History says Manchester City will win the title, but one statistic gives Arsenal hope

For a match where the title is literally on the line, Tuesday against Tottenham Hotspur could be one where the stands are more interesting than the pitch. Demand for stadium tickets has been huge all season, but not for this one. There are many available places on the fair from the official website. Many fans apparently don’t want to be in the position of supporting their team to help Arsenal – especially to help Arsenal do something historic.

The opinion of many Spurs supporters – as expressed the independent by match-goer Aaron Sutton – is “we can’t be the reason they win the league”. It could come down to that. With Manchester City and Arsenal both playing winnable home games on Sunday, Tuesday is likely to be the winner of the competition.

Manchester City have the title race in their hands, but Spurs can stop them (Getty Images)

Manchester City have the title race in their hands, but Spurs can stop them (Getty Images)

Spurs fans, despite the feeling that they always support your own team no matter what, can’t escape that reality. It’s a difficult position to be in, which makes for a very strange evening at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

There is one more point worth emphasizing, and that is what both managers actually involved in the game insisted on. None of this will change the players’ motivation.

“We have a football match to win,” said Ange Postecoglou. Given this typically prickly behavior, Pep Guardiola might have reasonably warned: “Don’t ask Ange or the players this question… they would be offended.”

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean the strange atmosphere won’t affect them. That can happen on these occasions and even work both ways. Players are sometimes so determined to prove a point that they overexert themselves. Spurs actually did it for Arsenal on the final day of the 1998/99 season, taking the lead against Manchester United, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s team came back like they always did.

The problem is that it is already said that this is the third time that Arsenal have won the league against Spurs, after 1971 and 2004. Not that anyone in Mikel Arteta’s side even indulges such rules. They don’t want to tempt fate.

With so many confusing emotions swirling around this match, it’s natural to point to the certainty of numbers and records.

One of these is a statistic that has been discussed a lot at City. Such is their dismal record in this stadium, after half a decade of its existence. City have lost all four league games here, with their first match (a 1-0 defeat in the 2018/19 Champions League quarter-finals) setting the tone. Such numbers naturally bring about conversations about negative emotions and hoodoos.

Some of it is much simpler than that, which is why it doesn’t have to be that complex for this City team. Each of these victories was based on a specific tactical approach. You could even call it Jose Mourinho’s game plans, which makes it all the more fitting that he was responsible for half of those league victories. That means sitting deep, frustrating and countering with pace.

From this you can already see a specific problem for this match, which was predicted in City’s victory in the fourth round of the FA Cup this season.

Postecoglou has actually declared his ideological opposition to this approach. Although there was a tactical compromise in Spurs’ recent match against Arsenal, it essentially came down to playing a defensive midfielder. It’s not even that Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has done so well.

Spurs boss Postecoglou (Getty Images)Spurs boss Postecoglou (Getty Images)

Spurs boss Postecoglou (Getty Images)

The broader point is that it is almost impossible to move from the ideology Postecoglou has tried to instill this season to the kind of refined defensive game plan that won this match earlier. It doesn’t work that easily. There would be too many holes for City to exploit. The only real approach for Spurs is to go for it. That largely worked in the 3-3 at City in December, but Guardiola’s team was in a completely different form.

That brings us to the other, opposing figures, which we feel carry much more weight. City have now recorded seven consecutive wins, with an average of exactly four goals per game. None of these wins were by less than two goals. Two of them were separated by three goals. Three have come with a difference of four goals. City, meanwhile, scored before the 18th minute in six of their games.

It’s a form strikingly similar to last season, and why we’d be talking about another treble if Real Madrid had somehow failed to reduce the Champions League quarter-final to the best of margins.

City can instead pick up two more points in the league than last season’s 89 to reach 91. That could be symbolic, as 89 is the maximum Arsenal can reach, and may well rise to. Mikel Arteta’s team may get there, but City goes one step further.

This is why Guardiola was asked before the match if it was ‘demoralising’, even though he of course said Arsenal are right and challenging. His team has yet to do it.

Just as the widespread feeling is that the champions will always simply have more, the feeling going into this match is that they will indeed do what they always do in the build-up, rather than what they always do at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. That’s just winning with maximum focus. City have almost just industrialized this process, in keeping with the overall club approach under this ownership.

Pep Guardiola has backed City to win the title (Action Images via Reuters)Pep Guardiola has backed City to win the title (Action Images via Reuters)

Pep Guardiola has backed City to win the title (Action Images via Reuters)

There is another telling statistic in that regard. In true run-in games – when the title is on the line with just seven games remaining – Guardiola’s City have dropped just two points. That was a 2-2 draw at West Ham United, and is the only example from seven years of winning. That’s why there’s so much demand on Spurs to do something here, before you even get to their own form and the emotional context of this game.

If we boil this down to numbers, it’s likely City are ignoring all of this. After all, that was ‘normality’.

The question is whether the strange circumstances are enough to disrupt that normality. Guardiola aptly called it a knockout.

“We know what we are playing for, it is a knockout like a quarter-final, we cannot get that back. Win or lose – goodbye.”

But that is where there could also be an outcome that still suits everyone – not least the broadcasters and the neutral parties. If Spurs don’t lose, but it ends in a draw, it means the final day will be a shoot-out on goal difference.

Stranger things have happened. Tuesday could well illustrate that, not least in the stands.

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