Alan Shearer is way off – Man City aren’t the title favourites any more

Alan Shearer reckons that Manchester City are still favourites for the Premier League title - but is that really still the case?
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It feels a little bit wrong to question Alan Shearer’s judgement on the matter of the title run-in. After all, his first-hand experience of the final stages of elite sporting competition is slightly greater than mine, although I didn’t see him successfully take the third leg in the National Under-11 Small Schools 25m Freestyle Relay. But while he may have the edge in expertise here, I can’t help but politely disagree with the assertion in his BBC Sport column that “Manchester City are the favourites for the Premier League.”

I do feel slightly better about arguing with a man whose knowledge of football dwarfs mine after Mikel Arteta claimed that Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Manchester City was “a thrilling game.” That just goes to show that even people with genuine expertise talk complete rot sometimes. But having narrowly won the battle to remain awake during one of the most tedious games of the top flight season, I can only conclude that this is not quite the same City side whose relentless excellence has seen them dominate English football for several years now. And the competition is a little tougher than usual, too.

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Shearer’s belief that Pep Guardiola still holds the edge in this three-way tussle essentially boils down to the undeniable fact that he and his squad have immense experience in these situations. They have become a winning machine, fuelled by absolute self-belief and always find a way to get over the line even when they aren’t playing at their very best. But this time around, some of the cogs in that machine are looking a little rusty.

Erling Haaland, whose 52 goals propelled City to the treble last year, is ever so slightly off the boil, scoring just four league goals in the nine games since he returned from injury. Given how much Guardiola has adjusted his system to accommodate Haaland, switching from a slow, possession-based style to something far more direct, it’s a big problem when the lusciously-locked Norwegian is a little under par.

Not that it’s just Haaland. Kevin de Bruyne, usually responsible for a steady stream of goals in the biggest games, hasn’t been particularly productive since making his own comeback. Jack Grealish and Jérémy Doku haven’t scored or set up a single Premier League goal between them in 2024. Julián Álvarez has just two since the turn of the year. That’s a lot of attacking talent struggling to clear the very high bars that they have set for themselves.

And while the defence has been as doughty as ever, injuries to Ederson, Nathan Aké, John Stones and Kyle Walker are a potential problem given the relative lack of depth in City’s squad. They are still on a 23-match unbeaten run – they’re hardly struggling by normal standards – but they are looking somewhat weary and certainly not at their very best. As we saw against Arsenal, there is a lack of creativity and attacking verve, at least compared to the City teams that won the league for the last three years.

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Of course, they’re only three points behind Liverpool, and one behind Arsenal. With nine games left to go, there is plenty of room for their rivals to slip up and it would hardly be astonishing if City won virtually every game from here. They probably have the easiest run-in too, not that there aren’t some potential banana skins - Aston Villa are next up, a tough nut to crack under Unai Emery, and bogey team Crystal Palace are up after that. They can’t really afford a draw in the next week, or things will start to slip away from them.

But while I respect Shearer’s understanding of the psychology of the title race and certainly respect the fact that City have consistently proven the ability to shrug off a deficit and take the crown, there is another factor here - these Arsenal and Liverpool teams just don’t look crumbling any time soon.

Last year, Arsenal’s title dream was brutally ripped up at the Etihad Stadium as City strolled to a deserved 4-1 win. This year, while the fare was desperately poor from a neutral perspective, they demonstrated the tactical acumen and mental toughness to guts out a point. After a tricky run through December, Arsenal haven’t lost a single league game in 2024. This is not the Arsenal team that flunked so hard last year.

As much as City may know practically everything about what it takes to win a title race, Arsenal seem to have learned from last season’s experiences too. Winning isn’t the only way to discover what it takes to make it over the line in the title race – after all, Shearer has said in the past that the experience of finishing second with Blackburn Rovers in 1993/94 made a significant difference in the run-in when they won the title the next season. Arsenal have scored more and conceded fewer goals than any other team in the top flight for a reason.

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And then there’s Liverpool – who I make favourites at this point, a belief with which the bookmakers and statistician’s supposed ‘supercomputers’ seem to agree with. They have more points, they have the form, and they probably have slightly gentler fixtures than the Gunners, who are the only team Liverpool have lost to in the league since the New Year.

Liverpool do, in fairness, have a few injuries to key players like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alisson, but they seem to have shrugged that off so far and are playing some superb football. They controlled the game against Brighton on Sunday extremely well and didn’t show any signs of stress or panic when Danny Welbeck gave the Seagulls a surprise early lead.

Believing that City have the edge because of their quality and experience isn’t unreasonable in and of itself – but it ignores the fact that both of the teams ahead of them have been sharp, psychologically strong and keep on winning football matches. For City’s knowledge of title run-ins to count, they need one of the sides ahead of them to stumble. That doesn’t look like happening, and at this stage I would be mildly surprised if the champions clung onto their crown.

But then again, only mildly surprised. This is Manchester City. If they need to win nine straight matches down the home straight, it wouldn’t a shock if they succeeded. So while I disagree with the eminent Mr. Shearer about the likely destination of the Premier League trophy, I’m not prepared to put any money on the matter just yet. But I’ve still got that 26-year-old swimming gold medal tucked away in a draw somewhere, so maybe I’ve got enough of my own experience behind me to be right for a change. You never know.