The Briefing: Arsenal vs City defines new era of PL rivalry, relegation disasters, Leverkusen at 50

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Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season, The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This was the weekend when Burnley’s relegation was confirmed and Luton’s was all-but-confirmed, Chelsea continued their unlikely charge for a European place, and the leaky Old Trafford roof provided a powerful, if very ‘on the nose’ metaphor for Manchester United’s problems .

Here we will discuss why Arsenal’s season won’t be a failure even if they don’t win the league, how historically bad the three relegated teams have been, and the extent of Xabi Alonso’s achievement at Bayer Leverkusen…


Is Arsenal vs Manchester City the new defining PL rivalry?

It seems incredible that even after this extraordinary season, Arsenal’s fate is not in their own hands.

But that’s Manchester City for you: when you’re chasing them, you spend a week leading up to their next game hoping this might be the one they slip up in… and then they score after 10 minutes and all belief is broken.

Arsenal have done what they can. The 1-0 win over Manchester United was rarely pretty and for long spells looked like a game between one team terrified of losing and one team incapable of winning. But for the moment, they are back at the top of the Premier League and at the very least will take the title race down to the final day.

Even if they don’t win it, if Tottenham don’t do them a big favor on Tuesday and City stomp their way to yet another title, this season shouldn’t be thought of as anything close to a failure.

Because they’re getting closer. They’re ticking off inadequacies and flaws: last season they fell away, but they’re in it until the end now; previously a few key absences — William Saliba the most notable — caused them to disintegrate, now they have a rotating cast of players who can come in and excel; last season they felt chaotic and rode on the emotions of some late wins, but now they are much more controlled and dominant; and they’ve even won at Old Trafford for only the second time in the league since 2006, eliminating that particular mental block, too.

They have closed the gap to City, even if they don’t ultimately beat them. There isn’t anything to suggest they will be anything worse than second favorites next season.

This is the rivalry now. Liverpool were City’s biggest challengers for years, but now it is most certainly Arsenal. It almost feels too neat: as Jurgen Klopp departs, Mikel Arteta takes over.

They have proven that last season wasn’t just a fluke, a great season by a merely good team and one not to be repeated. They’ll be back and whatever happens next week, this has been no failure. We can look forward to many more years of them and City fighting it out.


Just how bad have the three relegated teams been?

Barring an implausible goal swing on the final weekend, the relegated trio from the Premier League has been confirmed.

It’s the three that everyone thought would be relegated from the very start, the second time in Premier League history that the promoted three have gone straight back down. And Sheffield United, Burnley and Luton Town have been just about as bad as many feared they would be.

With a game each to go, the trio have 66 points between them. Even if all three win their last games, that will still be the lowest cumulative total by relegated teams since the inception of the Premier League.

They’re going to be the worst promoted trio in Premier League history by at least 10 points: the next worst were Sunderland, Birmingham and Derby, who mustered 85 between them in 2007-08.

Luton are on 26 points: if they lose their final game, it will be the lowest points total for the third-bottom Premier League team ever. Only once before has it been possible to stay up with less than 30 points.

Bournemouth, who took 10 games to win at the start of the season, had gathered enough points to comfortably survive by the end of February. Crystal Palace looked like they were in danger of being sucked into trouble when Roy Hodgson left three months ago, but as it turns out they only needed four more points after that to be definitively safe. Wolves, who last summer sold most of their players and looked certain to struggle, won their 29th point at the end of January: they could have spent the last four months finger painting and they would have been fine.

Is this anyone’s fault? Is this a coincidence? All three teams have failed in different ways. Sheffield United sold their best two players last summer and didn’t replace them properly, so becoming the first team to concede more than 100 goals probably wasn’t a surprise. Burnley somehow managed to spend £100 million and make their team worse than the one that got promoted and left their mini-revival far too late; Luton have been the best of the three but ultimately still stacked their team with Championship-level players and have taken seven points from the last available 48.

Does it point to a broader trend? Possibly not: last season the promoted three survived and stayed up again this time with varying levels of comfort. Fulham and Bournemouth have shown that if you spend your money smartly, you can establish yourselves in the top division.

The teams coming up from the Championship for next season will have their flaws, but you hope they will be better than this intake.


Bayer Leverkusen on the cusp of greatest achievement ever?

You could argue March 29 was the most significant day of this season in European football.

That was when Xabi Alonso announced he would be staying at Bayer Leverkusen beyond this summer, to take them into the Champions League and further develop his coaching prowess — and team.

These things are always tricky to quantify, but you have to assume that killing off any speculation and uncertainty, or turning himself into a lame-duck coach, settled things in the Leverkusen dressing room as their extraordinary season continued. In England, we have seen the Jurgen Klopp and Emma Hayes farewell tours, to one extent or another, veer off the rails: the pressure of giving these generational managers the perfect send-off must have been a contributory factor.


Leverkusen celebrate their 50th match unbeaten (Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Leverkusen’s 5-0 win over Bochum on Sunday evening was a blissful walk in the park considering their season has been defined by those extraordinary comebacks and late goals — 18 of them after the 90th-minute mark now, after Alex Grimaldo’s 92nd-minute strike at Bochum. That’s 50 games unbeaten — the longest single-season, all-competition run in men’s club football already.

There are three more games to go: their final Bundesliga fixture is at home to mid-table floaters Augsburg next weekend. The following Wednesday, it’s Atalanta in the Europa League final. The Sunday after that, 2.Bundesliga strugglers Kaiserslautern in the DFB Pokal final.

It’s set to be the greatest achievement in European club football. Or, at least, the greatest coaching achievement in European club football.

Teams have achieved trebles before, but for the most part, they have been the dominant financial forces in their particular country: Manchester United in 1999, Manchester City in 2023, Bayern Munich in 2013 and 2020, and Lyon Feminin five times.

The European trophy in Leverkusen’s set may ‘only’ be a secondary competition, but given their opposition domestically and the position they were in when Alonso arrived, doing all of this without losing a single game (and drawing relatively few: nine from 50 so far ) is unparalleled.

Those who said Alonso had taken the easy choice when he turned down the theoretical advances of Liverpool and Bayern Munich missed the point in many ways, but Alonso knew he was on the verge of something historic and unlikely to be repeated: the danger of doing anything to risk that would have been a crime.


Coming up

  • The last knocks are here — for this season and for one of the Premier League’s most beloved managers. Jurgen Klopp’s penultimate game as Liverpool manager is on Monday as they travel to face Aston Villa in a fixture that could have more tangible consequence than a sentimental farewell: Villa are four points ahead of Spurs, so defeat for them would put their Champions League spot in severe danger…
  • … which could give Tottenham more motivation for the big one: Arsenal’s hopes are resting on their bitter rivals doing them a favor and taking some points off City, as Pep Guardiola’s side trip to north London on Tuesday night. Big. Huge. Large.
  • Then there are a couple of decidedly less sizeable games on Wednesday, as Brighton welcome Chelsea, potentially wondering which of their employees they might be able to sell to them this time, while Manchester United face Newcastle United.
  • Of much more importance is the game in the WSL the same evening: if Chelsea beat Tottenham (fresh from a whuppin’ by United in the FA Cup final), they will go into the final set of fixtures level on points with Manchester City. Big. Huge. Large.
  • Close the week off with a couple of Championship play-off semi-final second legs: Thursday sees Leeds host Norwich, while on Friday West Brom travel to Southampton. Both ties are 0-0 from the first matches.

(Top photo: Getty Images)


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Tags: Briefing Arsenal City defines era rivalry relegation disasters Leverkusen

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