City’s unbroken run riles Gunners

As Arsenal continue to be the butt of football jokes, their fans continue to cling to the knowledge that no other team in the 26-year history of the Premier League can claim to have avoided defeat from start to finish.

The trophy pickings at the Emirates have been slim and their progress debatable but that unbeaten run is a record that is unblemished by Arsenal’s current woes.

But it can be replicated, as evidenced now, in the supreme performance of Manchester City this season. Thirty-eight games with no loss — invincible (so far).

Pep Guardiola and his charges have blitzed all that have stood before them. Until New Year’s Eve, when Ederson was forced to save a stoppage-time penalty against Crystal Palace, no one had even come close to beating City. Everton remain the only team to deny them three points.

So with each passing week, the question burns brighter: Can City go the whole season undefeated? Can they repeat the feat achieved only by the “Invincibles” — the Thierry Henry-inspired 2003-2004 Arsenal side?

Indeed, when asked to compare the two sides in December, Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger said: “We had no petrol but ideas; they have petrol and ideas. So that makes it more efficient and, overall, yes, they are like that, so everybody expects and projects that they will last. Why not? It can happen [that City go the whole season unbeaten] but there is still a long way to go.”

Wenger’s obvious snipe at City’s petroleum-enhanced resources aside, his caution that there is still a lot of football to be played this season is not irrelevant. There is a long, long way to go.

But we will almost certainly be closer to knowing whether City can remain unbeaten after their weekend tie with Liverpool this week. The Reds play host to the pretenders to the crown on Sunday night in what is the main attraction of this game week. The trip to Anfield represents one of the harder fixtures standing in the way of immortality.

But, as good as they have been, can City go almost half a season without losing? There are a few factors that can give the Gooners among us hope that their record will remain unchallenged.

The first, and most obvious, is the fixture list.

One could argue that City have already overcome their two potentially hardest games — the Old Trafford trip and the defeat of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge — but they are by no means clear of big games. After Liverpool, repeats against those two teams await, with Tottenham Hotspur thrown in for good measure.

Before all of that is Arsenal at the Emirates at the end of February. What a tantalising affair that will be if at the time football writers are still writing pointless columns about whether Manchester City can be the Invincibles Mark II.

Plus, who are we kidding? We shouldn’t be pretending this is the Bundesliga.

In a small snatch of conversation between two football fans late last year, an Arsenal admirer is consoled by his friend: “Don’t worry! They’re going to lose to Huddersfield or some stupid team.”

And the Gooner would sooner back Manchester United against City, even though a City victory would work better for United, as some kind of twisted prayer for the protection of that great Arsenal record.

It was only early December when City took on United but an unbeatable team is unbeatable nonetheless. And Manchester City were beginning to look unbeatable. United inflicted no damage.

And no team has since. Which brings us to today, when those jittery Gooners have multiplied and sit stone-faced through all games at the Etihad, petrified that their precious achievement might be duplicated — to remain unbeaten over the course of a league season.

Any team can beat any team at any time in the Premier League. The night is dark and full of terrors, as Game of Thrones geeks would tell you.

A major obstacle in the form of the Champions League will also land in City laps soon enough. The club is yet to win the competition since their ascent into nouveau riche territory and will no doubt be prioritising it. Given the world-class first XI they’re able to throw out, they will hold legitimate hope of finally getting their hands on the trophy with the big ears.

If we continue on anywhere close to the current trajectory, the league will be all but wrapped up sooner rather than later, affording Guardiola the golden opportunity to rest key players before the semis and quarters of the Champions League. It is a situation great for challenging on many fronts but not so much for remaining unbeaten against teams in a dog fight to avoid relegation, or scrapping for a top-four place.

It will be fascinating to see just how Guardiola handles the rotation should this situation come to fruition. He has so far downplayed the possibility of achieving the milestone — “We are going to lose games; it belongs to Arsène Wenger” — but surely the apple is going to grow all too enticing as May draws near.

City’s style of play could also prove telling down the line. Often forgotten amid the guile of Robert Pirès and the genius of Dennis Bergkamp is the solidity that the Invincibles were built on. Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré were in their prime, and Ashley Cole was beginning to redefine how we thought about the full-back position. All in all, there were four nil-nil draws that season, contributing to a remarkable 15 clean sheets.

That’s not quite Pep’s style. Although no one can accuse them of being flimsy, this side’s success revolves around demolishing the opposition. Overwhelming them with rampaging numbers. Suffocating them with wide men before the spearhead goes for the jugular. It’s scintillating to watch but also lends itself to vulnerability on occasion. All it takes is that one smart counter or unlucky bounce and the fantasy goes up in smoke. Then again, any such run needs a healthy serving of good fortune — think Ruud van Nistelrooy’s last-minute penalty that cannoned off the bar, much to the glee of Martin Keown.

All this speculation is a waste of time, of course, if City fall at Anfield. In form Liverpool will be eager to get post-Philippe Coutinho life off to a flyer and prove that they belong in England’s top three. They will also be hoping to show off their new £75-million asset — Virgil van Dijk. The Dutch centre-back, signed from Southampton (who else), has been brought in to pilot the clown car that is the Liverpool defence and could make his Premier League debut for the club on Sunday.

Ultimately, this talk of invincibles and records matters nought when the two teams take to the pitch. But once Simon Mignolet has fumbled, or once Sergio Agüero has wheeled away in celebration, expect the flood of conjecture to go into overdrive. And for all Gunner-inclined to sleep a little more uneasily.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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