WEST BRIDGFORD, England — There is something poetic about Manchester City being handed the Premier League title by a result at the ground where they last dropped points. It is testament to the remorseless efficiency with which Pep Guardiola’s side have hunted down Arsenal that Feb. 18 feels like a lifetime ago.
That was the day when the Gunners scored twice in stoppage time to snatch a 4-2 win at Aston Villa a few hours before City missed the chance to go back to the summit after a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest. Those two results combined sent newfound belief surging through Arsenal as they sought to maintain the momentum of their stunning first half of the season into the business end.
It was not to be.
City’s response to that unexpected result against Forest has been perfect: 11 consecutive victories, relentlessly capitalising on Arsenal’s stuttering form to end up winning the league on Saturday with three games left to play after the Gunners lost 1-0 to Forest here in the Midlands.
It was three games into City’s run when Guardiola found the magic formula, switching John Stones into a midfield hybrid role that did so much to give his team the balance and control they have subsequently shown.
Joao Cancelo had played there, but he was abruptly sent out on loan to Bayern Munich in January after reportedly falling out with Guardiola. It was a huge call, one the manager mitigated by using teenager Rico Lewis in that position for a while before settling on Stones.
Arsenal did something similar for much of this season with Oleksandr Zinchenko, acquired from City last summer, performing a similar function from left-back. He has been excellent for the majority of the campaign.
In the absence of the injured Zinchenko, manager Mikel Arteta opted to use Thomas Partey at right-back, with the hope he could step into midfield and overload Forest in the same style. It didn’t work. Arsenal monopolised possession but rarely tested Keylor Navas.
Jakub Kiwior‘s deployment at left-back meant they started with three centre-backs in the team, something Guardiola has done but to much greater effect. They did not move the ball with sufficient purpose or intent, and with less natural width in the team, Forest found it easy to funnel them into central areas and snuff out the threat with tenacious, defiant tackling.
Arsenal have found a brilliant way to win matches, a vibrant, energetic and aesthetically pleasing style that propelled them unexpectedly into the title race. The suspicion is, however, to go the distance in future they need a bit more at both ends: more stability at the back and more variety in attack. Also, an effective Plan B.
Yet it is understandable if Arsenal still have a distance to travel in trying to become champions; this iconic old stadium offers a measure of just how far Arsenal have come under Arteta.
Their last visit here came in January 2022, a 1-0 FA Cup third-round defeat for which Arteta apologised afterward. It later emerged in the Amazon “All or Nothing” documentary following the club that season that he was arguably at his angriest in the dressing room, telling his players, “I accept losing. I don’t accept these f—ing standards, I’m telling you. It’s nowhere near. Nowhere near!”
They are a different side now. Arsenal have pushed City into May through a level of improvement almost nobody imagined possible at the start of the season, with Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and William Saliba — whose absence was felt again here — emerging into some of the finest talents in English football.
Ultimately, they were unable to last the pace, and there are two primary reasons for this. They did not “bottle” the league as some suggest, but they were unable to execute their best football under the most intense pressure, a sign of a young side entering unknown territory and losing their bearings.
Two wins in eight games is not a collapse, but City have reduced the margin for error over 38 games like no side before them, and it is enough of a wobble to make Arsenal full of regret for a run that ended with Guardiola’s side being crowned champions on Saturday without kicking a ball.
Secondly, Arsenal do not possess the same quality in rotation as City. It is a common misconception that City have a vast squad rich with a multiplicity of options in all positions. They don’t. What they have is a smaller group of interchangeable players with little discernible drop in quality. Jack Grealish is having an off day? Don’t worry, there’s Phil Foden. Kevin De Bruyne isn’t quite running the show? Here’s Ilkay Gundogan. Aymeric Laporte is injured? There’s Nathan Ake or Manuel Akanji on hand. Need to switch up the attack? There’s World Cup winner Julian Alvarez.
And of course, then there’s Erling Haaland. City transferred Gabriel Jesus to Arsenal believing Haaland would be a significant upgrade, and his numbers are staggering: 52 goals in all competitions, 33 in the league.
Arsenal have made huge strides in the transfer window, making several shrewd calls, but that needs to continue this summer. Arteta has openly talked about needing to “absolutely nail” their summer spending. They cannot afford another £72 million mistake like Nicolas Pepe or an underwhelming initial return from Fabio Vieira for their £35m outlay.
For now, Arsenal must take their medicine and use the pain of this disappointment to come back stronger. Forest’s goal, the slightly bizarre product of Gabriel tackling Taiwo Awoniyi as he sought to convert Morgan Gibbs-White‘s 19th-minute pass, secured their place in the Premier League for another season.
The raucous City Ground got the ending they wanted. Arsenal’s will have to wait.
Forest loss shows how far Arsenal have to go to match City