Only two outcomes await Arsenal from their position atop the Premier League table: agony or ecstasy. The club’s supporters lurch helplessly between the two extremes, contemplating the glory of a first title since 2003-04’s “Invincibles” and the ignominy of losing the eight-point lead they will hold on April 1.
This roller coaster of emotions renders all remaining games a health hazard, each setback delivering a sense of foreboding that a fine season could suddenly collapse, while every positive moment is fresh affirmation that this really is going to be their year.
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Gunners fans never expected to find themselves in this position, and whatever happens over the next two months, some solace will come from the progress the club have already made. Yet the sense of opportunity before them is clear. Arsenal have played the best football in England this term and produced the greatest level of consistency for 75% of the campaign.
But City have proved themselves capable of going on a winning streak when it matters most. In the final 10 games of the past three seasons, City took 2.4 points per game (ppg) in 2019-20, 2.1ppg in 2020-21 and 2.4ppg in 2021-22. In the same period, Arsenal managed 1.6ppg, 2.0ppg and 1.5ppg.
So, as they attempt to deny Manchester City their fifth title in six seasons, what are the remaining obstacles in Arsenal’s way, and do the fans really think they can get over the line? ESPN spoke to four prominent Arsenal supporters — Tim Payton, Arsenal Supporters Trust Board Member; Boyd Hilton, host of the “Footballistically Arsenal” podcast; Lois Langton, former Arsenal Independent Supporters Association chair; and Faisal Khan, founder of Arsenal-focused YouTube channel “Latte Firm” — to find out.
Q. What is the general mood among Arsenal fans?
Payton: “There is a saying in British politics about feeling like ‘a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor.’ Anticipation, nervous, cautious. There are 10 cup ties left now. You can really feel the excitement but also the sense of tension as well because it has become something to throw away.”
Hilton: “Mainly excitement for me and the pleasure we are taking in the football we are playing. It is extraordinary to think how quickly [manager Mikel] Arteta has turned us into this attacking machine. Every time I do a podcast or I talk to fans at the Emirates I tell them we’ve got to enjoy this while it is happening because it is so unexpected and so unbelievable. We are aware we are going to be telling our grandchildren about this, even if we don’t win the league with how far we’ve come with 10 games to go.
“In the late-Arsene Wenger era when we had some pretty good players — [Mesut] Ozil, Alexis Sanchez — every now and again we did play some decent football, but it did get kind of stodgy and predictable. And there was no connection to those players like there is now. There is something really special about the personality of the team that translates to us in the crowd. But there’s an underlying sense of fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Maybe that’s just me.”
Langton: “It’s not just the football that we’ve been privileged to watch that has led to Gooners everywhere wearing an ear-to-ear grin on most Monday mornings. What has made this season special is the togetherness that is permeating the club. Never has the ‘Victoria Concordia Crescit‘ [Victory Through Harmony] motto felt more fitting.”
Khan: “Arsenal fans are tremendously excited about the prospect of a first league title in almost 20 years, yet absolutely terrified of heartbreak. We find ourselves unexpectedly in a title race and the nerves are well and truly kicking in.”
Q. What worries you most? What are the biggest obstacles?
Khan: “Potential heartbreak. We’ve seen some closely fought title races in recent years, and having been top for most of the season I don’t think I’m emotionally strong enough in case the worst happens.”
Payton: “The biggest obstacle now is probably pressure and it being a new situation for them. The fixture list shouldn’t be an issue because Arsenal haven’t got the European games [after they were knocked out of the Europa League in the round of 16 by Sporting CP]. Relatively speaking, you’ve got rest and recovery time, certainly compared to City because they have Europe [the Champions League quarterfinals against Bayern Munich] and the FA Cup [semifinal against Sheffield United] ongoing which is partly why they are behind now. Arsenal have to deal with the enormity of it; the heightened scrutiny and pressure.”
Langton: “The late-Wenger years were often dominated by talk of mental fragility and it’s testament to this team that we have managed to move on from that. I suppose the biggest fear is the unknown — this team is largely untested at this stage of the season whereas the new version of Man City is in familiar territory.”
Q. Do the Gunners really have the mental strength and the squad depth to handle the pressure of the run-in?
Khan: “Manchester City are a well-oiled machine when it comes to the home straight. They’ve demonstrated that they can be relentless at the business end of a season. Given Arsenal have one of the leanest and most inexperienced squads in the league, the underlying fear of falling just short is most unsettling. Keeping our starting XI fit will also be key for any success. Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes, William Saliba and Thomas Partey being available for every game is vital. Partey is irreplaceable — he makes us tick and we were so unfortunate to have him missing against City at the Emirates. Up front, we are lucky to have Gabriel Jesus back in the mix [after injury] and with [Leandro] Trossard’s signing in January we have some good depth. Don’t underestimate the impact Emile Smith Rowe could have for us in the run-in!”
