Man City were a Heung-min Son shot from making Arsenal Premier League favorites

LONDON — When the deck is as stacked in their favor as it is for a club with the best coach, the best players, the most comprehensive front office and the most money; should it really come as close to falling apart as it did for Manchester City? If Heung-min Son finishes with anything like his usual aplomb that may have been it, Tottenham thrusting themselves and City into five days of waking nightmare.

Instead, history beckons for Manchester City. Beat West Ham United on Sunday and Pep Guardiola will have another record that is his and his alone, the manager of the first team to win four straight English league titles. The bearhugs shared in front of a rapidly emptying Tottenham Hotspur Stadium said enough. David Moyes is not going to be allowed to do any favors to his protegee on Sunday.

Guardiola might never have heard of “squeaky bum time” before the start of this week. He lived it tonight with Son’s miss.

“Do you know how many times Son punished us in the last seven, eight years,” Guardiola said.

How close it was to all falling apart though, a horror-struck Tottenham faithful seeing one of the greatest finishers of his generation with the simplest of chances only to roll it into the right leg of Stefan Ortega. There will never be any convincing Arsenal fans that he did not miss on purpose. It was not like it was the only moment where Tottenham nearly handed the title to their great rivals. Dejan Kulusevski nearly poked the ball through Ortega’s legs.

Before Erling Haaland’s 51st-minute opener, most of the threat City had created had been from offside positions or a miscued Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg clearance. Before his penalty in the 91st, they had been matched for possession, territory and expected goals (xG). Ange Postecoglu had not compromised his approach in possession but the aggressive deploying of James Maddison and in particular Pape Matar Sarr as pressing forwards gave Guardiola plenty of headaches. Better final balls in the first half and the chances were there for a counterattacking Tottenham.

This might have been a first league win on this particular ground but it was much too close for comfort. The same looks to be true for the title race.

It really ought not to be. City came into this season masters of all they surveyed, the Champions League hoodoo finally broken, their horizons expanded now that they had summitted their Everest. Their bank balance was not too shabby either.

In spite of Guardiola’s protestations to the contrary on Monday, City have existed in a financial stratosphere that most of their rivals could not reach since they were taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. Their net spend in the last five years might not be what blows Arsenal and Liverpool out of the water but a wage bill believed to be over £200 million eclipses the other contenders.

No other club in England, not even Manchester United, seems as inured against catastrophic missteps in recruitment such as dropping £45 million on Kalvin Phillips. A year later he was replaced by Matheus Nunes, who may yet be upgraded on again in the not-too-distant future.  All this is to say nothing of the existential question that hangs over them, the 115 charges from the Premier League that effectively contend their hegemony has been claimed unfairly.

The 2023-24 iteration of City have not had a beast as formidable as Liverpool on their heels for 38 games. There has been no need for the champions to hit 93, even 97-point pace just to keep hold of top spot.

Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have particularly excelled since the turn of the year, delivering the sort of run that is a sine qua non for those who aspire to seriously push Guardiola to the last. Indeed they are the first team since the Spaniard’s first season in charge who are on course to end the campaign with a better non-penalty expected goal (npxG) difference than the champions in waiting. Still, in those early months, they gave up five points to Fulham, six to Aston Villa and West Ham just in December. Such a wobble is supposed to kill any side going up against peak City long before the final day.

Perhaps then, this is not quite peak City. Curious though that may be to say of a team that has dropped eight points in their last 22 games, there seems to be something not quite there. Their npxG difference may be a shade better than it was in 2020-21 but they were able to spend the final months of that campaign on cruise control given that there was no serious opposition to the throne. Even before Tuesday’s match, City had allowed more npxG this season than in any of the previous campaigns on the streak. That is not just because of the defensive chaos around their 4-4 draw with Chelsea, even in this run they have been giving up about a quarter more npxG than Arsenal.

This does not have to be a tale of even relative decline. City have lost John Stones, Ederson and Erling Haaland for key stretches. Kevin De Bruyne was out for nearly half the season.

“For all the problems we had,” said Guardiola, “still we were there. There is something in the training sessions, in the way they live, the mentality, the mindset.”

Then again De Bruyne, who limped out of this win with an ankle injury, perhaps points to a less hopeful story for next season’s City. They are aging. Bernardo Silva will have turned 30 when the next season begins, John Stones just after this one is done. They have an awful lot of miles on the clock. So does Mateo Kovacic, the sticking plaster over the chasm that Ilkay Gundogan left.

If a refresh is required it is hardly an insurmountable challenge given building blocks shaped like Haaland, Phil Foden, Julian Alvarez and Josko Gvardiol. It is all the more achievable with City’s financial muscle. If this side is going to be removed from the title equation it is much more likely to be due to the 115 charges than their squad building.

There is work still to be done and Guardiola continually insisted he is expecting a game like that they suffered through two years ago, Gundogan saving them at the death against Aston Villa when it looked like they had frittered the title away to a Liverpool side who ended up with 92 points.

They nearly blew it again on Tuesday night. Given the quality the treble winners had at the start of the season, it is fair to ask whether they ever should have allowed themselves to be one Son shot away from disaster.

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