Arsenal have a poor record against Manchester City, especially at the Etihad Stadium. But, ahead of Sunday’s potentially season-defining trip, they have reasons for hope.

There may still be a month and a half left of the 2023-24 Premier League season, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that everything revolves around this weekend for Arsenal and their aspirations of ending a title drought that is ticking towards 20 years.

Sunday’s trip to Manchester City would always be a big occasion, one with the potential to be a non-stop thrill ride as two of the world’s best teams tussle. But the narrative of the Premier League title race looms over this ominously, especially for Arsenal, who have everything to prove.

After all, to many they’re still the same team on the surface that “bottled” the title race last season, having found themselves eight points clear before collapsing in the final weeks of the campaign. They spent 248 days of the 2022-23 season top of the table, which is the most of any team in English top-flight history who didn’t go on to win the title.

A heavy 4-1 defeat in this very fixture on 26 April 2023 essentially completed an Arsenal downfall that started with William Saliba getting injured during a UEFA Europa League game in March 2023.

That loss wasn’t exactly surprising; Arsenal have a terrible record at the Etihad Stadium, failing to record a single win there in any competition since January 2015. In fact, they’ve only won away to City twice since Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 takeover of the club.

That will go along way to explaining why Arsenal’s title chances according to the Opta supercomputer are significantly lower than those of City and Liverpool despite going into the weekend top of the table.

The Premier League table above shows the live probability – as calculated by the Opta supercomputer – of each team finishing the season in every position. Prior to Sunday’s game, Arsenal are most likely to end the season third.

The one-sided nature of this fixture, combined with how little margin for error there is in the title race, helps contextualise the significance and importance of Sunday’s game for Arsenal; win and not only will they have inflicted a huge dent in City’s own title challenge, but they’ll have overcome a daunting psychological barrier as well.

And there’s much to be optimistic about for Arteta and his team, who look a more complete, mentally tougher and robust unit than this time last year. It’s also fair to suggest they’ve come into form at the right time.

Maybe “the right time” is arbitrary to a degree and means nothing concrete at this point; only at the end of the season can we be conclusive in that regard, but one of the comments that was frequently levelled at Arsenal in 2022-23 was that they hit their peak too early.

They were brilliant right from the start of the campaign, dropping points just twice in their 16 games before the turn of the year. A run of one point from three matches in February disrupted them, but that was followed by seven wins on the bounce in the Premier League.

Then came the blip that cost them a first league title since the Invincibles in 2003-04, as they accumulated just 15 points from their final 10 league games in 2022-23 and allowed City to make it three crowns in a row.

This season hasn’t followed the same pattern. While they certainly weren’t bad in the first half of the campaign, Arsenal failed to win four of their opening 11 matches and then a rocky period over Christmas saw them win once in five games, suffering three defeats.

That might seem like a backward way of suggesting a team should be optimistic, but the argument is they’ve potentially had their blip for the season already and responded incredibly well to it, allowing them to go into the home straight as the Premier League’s form team.

Premier League title race points race between Arsenal Manchester City and Liverpool
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

And you’d do well to convince anyone they’re not the best team in the league on current form, having started 2024 with eight successive top-flight wins. Each of the other three Premier League teams to achieve that feat have gone on to win the title (Manchester United in 2009, Liverpool in 2020 and Man City in 2021).

Obviously, this isn’t to say a team can’t have more than one difficult period in a season. It’s possible they suffer an injury to a key player once again and that derails everything. But there have been few warning signs in their performances in the league. Even in the slender 2-1 win over Brentford; sure, they needed a late Kai Havertz winner, but the goal they conceded was an absolute freak occurrence. 

Their title challenge has been built on the foundation of a brilliant defence, and that will likely be the deciding factor if Arteta does guide them to glory.

Arsenal have faced shots worth just 19.7 expected goals (xG) conceded this season, which is comfortably the best record of any team in the Premier League, with City second on 27.8 xGA. This suggests the Gunners are considerably better at restricting their opposition’s high-quality opportunities than every other club in the top flight this term, evidence of how strong they are defensively.

But there’s much more to this strength than their backline just being effective in rudimentary defensive scenarios. Arsenal employ suffocating pressing tactics, with their 446 pressed sequences the most of all 20 Premier League teams this season. Furthermore, their 54 shot-ending high turnovers (regains within 40m of the opposition’s goal line) is a league-high and corresponds to 20% of their overall 270 high turnovers, with no other side matching that efficiency when it comes to turning such situations into shooting opportunities.

This all contributes to the control they have over their opposition, who’ll find it extremely difficult to score if they can’t even break into the Arsenal half, and the graphic below highlights how dominant they are across the pitch, which in turn limits the opponents’ attacking threat.

Then having an excellent defence built around a brilliant centre-back partnership is only a good thing, and in Gabriel Magalhães and Saliba they have one of the most dependable pairings in Europe. Arsenal’s xGA wouldn’t be so low if they had poorer centre-backs, as proven by last season.

Before Saliba suffered the back injury against Sporting CP that ultimately ruled him out for the rest of 2022-23, Arsenal averaged 0.98 xGA per game, second only to City (0.81). But in the final weeks of the campaign when the defender was absent, Arsenal’s xGA per game went up to 1.44, only good enough for sixth best. And while that might not sound alarming, it shows how they became destabilised, and in a title race up against Pep Guardiola’s ruthless City, the margins for error are tiny.

Arsenal with or without William Saliba in 2022-23

Similarly, in those 11 games Saliba missed, Arsenal conceded 18 times; in the previous 27 matches, they let in only seven more (25).

In 2023-24, Arsenal’s xGA of 0.7 is far better than everyone else’s, which is a good omen. Having a great defence doesn’t guarantee a team anything, but title-winning sides are often built on sound backlines, with seven of the last 10 champions also recording the lowest xGA that season.

There’s also an argument that Arsenal’s goal glut since the start of the year is linked to their xGA figures, with the rolling xG chart below suggesting they’ve been at their most dangerous in attack lately, since becoming even shrewder defensively.

Arsenal underlying attacking and defending numbers xG
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Either way, there’s strong evidence that Arsenal have found a groove at the perfect time this season, rather than running out of steam like in 2022-23. Admittedly, their run-in is probably tougher than that of City and Liverpool, and there’s no guarantee someone as important as Saliba doesn’t sustain a damaging injury again, but they head to the Etihad with as good a chance of beating City as they’ve had in years.

Optimism can only take you so far in a title race, though. Arsenal need to prove things are different this time.

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