Stop Looking for Flaws in the Premier League Contenders

Chances are, the truth will not feature much in the coverage. It will not be a central point in the buildup. The commentators may mention it in passing, but their tone will indicate that the hyperbole is not to be punctured. And if Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta try to point it out before Manchester City faces Arsenal on Sunday, it will be viewed as gamesmanship, or deflection, or unapologetic sophistry.

Still, it is true: The meeting between City and Arsenal will not provide the deciding, defining moment in the Premier League’s most compelling title race in a decade. It is a game of glowering significance and considerable heft, of course, a chance for one team to clear a towering, looming hurdle. But it is no conclusion.

The mathematics, the raw facts and figures, bear that out. By the end of the weekend, a maximum of four points will separate the teams: a meaningful gap, no doubt, but not an insurmountable lead. There is a better than even chance that by the time the whistle is blown at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday night, neither of them will be top of the league.

It works for everyone to pretend otherwise, of course, to present this as some sort of climactic showdown. That is not just because soccer, as we have long established, is now merely an arm of the entertainment industry and there is better content in the crashing crescendo of a title fight than in the staccato, discordant rhythm of the season. It is also because one of soccer’s great myths is that champions are anointed in direct collision.

Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Manchester City will have a strong say in the title race regardless of what happens Sunday at the Etihad.Credit…David Klein/Reuters

That is not, of course, quite how it works. A championship is a reward for enduring the slow grind of an arduous campaign better than all of your rivals. Being able to overcome the most imposing of them on any given day is a related skill, but the correlation is hardly perfect. Arsenal might win at City and still not win the league, or vice versa. (Liverpool, the third contender, has beaten neither club this season.) There is more than one way to be the “best” team in a league.

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