It’s a rarity that England’s top four will all play each other on the same day. It’s even rarer to have it happen this late in the season. Though it shouldn’t be entirely a surprise in this the wackiest of Premier League campaigns, this Sunday’s collision of 1st and 3rd then 2nd and 4th in the table will do quite a bit to decide the destination of the title. While circumstances, form and numbers should say that Leicester and Manchester City have the pressure this weekend, narratives suggest the exact opposite. But in this instance, the narratives are 100% right.
Normally, when the first place team plays the second in the league, the table toppers have the pressure to perform, and the chasers have pressure to prove themselves. Although Sunday at the Emirates won’t be first against second, first versus third is close enough. But, oddly, first place Leicester don’t have the pressure to perform, or prove themselves. When is the last time that has ever been said about a team topping the table in the middle of February? Not only have Leicester already proven their mettle against a title contender in their arena, their fairytale season has already defied every bound of logic.
Meanwhile Arsenal’s season has evoked typical Arsenal tropes: impressive in fits and spurts, injury riddled yet trudging along at a similar pace to the past, and the qualms about Arsenal teams in the past are evident again. They are the team that on paper has the truly serious title credentials yet it is they who have to perform and prove themselves against the supposed underdogs at their home ground against a team they put five past back in September. If they lose? They’ll be decried as “the same old Arsenal” once again.
For the game that will start about two hours after the one at the Emirates ends, the battle between second and fourth in the table will kick off at the Etihad. Manchester City are looking to respond after being thoroughly taken to task by Leicester last Saturday, while Spurs continue to almost silently pile up points as observers wonder whether they can actually win the title this year. Mauricio Pochettino spent much of the year playing down his side’s title credentials despite their prowess at picking up points and looking good doing it, and considering the ease with which they’ve dispatched opposition at times this season (including City), why not them? But with that comes pressure; pressure unlike anything Spurs have faced this season. They have their own doubters to prove incorrect; especially those who believe the “same old Spurs” will come and rear their ugly head eventually with this weekend being the prime time for that to finally happen.
Manchester City, even in their two title winning seasons, have been less than impressive on their way to finally hoisting the trophy, but even this season has been a marked downturn from year’s past. Injuries and age have finally taken their toll, and now everyone knows they’re being managed by a lame duck. Even fourth, City have the title winning pedigree in their squad as well as the experience that the young Spurs squad doesn’t come close to having. And yet, it’s Spurs who go into the Etihad knowing that a win could prove so much to so many.
In a season that makes no sense, the narratives heading into the two biggest matches of the season so far also seemingly make no sense. Although both matches are very different, the teams that seemingly should have pressure hoisted upon them actually have none, and those who normally would be playing with house money are not. Leicester are always going to be underdogs despite all evidence to the contrary this season, and Arsenal will always have their demons to slay. Manchester City have the “veteran experience” needed to win trophies, but how do the Spurs kids perform when the light is fixated firmly on them?
Both North London teams have to fight back against narrative perception if they want to beat the Cinderella story and the old hand back to win the title this season. They’re always fighting back the Court of Public Opinion, but this weekend, even when they shouldn’t, they’ll still feel that weight as they take the pitch for the biggest game of their respective seasons on Sunday.