It really did feel like they were going to do it.

Until probably April last season, the prospect of Arsenal doing the implausible and overhauling Manchester City to win the league title felt not just realistic, but like it was genuinely going to happen.

And then it was as if Manchester City had remembered they were a merciless winning machine, activated ‘Full City’ mode and left the humans of Arsenal in the dust.

For Arsenal, this was not a disgrace. Many have tried to overhaul Pep Guardiola’s City and few have succeeded. It was a great achievement for a team so young and inexperienced to push them as far as they did.

But having genuinely competed with City for most of last season, the next step is to actually beat them. So the question for Arsenal this season is: what does it take to go from second to first?

Without wishing to dampen the spirits of any Arsenal fans who are giddy at the prospect of Mikel Arteta’s boys building on the good work they did last season, this hasn’t happened a lot in the Premier League era. And by ‘this’, we mean a team who hadn’t won the title before (or hadn’t won it for a while) pushing an established behemoth one season and then overhauling them the next.

In fact, going by that strict definition, it’s only happened three times: Blackburn beating Manchester United in 1994-95, Chelsea overtaking Arsenal in 2004-05, and Liverpool finally taking down City in 2019-20.

Even then, we can probably set Chelsea aside as something of an outlier: if we’re searching for advice about how to take that final step, ‘be taken over by a billionaire who buys an entirely new team and hires the best young manager in the world’ isn’t especially constructive or relevant in 2023.

The rest don’t really qualify. Of the other Premier League champions, United won it 13 times between 1993 and 2013; City are the new kings; Chelsea have ebbed and flowed as challengers since that first title win; Leicester were a once-in-a-generation comet, never to be seen again; and Arsenal finished fifth the season before they became champions in 1997-98, so it can’t really be argued that they went directly from challengers to champions.

Still, that doesn’t mean things cannot be learned from the latter’s experience, especially from the members of that team who did fulfil the criteria, back in the days before Sky invented football and the Premier League came to be.

Lee Dixon was part of the side that overcame United, who had won four of the first five Premier League titles, but was also there in 1989 and 1991 when they reeled in and defeated the team of the day, Liverpool.

Unsurprisingly, he says the issue is, in large part, psychological.

“You spend a lot of time thinking ‘Oh my god, they’re so good — how are we going to beat them?’” Dixon says. “You’ve got to have mentally strong individuals in order to create an environment to overcome those hurdles. It’s those moments when you’re at home watching them win again three days before you play… that mental strength in those moments, when you’re on your own, is almost more important than the collective.”

Arsenal’s advantage in 1997-98 was that in Dixon and the rest of that famous back five, they had a group of senior players who had done all of this before. And that experience, according to Dixon, is invaluable.

“We knew how to win,” he says. “The difficult thing is when you haven’t won it before… you can’t replicate what’s coming at the end of a season, no matter how many times you think about it and you’re told what’s coming. You’ve got no base to fall back on and think ‘I know how that feels now, I know what’s coming’. Those last seven or eight games are like a runaway train — you’ve got no clue what it’s like.

“When you can tick that box and say ‘we’ve got over the line’, it validates what you’ve been doing in games and in training.”

The good news for this Arsenal team is that the experience doesn’t necessarily have to be positive. “The beauty of having a season like they did last year is they have a back catalogue of feelings,” says Dixon. “And they know how much the season can change in the space of a couple of weeks.”

Something one of Arsenal’s predecessors did manage to do that the Gunners didn’t is to beat their foes in an individual game. Liverpool had a pretty decent record against City in the years before they eventually overcame them, and back in 1994, Blackburn landed a blow on Manchester United by defeating them towards the end of the season before winning the title.

But opinion seems to be divided on how important that actually is.

“It’s massively important,” says Dixon, and while it’s best for all concerned that we don’t get into too much of a debate about how much Arsenal celebrated their Community Shield success last weekend, after losing eight games in a row to City it’s easy to see how they might have thought of it as a big mental step.

“It’s not what I would’ve done, but I can understand the feeling of wanting to celebrate that because it was such a big hurdle. Eight games on the trot — it was such a big speed bump that has been slowing them down. I can see how you would get a bit carried away.”

However, Colin Hendry, part of that successful Blackburn team, doesn’t necessarily agree it is a defining factor.

“Not really,” he says when asked if that individual victory in 1993-94 was a key psychological leg-up in the following season’s title race. “Us beating them or them beating us wasn’t really a defining result getting in your head. We had gone to a level where we could cope with that sort of thing.”

Hendry instead emphasises the unfortunate, boring truth: that coming from behind to beat a perennial champion is more about gradual, sustained improvement than any other single, identifiable factor.

“We realised that if we could do things on a consistent level, game in game out, that was the point where we thought we had a chance,” he says.

“You need virtually every player to get better than they were the season before. The more players that have a big season, the more chance you have of succeeding and achieving something.

“It was more or less a player finding their level, then improving and going again, doing it as a collective rather than as an individual.”

This is true of Liverpool in 2019-20, too. Their team under Jurgen Klopp improved drastically but gradually from when he arrived in 2015, and in a few specific areas, too. For example, they went from being ranked 12th in the Premier League for scoring goals from fast counter-attacks to first.

They are also a precedent of how a couple of key signings, rather than a slew of them, can be enough to turn pretenders into champions. Blackburn signed Chris Sutton for a then-record £5million. Liverpool brought in Fabinho, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk. Arsenal signed Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars in the summer of 1997.

Manchester United’s experience in 1992-93 isn’t exactly comparable to Arsenal now because the previous season, they had lost out to a Leeds side that were very good but nowhere near the colossus City are. But it’s still relevant given they finished second in 1991-92 and built on that the following season, largely with the help of their own key signing.

They had slipped to mid-table as the winter of the following season approached and, with their big summer signing Dion Dublin having broken his leg, they needed a striker. That was when the infamous phone call in which Ferguson, almost as an afterthought, told his chairman Martin Edwards to ask if Leeds would be prepared to sell Eric Cantona took place. A brief negotiation later and they had signed “one of the most significant players ever associated with Manchester United”.



‘Hello, I am Eric.’ An interview with Cantona

This is why Arsenal were so desperate to recruit Declan Rice this summer. They view him as their own Van Dijk, or Petit, or Sutton, or Cantona. No pressure, Declan.

There are other things Arsenal can take from United’s experience, such as moving on quickly, which seems to be a key part of dealing with a nearly season. After United lost to Liverpool in May 1992, a defeat that meant they wouldn’t win the league, Ferguson was already looking ahead to the following campaign in the Anfield dressing room.

“He was already looking for ways to move past our pain,” wrote Peter Schmeichel in his autobiography. “He spoke about disappointment and about dealing with such a feeling. But then he began speaking about how well we had played through the season, how our progress had been fantastic. And so, from that moment, he was building us back up.”

Will the Arsenal players be talking about how they can move from second to first? Again, past history differs; Dixon says his team did, while Hendry doesn’t recall those sorts of conversations happening in the Blackburn squad.

But it’s inevitable it will be in Arsenal’s heads, at least. If they thought last season was tough, this is going to be the biggest season of their lives.

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)