Last weekend saw that most wonderful of Premier League cliches trotted out again: the stuff of Champions – they played badly and ground out that win.
In many ways, it’s very true. In many other ways it’s totally misleading. Just because Arsenal and Manchester City manage to win whilst playing badly, it doesn’t mean they’re going to win the league.
It might be a quality that champions often have, but this is a season like no other. Arsenal and City just seem to be coping with that better than most this season. They’re not quite as neck and neck as City and Chelsea were last season around this stage – they had identical records on New Year’s Day – but they’re still pretty close.
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It’s too early to discount Leicester and Spurs, of course. Being only two points behind Arsenal, Leicester have every chance of winning the league if they can keep up their form – all they have to do is match Arsenal’s results and beat them in that one game when they play each other. That’s if Arsenal are the ones setting the pace. Spurs, on the other hand, are the team on solid form, they just keep getting results and look hard to beat.
But the reasons neither of these teams look like challenging City and Arsenal are the strength in depth they have, and the lack of top-of-the-table experience these sides have. This season has made every football writer look like a complete idiot, but perhaps naively I’m sticking to my guns – I’d love to be wrong, how great would that feel? Watching Wes Morgan lift the crowned trophy would be a moment when everyone would remember where they were. A clip shown in every Premier League montage from that moment on until the end of time.
But surely it’s all about Arsenal and City, the two teams who ground out the victory this weekend.
Arsenal have the ability to beat any team in the division, looking at how they’ve played this season. Their rise has been coupled with some sort of newly-found spine in their team, capable of keeping the other team out, capable of limiting counter-attacks and staying solid at the back. In many ways, that’s why they’ve climbed up the table – even if all their stars seem to be in their attack.
City, on the other hand, are a similar paradox, but in reverse. It’s City’s attack that looks incredibly strong – surely the strongest in the league on paper – but losing their captain Vincent Kompany has made them hugely vulnerable in defence. For all of City’s powerhouse attackers, it’s a man they signed for £6m under Mark Hughes who keeps the team winning football matches.
But he will come back. As will David Silva and Sergio Aguero – already back on the pitch, but still not back to full strength and sharpness. And when City have those players back, not only are they a formidable team, but they have something that only one Arsenal player has: experience of winning the Premier League.
And that’s the kind of know-how that might sway the title race. Even though Arsenal have the ability to be champions, and it’s clear that City have the inconsistency to make Arsenal champions, it could just be the fact that City know how to grind it out that matters.
And that’s where there’s truth to the cliche. Because it’s all well and good grinding out a win when you play badly, but what’s more important is grinding out title wins. The fact that the champions are usually able to grind out more of the unfashionable wins than other teams makes sure that they’re able to grind out entire title wins.
Just because Arsenal beat Newcastle doesn’t mean that they have what it takes to be champions – it’s the fact that their squad is so good that means they have what it takes. But with all their experience, it’s a quality that stands out in their team more.