43 matches, and they have ended Bayern Munich’s 11-year monopoly on the Bundesliga title in a year that Bayern signed one of the world’s best strikers, Harry Kane, who has scored 32 league goals in 29 matches.

The Athletic’s house style is to forego exclamation marks but it feels like one is appropriate at the end of every sentence here.

Fans invade the pitch at the end of the match (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Then they have had to carry the hefty weight of having never won the German league before, the Bayer ‘Neverkusen’ tag. Plus they only have the fourth-highest wage bill (Borussia Dortmund’s wage expenditure is double, Bayern’s is more than four times as high) and are the fourth-highest spenders this season (third-highest in net spend). Oh, and they finished sixth last year.

It is astonishing what they have done, something that stands tall alongside the most impressive achievements in Europe’s big leagues in the last few decades.

Leicester City in 2016 is the obvious standard bearer for an unlikely title, but other examples include Napoli last year, Deportivo La Coruna winning La Liga in 2000, or Montpellier’s only French crown in 2012.

None of those sides went unbeaten, though, and if Bayer Leverkusen go on to avoid defeat in all 34 Bundesliga matches, they will lift themselves to the heights of the great AC Milan team of 1991-92, Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-04 and Antonio Conte’s Juventus from 2011-12, who are the only unbeaten sides in the major European leagues in the past four decades.

It won’t be Bayer Foreverkusen for Alonso, but this may be the best thing he will ever do in his career.

Ten Hag’s unruly pupils

There was always one teacher at school that all the kids loved to wind up.

You know the type: they were easily flustered, never quite won over the classroom and failed to properly discipline the unruly troublemakers.

At an exorbitantly expensive school in Manchester, Mr Ten Hag is struggling to exert his authority.

He may have thought that when head boy Cristiano Ronaldo moved to a new private school in Saudi Arabia, his classroom would be easier to manage.

Instead, factions of unrest keep popping up, be it daydreamer Anthony Martial, the little pest Jadon Sancho who struggled to readjust from his former school, or now Alejandro Garnacho who (we are switching to real life now) has been undermining Erik ten Hag’s authority by liking tweets that criticised the manager’s decision to substitute the Argentine at half-time during the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth — and that suggested Ten Hag had thrown Garnacho under the bus with his post-match comments.

“Over the right side, there was a big gap… that’s clear and obvious,” Ten Hag said. “We had to repair the right side (at half-time). We had to bring a sub there.”

Ten Hag added that Garnacho had not trained during the week, but then he doubled down on his criticism by saying United needed “cooperation and togetherness” on that right flank, where Diogo Dalot had been left isolated during a succession of Bournemouth attacks (and two goals).

Garnacho liking the tweets is daft. Can he not accept criticism? This is not the first time United’s players have enlisted a passive-aggressive approach to criticising Ten Hag on social media. Garnacho did the same thing last week for tweets that had a pop at Ten Hag for withdrawing him at Chelsea. And Amad posted a zipped mouth emoji on Instagram after Bournemouth.

They might think they are being subtle or smart by not explicitly airing their grievances, but particularly in Garnacho’s case, well, Ten Hag was absolutely right, wasn’t he?

Dalot was completely exposed, with Garnacho repeatedly failing to track runners to offer support and the issue was compounded by inexperienced youngster Willy Kambwala being next to Dalot. While Garnacho may have been a threat going forward and set up Bruno Fernandes to equalise at 1-1, Ten Hag’s biggest problem was Bournemouth exploiting the right side of his defence.

Garnacho was blamed after failing to track runners (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Anyway, regardless of whose side of that particular argument you are on, this weekend did have the feel of, if not mutiny at United, something approaching widespread discontent from a point where there may be no return.

Garnacho and Diallo doing their social media swiping, or Dalot contradicting Ten Hag by saying United are conceding too many shots (and that the gap between the defence and midfield is too big), or Ten Hag being agitated by a press conference question about United possibly facing their lowest-ever Premier League finish… it all feels uncomfortable.

Ultimately, if the players are not having Ten Hag — and in return if the Dutchman essentially resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Kindergarten Cop failing to control his unruly youngsters — then that, more than facing 300 shots per game, more than the prospect of finishing outside the European positions, is what should arguably concern INEOS the most.

Modern art

Hell hath no fury like football fans berating a former player scorned.

There is no love lost between Wolves fans and their ex-academy star Morgan Gibbs-White — and in this incredible picture after Gibbs-White scored for Nottingham Forest and celebrated right in front of the away end there is, well, no love at all.

Fans react to Gibbs-White’s provocative celebration (Getty Images)

It is worth taking a minute to zoom in on the array of faces and gestures and pick your favourite. Some can see the funny side, but the bloke in the fluorescent orange jacket a couple of rows above Gibbs-White’s head definitely cannot.

Hang it in The Louvre Nottingham Contemporary art gallery.

Coming up this week

  • Tonight’s Premier League offering is a doozy. Visitors Everton are terrible at goalscoring (only Sheffield United have netted fewer than their 32). Hosts Chelsea are terrible at defending (they have conceded at least two goals in their past seven matches, against opponents including Burnley, Leicester, Sheffield United and Leeds). It’s the easily stoppable force against the incessantly leaky object.
  • People in the media (the bloody media, honestly) and in particular broadcasters have a pretty inane tendency to overstate the importance or attraction of football matches but Wednesday’s perfectly poised Champions League quarter-finals — Bayern Munich (2) v Arsenal (2) and Manchester City (3) v Real Madrid (3) — are as alluring as it gets. Shame we can only watch one live.
  • Tuesday could be just as good with Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain looking to overturn deficits against Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
  • Talking of overturning deficits, Liverpool need a footballing miracle in Bergamo on Thursday, 3-0 down to Atalanta. And yet West Ham United, even though they are at home and 2-0 down, have the more daunting prospect against brilliant Leverkusen.

Essential reading

(Top photo: Getty Images)


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