The last time Arsenal were preparing for a Premier League trip to Anfield, manager Mikel Arteta took the unusual step of “You never walk alone” from loudspeakers placed around the pitch as his players trained.
It didn’t do the trick. Ironically, it was Arteta who really ignited the atmosphere during an angry confrontation with his counterpart, Jurgen Klopp, on the touchline, after the exception of Sadio Mane’s challenge to Takehiro Tomiyasu.
After a uneventful opening half-hour, Liverpool immediately emerged and thrashed Arsenal 4-0 that day in November 2021. Klopp’s side went on to complete a league double over the Mark’s Londoners and in between those two matches knocked them out of the Carabao Cup semi-finals for good measure.
There were 24 points between the two teams at the end of last season. Liverpool had threatened a historic sweep across all four competitions with an impressive display of consistency on all fronts before falling agonizingly behind in both the Premier League and Champions League.
On the other hand, Arsenal lost five of their last 10 league matches to miss the fourth-place finish and the Champions League qualification that came with it, with the feeling of pain amplified by the fact that Tottenham was their arch-rival. their setbacks.
But since last May, the shift has been seismic.
Not only did Arsenal reduce the deficit, but it overtook Liverpool and disappeared into the distance. It ranks first in the standings, 29 points behind the eighth-placed club, and is close to its first Premier League title since 2003-2004. No one laughs at Arteta’s methods anymore.
And the argument that a club that hasn’t finished even in the top four since 2015-16 has had the chance to win the game’s biggest domestic prize is lip service.
Yes, their opponents have all had problems this season, even with Manchester City not quite as strong as they have been in recent years. But Arsenal set a ridiculously high bar in getting to 72 points with nine games remaining. For context, at that same point a year ago, City had 70 just one behind Liverpool.
Whatever happens during the second round, there are lessons the Anfield hierarchy can learn from the rapid progress that has been overseen at the Emirates.
For a start, this is proof that you are never as far away as you sometimes feel. Last April, caretaker manager Ralph Rangnick announced that Manchester United were “six years” behind Liverpool. This morning’s table scoffs at that prediction. The landscape can change quickly.
Critics derided the loyalty shown by Arteta when Arsenal were flattered to be deceived, but that confidence was paid back during his third full season at the helm. Liverpool have a similar approach to stability and long-term plan under Jurgen Klopp, who will have the chance to right what went so wrong.
Arsenal are a case study in how you can recruit smartly without massive resources even when faced with the nightmare scenario of operating out of the prestige and fortunes of the Champions League.
Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdal were brought in before last season. This time they added Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, followed by Leandro Trossard and Jorginho in the January window.
Liverpool’s summer transfer business did not help them take off. Darwin Nunez showed flashes of his undoubted ability, but Fabio Carvalho was becoming increasingly out of favor and Calvin Ramsey’s first season was devastated by injury. Developing talent takes time and patience in a world that increasingly demands immediate results. Now look at the impact on Arsenal’s 21-year-old duo of Gabriel Martinelli and Bucayo Saka on either wing.
The loan system has been used wisely in the case of young French defender William Saliba, who has made an impressive run since spending last season at Marseille.
Just look at Arsenal’s midfield – Granit Xhaka, Odegaard, Thomas Partey. It has been leveled and dominated. The perfect combination of silk and steel. They have 18 goals and 12 assists between them in the Premier League.
What about Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, James Milner, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, Arthur Melo, Stefan Bagcetic and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Three goals and four assists. Lots of chopping and changing. A little energy, balance and control.
Liverpool’s owners know they really need to sanction the purchase of a whole new midfield in the summer. Just like the engine room that catapulted Arsenal to glory, it has been at the center of this season’s decline under Klopp. Yes, Liverpool have looked defensively weak and often unable to attack, but an efficient midfield, as protective and creative as it should be, changes everything.
You also can’t overlook the aforementioned good luck. Jesus’ long absence aside, Arsenal have largely avoided costly injury setbacks. In contrast, Liverpool suffered more than anyone else. Luis Diaz, who has had knee surgery, has not kicked a ball since the controversial 3-2 defeat at the Emirates in October when Arsenal finally ended a 605-minute drought against Liverpool in all competitions.
The difference between these teams is underscored by the fact that nine away Arsenal players have started 20 or more Serie A matches this season – Martinelli, White, Saka, Gabriel Magalhaes, Xhaka, Odegaard, Saliba, Partey and Zinchenko. For Liverpool, only five have reached that figure – Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Andrew Robertson and Virgil van Dijk. Continuity always helps.
Arteta was ruthless in terms of moving with the older players whose best days were behind them. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was previously stripped of the captaincy by the Spaniard after disciplinary issues, was the best example.
Liverpool is currently going through a transitional phase, with Klopp signed between one club and another. He has really reshaped the attack with Diaz, Nunez and Cody Gakpo over the past 15 months. Now the focus is shifting to other areas. He needs to judge who just had a bad year and who is on the decline. There is no place for blind loyalty.
There is a debate among Liverpool supporters as to which scenario is the least palatable – Arsenal or City for the top prize?
There is definitely no love lost with Citi. For some, the spectacle of them winning a fifth title in six seasons will be jarring, especially given the rivalry and vile cheers that marred last week’s match between the two clubs at the Etihad. For others, it would be easier to ignore City’s victory almost as expected given their resources, as the wait continues until they answer a list of charges allegedly for breaching the rules of financial fair play.
Some may begrudge Arsenal, who haven’t even picked up a point at Anfield since 2016, on the grounds that it’s their first real title challenge for a long time, and the fact that Arteta will equal Klopp in the number of Premier League titles won.
Liverpool had to fight harder for longer to end their title drought. Arsenal haven’t seen the near misses since 2004 that they’ve endured over those 30 years.
However, you can’t argue with how Arsenal have dealt with pressure and stuck to the task this season. Developing young talent, finding value and quality in the transfer market, ignoring outside noise, generating own team ethic, sticking to their principles and supporting a manager they have an ingrained belief in.
Now Liverpool have serious ground to make up.
(Top photo: Robin Jones/Getty Images)
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