Watching Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City as the Premier League title race heats up

One of the closest, most enthralling Premier League title races in many years is careering towards a climax.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City played out crucial games on consecutive nights this week — and The Athletic went to all three to survey and convey the emotions of three very different clubs and fanbases.

An Arsenal fan briefly comes up for air between substantial munches of a doner kebab: “The internet is gonna be a f****** joke tonight.”

Welcome to The Emirates. They are a different breed here; still rabid football fans all the way to their inner core, but perhaps with slightly different priorities on a matchday.

The number of selfies being taken in front of the giant Arsenal lettering opposite the Hornsey Road roundabout, for example, is well above average for your typical football ground.

One man films a staged video of his friend slowly walking towards the camera outside the ground, club-shop bag in hand, shades on. They both watch the video back to make sure it looks good, then they wrap their freshly purchased red and white scarves around their necks. Job done.

There are still all the normal football pre-match sights and sounds. Alcohol, meat, cigarette smoke, anticipation.

“We’ve still got an hour to drink,” one fan informs his mate. “An hour?” he replies. “You’ll be wearing one of them mate,” he cackles as he points to a passerby wearing a protective cast boot.

It does, though, feel pretty normal around the ground. Should it? Arsenal are top of the Premier League with five games left. They haven’t won a title for 20 years.

This place should be brimming with feverish expectation. And yet, the dead-behind-the-eyes robotic football machine that is Manchester City dictates that whatever Arsenal do tonight is irrelevant, in Premier League parlance.

At least, that’s how some Gunners fans see it.

Arsenal fans prepare for their team’s match with Chelsea as best they can (Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)

“The Villa defeat was obviously gutting but otherwise we’ve been basically perfect since the turn of the year,” season ticket holder Jamie says, referring to Arsenal’s otherwise outstanding record of 12 wins and one draw (0-0 at the Etihad) in 2024.

“We’ve only been behind in one game since last year and that was the Villa game. It’s ridiculous, really, how perfect you have to be to beat City. I know we had that run around Christmas (four points from their last five matches of 2023) but yeah, I’m proud of us, we’re pushing them closer than last year.

“I just feel the pressure is off now. If City win every game from now on, they deserve it and we’ll be back next year, we’re growing, on an upward curve. I’m not sure you can say the same for City, (Kevin) De Bruyne is probably less influential and (Erling) Haaland isn’t scoring as many. And Liverpool will obviously change a lot this summer. We’re all good.”

It’s a philosophical attitude, one that seems to reflect a club comfortable in its own skin.

There isn’t much skin on show as 60,000 people amble into the stadium. People wear hats, scarves and parka jackets. It’s 6°C on April 23.

The cranky sound of AC/DC song Hells Bells fills the enormous red bowl inside. With its talk of high temperatures, it feels like a piss-take.

After a plod-along run of two defeats, one draw and a laboured win over Wolves in their previous four, the question in the air is if Arsenal still have the minerals for this title fight.

The answer comes within 30 seconds. Red swarm over blue like it’s the 1997 General Election all over again, Kai Havertz is sent through on goal (although is marginally offside) and the next few minutes are a blur of aggressive tackles, jinky movement and nimble passes.

The crowd is immediately fully engaged and Arsenal are immediately in front.

Leoandro Trossard celebrates scoring Arsenal’s first of the evening (Charlotte Wilson/Offside via Getty Images)

By way of retort, Chelsea, with their 58 per cent possession and higher xG in the first half, play with a freedom that spells danger — Nicolas Jackson and Conor Gallagher flashing balls across goal that elicit nervous, leaning-back, pursed-lipped oooohs in the home stands, then spontaneous applause en masse by way of encouragement. Arsenal are a more united bunch these days.

Greater teams — with the emphasis on team — would prey on Arsenal’s fragility, but not Chelsea.

The freedom they are playing with also extends to their defenders, who run in odd directions and blame team-mates for their own mistakes.

Mauricio Pochettino, for the time being, is a picture of calm amid the storm of an unceasing first half. Mikel Arteta buzzes around his technical area like a wasp who has accidentally sniffed some chilli powder.

At half-time, Rollin’ by Limp Bizkit is inexplicably played in full. It feels like the early 2000s again, a sentiment Arsenal take literally as they regale their glory days by demolishing Chelsea over the next 25 minutes.

The loudest cheer is for the third goal, orgasmic groans at Martin Odegaard’s wand-ish through ball, then euphoria as Havertz finishes it off.

As the goals fly in, the giddiness elevates. All four sides of the ground are on their feet and the noise is overpowering at times. As a stadium, an entity, a feeling, this place is unrecognisable from three years ago. There is a tangible feeling of unity and delirium.

“Who put the ball in the Chelsea net? Half the fucking team did,” they sing. Technically only three of them have scored, which is 27 per cent of the team, but you get the sentiment.

The ultimate indignity arrives in the final minutes as they shout ‘ole’ at a rare sequence of Chelsea passes.

“You have to react and face the moment,” Arteta says of Arsenal’s return to form. “And the moment is beautiful. We’ve been working for it for nine months.”