Hilton: “When we’ve had setbacks this season, we’ve bounced back pretty much every time. We lost to City and then won the next six games — that’s the obvious example. The players have got the mentality, but they have to keep up the level of intensity for 10 games and that is quite a challenge. All it would take is one loss and one draw for Man City to come back. Most Arsenal fans assume City won’t lose more than once, if at all, in this final stage.”
Payton: “We are so clear of the Wenger era now and there is probably something in the view that ‘what have they got to be scared of?’ They will feel there’s lots of time. The pressure comes on in many ways when you think ‘if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it again.’ There is an innocence in it which is immune to the pressure. Whether that holds is the big question.”
Q. The two teams still have to play each other on April 26 triggering a four-game run for Arsenal which comprises City away, Chelsea at home, a trip to Newcastle, then Brighton at home. Is that the decisive period?
Hilton: “If we get through that undefeated, that is the period that decides it. The City game on its own is beyond huge. If they beat us — which I kind of expect given they beat us at home when we were playing really well — and if they win their game in hand, that’s two points … You weigh it all up and we could come out of that week level with them. The eight-point gap we have now will be narrowed to make the final few games even more stressful than they need to have been.”
Langton: “As Arteta would say, the most vital match is the next match — which is Leeds [on Saturday]. If we start speculating ahead to matches at the end of April and early May, that is what, if anything, will cause us to trip up.”
Q. Is the sense of nervousness heightened by feeling this could be now or never? City have been a little short of their best this season, Liverpool and Chelsea have endured torrid campaigns, while Manchester United are in transition under Erik ten Hag. Having come this close, would it be a failure not to win it from here?
Khan: “I think it’s commonly accepted amongst the fan base that we find ourselves here much sooner than expected. Now that we have this chance, we have to take it. With regard to the future, obviously rival clubs will strengthen, and some will blow our spending out of the water, but in Arteta we have a coaching genius. With him, anything is possible, and I hope we can challenge for years to come.”
Payton: “If Arsenal came second to Manchester City with 90 points, it would be an outstanding achievement and should still be celebrated as Arsenal’s best season in 19 years. That’s the glass half-full position you could take. There will be an issue for them if they don’t make it and it is incredibly close. Regrouping and coming back stronger next year is what you would hope would happen, but clearly there could be an issue in that. It is the worry that could put more pressure on now, maybe more for the supporters than the players.”
Langton: “Let’s get to the end of this season first! But I am confident that the recruitment in the past couple of years and our young crop of players have set us up well for the future. It’s very easy to think that big-money signings are the answer. That’s not always the case. Having players who understand the club, its history and its values are far more important.”
Hilton: “Remember how difficult it was for Liverpool to beat City in all those years when it was just the two of them against each other? It is really hard with the richest club in the world as your main rival. The fact we are not in Europe either now and all the other teams have fallen by the wayside, it is a two-horse race and how many times is this going to happen, that we are this close with 10 games to go? It is really stressful because of how gigantic an achievement it will be. It will be a gigantic disappointment if we don’t actually pull through in the end. But I would never describe it as a failure. It’ll just be a massive disappointment because hopes are so high and the football we are playing is so good, it would be a crushing blow. It is already a massive success that we’ve got this far.”
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Craig Burley reacts to Arsenal’s loss on penalties in the Europa League against Sporting.
Q. Finally, the ultimate question: will Arsenal win the Premier League this season?
Khan: “Horrible question. My heart says yes, of course. My head? I’m starting to believe.”
Payton: “I don’t want to jinx them. But I think I see such talent, such passion, such focus and I’m so impressed with how they dealt with it so far that I am optimistic Arsenal will be champions in May.”
Langton: “I’m too nervous to say it out loud. We are capable of winning it. I think that we deserve to win it. And I hope we do win it. But I will love this team whatever the final league table ends up looking like.”
Hilton: “My head says no, in the end it might be goal difference and we’ll look back on games where refereeing decisions with disallowed goals make Arsenal fans furious, fuelling conspiracy theories, which I don’t believe in at all. But my heart says we will. I feel ashamed not to be backing them no matter what. I am naturally pessimistic always and deep down I think we’ll be pipped at the post at the last minute.”