THE EMIRATES has rarely seemed so noisy and passionate. Not since the glory days of Arséne Wenger, which preceded the short journey from English football’s most stylish pre-war construction, have Arsenal fans had as much to smile about. Since 2004, they have rarely been close to a title bid and a series of false dawns have petered out, leaving the club to seek solace in the FA Cup. People complained about the soulless Emirates, but the fact is, any stadium can lack atmosphere if the punters are unhappy.
Arsenal’s current team is full of promise, good to watch, and has character. They beat Liverpool 3-2, one of the best sides of the past decade, and although there have to be questions about the penalty, they signalled a changing of the guard at the top of the Premier League.
Nine games have gone now and Arsenal’s record is undoubtedly impressive, in fact, compared to the 13 league title wins in their history, they have started the season very well indeed. They’ve got more points after nine games than in any of the club’s three double-winning campaigns (1971, 1998, 2002). Their bid is now credible, but the real tests are still ahead of them. Arsenal have yet to play Manchester City, the reigning champions and red hot favourites to retain their title.
Arsenal’s victory against Liverpool not only underlined the progress made over the past year at the club, it also emphasised their opponents’ move into a transitional period. While some are talking of crisis, nothing could be further from the truth, Liverpool are at a point in the cycle where they need to rebuild and move one or two players on. All of a sudden, the team that has taken the club to the heights seems weary and a little aged. The average age of the side that started against Arsenal was over 28, some four years older than their hosts. Furthermore, six players were 30 or over. After the battle on four fronts in 2021-22, Liverpool may have burned themselves out, perhaps temporarily.
Again, in response to those ringing alarm bells, this was Liverpool’s second defeat in the league this season. It may be that the intensive Jürgen Klopp style has been sussed, that opponents now know how to expose Trent Alexander-Arnold and that Mo Salah has become less effective with age and a change in his role. But they do have striking power in the form of Darwin Ńuñez (23), Luis Díaz (25) and Diogo Jota (25) that can provide the energy of youth.
Klopp has been with Liverpool seven years – with all managers, their method has a time span, a period when it is at its most effective. It could be Klopp’s way has simply been usurped. The stats don’t always speak of obvious decline, although in the past few seasons, their shots on target as a percentage of overall shots has been reducing.
It is easy to blame money as the root of the problem, but Liverpool have proved extremely inventive when it comes to transfer market activity. Their fans have an unhealthy obsession with Manchester City and Pep, but the big difference is not squad sizes for City have a relatively small pool of players. They are packed with quality though because of their financial strength and this has enabled them to buy who they want but also benefit from selling players surplus to requirements for big fees. While City might be able to avoid the cycle that ends with transition because they can successfully repair the aircraft in mid-flight, Liverpool probably cannot do that quite as easily.
The modern game doesn’t necessarily encourage transition, a drop in performance is usually punished by club owners. Klopp is unlikely to be sacked but he may, at some stage, decide he has taken things as far as he can with the resources at his disposal. From 2017-18 to 2022-23, Liverpool’s net spend in the transfer market has been some £ 200 million less than Arsenal, Chelsea and City and £ 450 million lower than Manchester United’s net outlay (source: Transfermarkt).
Arsenal’s board did allow Mikel Arteta to get the club through the post-Wenger era, taking over from the unfortunate Unai Emery. But can his team beat Manchester City to the Premier League trophy? Basically, Liverpool’s side under Klopp has run City to the wire and won the title themselves. But they have basically been number two in a league of 20 over the past five years. Even if Arsenal become better than peak-Klopp Liverpool, are they merely moving into that second place slot?
Certainly, with Erling Haaland installed now at City and already on 20 goals, Pep Guardiola’s latest line-up could be their most formidable yet. That’s why it will take something special and maybe a little unexpected for City to get pushed into second place by an emerging Arsenal.
Despite the daunting task of overtaking a force of nature, Arsenal are definitely in the race, but after being exiled from the Champions League, success may have to be measured by qualification for the top European competition. As for Liverpool, are they really in a crisis? No, but a period of measured expectation may be necessary. And Manchester City? It looks like the unexpected just got that bit rarer in English football.