Arsenal’s players are restrained, but the fans are not (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

On the pitch at full time, the celebrations are fairly restrained. Outside the ground, this is not the case.

People aren’t just walking away chatting about the match; they’re singing, hugging and dancing. There is an incessant buzz of unfiltered, intoxicating joy.

The scenes are so rhapsodic they bring to mind the end of the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, set amid Arsenal’s 1989 last-minute league title win at Anfield, when fans poured onto the streets back home.

“I feel like I’m walking out of a festival and we’ve just watched the headliner,” one fan says to his friends. Everyone is high on Arsenal.

A group of three lads are dropping the c-word (champions), while another is shouting about goal difference.

At the Tollington pub, the chant on repeat is not about the title, it’s about Chelsea getting battered. Whatever happens in the next three and a half weeks, this night will not be forgotten anytime soon.

With Liverpool stumbling through Jurgen Klopp’s Last Dance, they shouldn’t mind that Everton are their next opponents.

It might be a local derby, where form is supposed to ‘go out the window’, but this fixture has been massively skewed towards the Reds since the turn of the century.

They have beaten Everton 28 times since 2000; the Toffees have won just five.

“You wouldn’t get chips like that at Anfield,” a father tells his lad as he passes him one outside the Blue Dragon just a few feet from Goodison Park, with the chips in question being proper chips, and the insinuation being Everton are the proper club. Or the people’s club, as they say in this part of Liverpool.

If Everton are a proper club, then lord knows what a disjointed one looks like in 2023-24. It has been a season of upheaval and strife and the visit of their neighbours is not necessarily being relished.

Klopp stands impassively as he surveys the opening minutes of his final Merseyside derby, his feet encased by fluorescent orange trainers.

Jurgen Klopp assesses the scene ahead of his last Merseyside derby (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps he’s just taking it all in, his last visit to the grand/creaking/traditional/outdated (delete as applicable) old stadium, arguably unique in English football (there are other ancient grounds, but not of this size). Or perhaps he just knows what’s coming.

Liverpool are submissive and compliant to the point of BDSM as they fail to cope with an Everton side who look like they’ve been locked up in darkness for the last week, caged and made to listen to the Z-Cars theme tune on repeat.

As with Arsenal, the tone is set within the opening minutes, but on Liverpool’s part this means meek surrender. The wobbly wheels are in motion. They win 25 per cent of all duels in the opening half an hour, a ridiculous statistic.

If The Emirates is an arena, a colosseum, Goodison is 38,000 people shouting into an empty tin can. It’s being sat in a wheelie bin while burly blokes beat the outside of it with baseball bats.

There is an unceasing air of frantic desperation in their pleading yells for their team to tackle, to pass, to shoot, to block. No Premier League fanbase gets off on an agricultural sliding tackle more than at Goodison. Nowhere else is more spittle rasped for the tenacious blocking of a powerfully struck opposition shot.

When the merited opener arrives via Jarrad Branthwaite’s left foot, Liverpool’s fans begin to fear the worst.

Everton are willing to hoof the the ball out of play to clear a corner when they have all 11 players behind the ball… in the first half. Liverpool are not.

The rabid home team are seemingly prepared to do and sacrifice anything to win this football match. Liverpool are not.

“Games likes these, the bare minimum is fight,” Virgil van Dijk says later. “We were lacking that at so many moments.”

Liverpool are creating chances, but they are losing all the key moments; missing chances (or shooting straight at Jordan Pickford), conceding chances and losing tackles and loose balls.

Jarrad Branthwaite’s shot squirms under Alisson (Daniel Chesterton/Offside via Getty Images)

The game is being played almost exclusively in Everton’s half. “We’re going to see record possession statistics for Liverpool in this half,” one home fan says.

But his fears are not realised. Dominic Calvert-Lewin heads home a second, the roof comes off. One man sat in the home seats does not move, remaining seated and wearing a wry smile, if not a red shirt.

Hope is lost in the away end. Defiance is not in their repertoire tonight, they are too despondent for that.

They are told their “support is f***ing s***” and can only retort with muted sarcastic applause from a few hundred of them.

Nerdy statistical models would have Liverpool winning this 19 times out of 20. But the Opta supercomputer does not allow for Sean Dyche wearing a tracksuit.

“F**k off to Norway, the city is ours,” rings around Goodison (a dig at what they see as Liverpool’s tourist-heavy fanbase). As the whistle blows on an iconic Everton performance, the line “and if you know your history” from It’s a Grand Old Team must be one of the most thunderous noises heard in English football this season.

Fourteen years of no home victories over Liverpool, the fact that survival is all but secured, that Liverpool’s title bid has been seriously dented, and Klopp’s farewell party severely sullied, plus the points deductions, the fury, the injustice, it all pours into that noise.

“You lost the league, at Goodison Park,” is the refrain being sung over and over, more so outside the ground as people literally jump into each other’s arms outside the Winslow.

Liverpool’s fans have long since scarpered, the away end emptying within a couple of minutes at full-time.

The post-match quotes are telling. Calvert-Lewin says Everton were happy to let Liverpool have the ball because “we never feared they were gonna really hurt us”.

