How do you separate Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City when they are now so evenly matched?

Erling Haaland gets no joy out of Arsenal defender Gabriel
Erling Haaland got no joy out of Gabriel (left) - Reuters/Carl Recine

In matches such as these, when even the tiniest slip can prove catastrophically costly, the fear of defeat is often stronger than the desire to win. That was certainly the case at the Etihad on Sunday, where Manchester City and Arsenal prodded at each other without ever going for the knockout punch.

For Arsenal, especially, the priority was restricting space and minimising risk. Mikel Arteta’s side have been routinely savaged in this part of Manchester in recent years and, this time around, they had no interest in opening up. Even when they did attack, they attacked in twos and threes, rather than as a whole team.

It was not the first time this season that a match between two of City, Arsenal and Liverpool – the undisputed top three at the moment – was defined by nervous tension instead of reckless abandon. Such is the quality of these three sides, and so small are the margins at this level, that the games have been almost unbearably tight.

In the six matches between City, Arsenal and Liverpool this season, there have been four draws and just 11 goals scored. Only once has a team scored more than once in these games: Arsenal, in their 3-1 victory at home to Liverpool.

It makes for a stark contrast with the same fixtures last season. On that occasion, these six games produced a total of 24 goals. Almost every time these sides met, a thrilling encounter unfolded. Arsenal beat Liverpool 3-2, for example, and lost 7-2 on aggregate over two games against City.

Part of Arteta’s plan to develop his team was to add a defensive steel that was missing in those games, when Arsenal caused problems for their opponents but never had control of matches. This time they did have control at the Etihad, for most of the match at least, even if they did not see much of the ball.

The addition of Declan Rice has allowed them to slow games down, when required, and shut down the best attacks in the division. It has made Arsenal tougher to beat, and has helped them secure the best results in the mini-league that exists between them, City and Liverpool.

From their four games against City and Liverpool, Arsenal have taken eight points. Liverpool and City, who drew 1-1 with each other both times they met, have taken just three points from the same games.

It does not always create a spectacle for the neutral, but the reality is that Arsenal and City effectively cancelled each other out because they have so few weaknesses. Arsenal can press high up the pitch as well as any team, but they are also impressively adept at sitting deep on the few occasions when such an approach is required.

William Saliba gives Bernardo Silva no room to weave his magic

In short, they can do both. This is why they have the best defensive record in the league, with just 24 goals conceded in 29 games. They are comfortable defending in their own box and also in the opposition half, so it therefore requires either a mistake or a moment of genius to break them down. Neither happened here.

“It was tough to play against them,” said Bernardo Silva, the City midfielder. “Man-to-man when they were pressing high and, when they were defending low, their wingers were playing like full-backs, almost in a line of six. It is never easy to play against teams who defend this well when high pressing, and when defending deep.”

The onus was on City, in third place, to push for a winner. Their inability to do so was a continuation of a curious – and perhaps worrying – trend this season. Pep Guardiola’s side are without a win in all six of their league games this campaign against teams currently in the top five of the table. They have drawn four of those matches and lost two.

Will it matter? Perhaps not. City can win the league without beating their nearest rivals. But it is an indication of the quality of the sides around them, at Arsenal and Liverpool, that the best team in the world no longer appears to be impossible to suppress.

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