One of the curious twists in this season’s Premier League title race is that Arsenal are now relying on two former Manchester City players to provide the necessary composure to beat Pep Guardiola’s side to the trophy.
Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko traded Etihad Stadium for Emirates Stadium last summer for a combined £75 million in moves which helped catapult the Gunners into an unexpected push for a first league crown since 2004. Both were considerable upgrades on pre-existing options within the squad, most obviously Jesus in adding proven potency as a No. 9, while left-back Zinchenko has been essential in enabling manager Mikel Arteta to implement his preferred style: controlling games by overloading in central areas as the Ukraine international drifts into midfield to influence play.
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The mirroring of that Zinchenko role with the one Joao Cancelo previously performed at City and John Stones‘ midfield deployment in recent weeks is one of many similarities between the two sides. But it is arguably off the field where their influence has been as keenly felt. Zinchenko has often taken it upon himself to give prematch teamtalks, while sources have told ESPN that Jesus is consistently one of the best performers in training, setting a high benchmark at a club where players had been guilty of slacking off in sessions under previous managers with damaging consequences.
Even when sidelined for three months with a knee injury, Jesus was a regular around the first team, attending matches and engaging with teammates. His prominent role in celebrating last month’s stoppage-time winner against Bournemouth, despite not being part of the matchday squad, only further endeared him to the club’s fanbase. Similarly, Zinchenko was ruled out with a groin problem for Sunday’s 2-2 draw at West Ham but stood by the touchline during the warm-up and could be seen in the tunnel moments before kick-off with an arm around Kieran Tierney, his direct replacement in the team, offering words of encouragement.
Arsenal have proven their quality this season but what lies ahead is a test of nerve. Losing a 2-0 lead on successive Sundays raises questions about their durability. If a 2-2 draw at Liverpool is understandable given the ferocity of Anfield, squandering a 2-0 advantage again at West Ham where the atmosphere at each game is akin to a referendum on manager David Moyes’ future, is not.
Perhaps Jesus sensed something during the game. It was noticeable that the 26-year-old operated deeper than usual, dropping into midfield to try and link play, but also in an attempt to halt West Ham’s revival as they stirred into action. By the time the Brazilian forward left the field on 67 minutes he had touched the ball 66 times, but only once in the Hammers’ penalty area, for the opening goal.
When it came, West Ham’s equaliser was a collective failure to recognise the danger as Thilo Kehrer lifted a hopeful ball into the box and Jarrod Bowen ran into the channel between Gabriel Magalhaes and Tierney, where Zinchenko would have been, to score. This is not to blame Tierney or any individuals in isolation, but mistakes are creeping into Arsenal’s play and if Jesus and Zinchenko have been driving forces in the dressing room, their role over the next few weeks is pivotal in determining whether the season will end in success of failure.
Complacency was a factor at Anfield and the London Stadium. In both games, Arsenal raced into an early lead and found the contest almost embarrassingly comfortable before easing off, conceding a goal and finding themselves incapable of reviving their free-flowing best.
There are, of course, other factors. The Gunners have not kept a clean sheet in the four league games 22-year-old centre-back William Saliba has missed through injury. They should expect to find a way to hold off bottom-side Southampton on Friday without Saliba, but goal-machine Erling Haaland and Manchester City away next Wednesday is a different proposition altogether.
Forward Bukayo Saka has been at the vanguard of all that is good about Arsenal this season, but he has not registered a goal involvement in seven of his last eight matches (the only exception being two goals and an assist against Crystal Palace on March 19.) Moreover, he has shown signs of fatigue in recent weeks. Any player can miss a penalty (as he did minutes before Bowen scored) but it may be symptomatic that this long campaign is beginning to take its toll — Sunday was the first time this season he has not created a chance or completed a single dribble in the same game.
A final push is required. Although there has been a sense of foreboding about City shifting through the gears in recent weeks — they have now won 10 consecutive matches in all competitions — the Gunners have to focus on what they can control. This is a message Jesus and Zinchenko, veterans of all four title wins at City under Pep Guardiola, will have to help convey.
Beat Southampton on Friday night and Arsenal will be seven points clear. Beat City after that — as tough a proposition as that is — and they will have one hand on the trophy. Zinchenko, Jesus and, of course, Arteta will know precisely what lies in wait at City. We’re about to find out if that is enough to get them over the line. But whatever happens in the coming weeks, don’t expect City to let anybody else join Arsenal this summer.