Van Dijk criticises his team mates. Klopp apologies to his supporters and says that historically City and Arsenal don’t drop the number of points they’ll need to for Liverpool to stand a chance now. His words don’t say the title dream is over, but his face does.

Klopp and Van Dijk after Liverpool’s potentially costly defeat at Everton (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We were rubbish,” Neil Atkinson of The Anfield Wrap sums up succinctly.

“I’d rather have lost 4-2, but we didn’t have that card to play, there wasn’t a point where we thought they could make it a mad game. They didn’t have that gear. All I saw coming was the fact we had to score first.”

The Athletic’s naivety around whether this was still a “friendly derby” for Liverpool, at least in comparison to the rivalry with Manchester United, is very quickly dismissed.

“It’s absolutely horrendous losing to Everton,” Neil clarifies. “I’m always hugely perturbed when we lose to them. It doesn’t happen very often.

“Klopp looks tired. You wonder now if he felt (when announcing he was leaving) his race was run… maybe we can see this manifesting itself more now than we could at the time he announced it.

“If he’d looked this way in November, people would have understood it more. He now looks really rather grey.”

And all the while they sing in the pubs around Goodison: “You lost the league, at Goodison Park, you lost the league, at Goodison Park.”

Yep, they probably did.

There are two football teams playing at the Amex but the focus is directed at just one. Manchester City are in town.

“Fancy bus, innit?” a Brighton fan says to her friend as they walk past City’s coach which has five 10ft-high trophies emblazoned across its side. They both have their picture taken by it.

“I like (Jack) Grealish for England but not City,” another Brighton fan says.

Brighton are concentrating on City… and so are City. For them, Arsenal and Liverpool’s results are irrelevant if, as everyone expects, they enter ‘closer’ mode and win all their remaining fixtures.

Guardiola stepped off the Man City team bus knowing a win at Brighton was essential (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

“I didn’t watch either game this week,” City season ticket holder of 30 years, Mike Hammond, says, but not from a position of irrelevance. “It’s just no good for your mental health, I can’t be doing with it,” he adds.

Mike is, as he puts it, a legacy fan. From Maine Road, to League One, to the Etihad and the Champions League trophy. Hell of a journey.

But while Arsenal have a party and Liverpool stretch their emotions thin like butter scraped over too much toast, how are City’s fans feeling about the possibility of another Premier League title?

“You get a mix,” Mike says. “Some are presumptuous, they’ll say; ‘Yep, been here before, we’re at our best now and it should be straightforward’. Most are pretty realistic and, yeah, to be honest, most think we’ll do it.

“I thought Arsenal might not drop any points but that Villa result has made a big difference. We’ll have to win every game to win the title, but we’ve done that before.

“I’m not massively confident, tonight won’t be easy. We’ve struggled a bit with Brighton, they’ve got a good system that we struggle with sometimes.”

Brighton’s fans don’t share Mike’s lack of confidence in a City win.

“What are you doing missing this? We could have been 3-0 down by now,” a woman jokes as someone walks in late to sit next to her with two minutes on the clock. No, that comes in the 34th minute.

City had been well below their best when edging past Chelsea in their FA Cup semi-final last weekend, days after being knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid.

Like Arsenal, they had appeared to look tired and lethargic. Like Arsenal (and unlike Liverpool) they come correct at the Amex from the opening whistle.

Their passing is sharp, their pressing is on point and full of energy, their movement is balletic.

De Bruyne and Foden celebrate as City demolish Brighton (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

They are fortunate when Phil Foden falls over and is awarded a free kick by Jarred Gillett — and luckier still when said free kick deflects into the net — but otherwise this is an utterly dominant victory against meek opponents.

In their previous 44 matches this season in all competitions, the lowest amount of possession Brighton had kept in a game was 45 per cent. Tonight they have 35 per cent of the ball.

“That’s so easy, they’re taking the piss,” a Seagulls fan screams as Julian Alvarez scores City’s fourth in the second half. They are.

The celebrations at full time are fairly restrained. This kind of victory is bread and butter for City, especially in April. It’s job done. Five to go.

As a fan who regularly attends away games as well as home, Mike is one of a select few thousand who are in the inner sanctum of watching this title race unfold in the flesh.

“It is a privilege,” he says. “And the away games are great, always a good atmosphere, most people really look forward to the away days.

“It’s not ‘pinch yourself’ like it was in the first few years of Pep, the manner in which he did it, the football he’s introduced, he’s something else that guy. The best you’ve ever seen.

“Obviously we’re going for the fourth in a row. We’ve done three, it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen this year, but the team know how to do it and this is kind of where we come good.”

Just like at The Emirates and Goodison Park, there is a song on repeat at the Amex as the evening draws to a close.

“Champions again, ole ole, champions again, ole ole.”

In some ways it has been an extraordinary week, what with Liverpool’s first defeat at Everton for 14 years probably ending their title hopes and Arsenal’s biggest victory over Chelsea for, well, ever.

In some ways it has also played out to type – Arsenal loving life, Liverpool on the emotional rollercoaster and City utterly serene.

(Top photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)