Arsenal’s bid is real, but are they just replacing Liverpool?

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.

Manchester United and Liverpool: The pit and the pendulum

FOOTBALL has to have its crisis clubs and for the first fortnight of the 2022-23 season, Manchester United donned the black shirt of doom. United were in a hole, victims of their own malaise, their poor transfer record and, apparently, shackled by their owners. Their 4-0 defeat at Brentford was supposedly as symptomatic of decline as their 5-0 humbling at the hands of Crystal Palace in December 1972. To make matters even worse, they had to host Liverpool at Old Trafford and a heavy defeat against their rivals – they were beaten 9-0 over two games in 2021-22 – could spark panic in the streets of Salford.

United’s fans are calling for the club’s owners, the Glazers, to sell and among the people interested in buying England’s biggest football entity is Jim Ratcliffe, a Chelsea season-ticket holder and United supporter. Ratcliffe has a net worth of US$ 28 billion, earned from a successful business career in the chemicals industry. Right now, many supporters see Ratcliffe as the club’s saviour, but so far, nobody has suggested United are even up for sale. Many still continue to insist United belongs to them, but the truth is the club ceased to be the property of its customers when it went public. The soul of Manchester United may rest with those that patronise the stadium on matchdays, but in reality, MUFC is an asset that sits in an investment portfolio.

Although United’s loyal band, and it’s a huge mass of people, might consider the end of the world is nigh with every passing defeat and demonstration of incompetence, observers from the outside know that the club is big enough and resourced enough to bounce back and become a force once more. With every bad mistake, however, recovery gets more complex and while neighbours City continue on a path of carefully-measured and strategic growth, United’s confused approach seems to border on comical at times. For the second time in the club’s history, United appear to have allowed an individual to shape almost every aspect of the club and along with that misjudgement, they have failed to plan appropriately for succession. Hence, the deck of cards has been slowly collapsing since 2013.

The top clubs are generally smarter than the rest – intelligence is now part of the new football business paradigm

Whether this is solely due to the Glazers is open to debate, but clearly, United have not moved with the times and recognised that intelligence and acumen have created the new football paradigm. The top clubs, in other words, City and Liverpool, are generally smarter than the rest. The most important people at a club are not necessarily the managers and coaches, but those buying and selling players, those identifying talent and the bean counters managing contracts. Managers come and go, but in the future, the most marketable individuals at a club will be sporting directors. The mess at one or two major clubs in the past few years can be partly attributed to bad and impetuous hiring of players, over-generous contracts and poor judgement in the market, not to mention, over-stocked squads of expensive occasionals.

While United fans call for new backers, it has to be asked what type of owners do they want to see in the expensive seats at Old Trafford? While debt, loaded on to the club when the acquisition was funded, is an issue, there has been no shortage of funds made available to buy players. Yet some of United’s transfers have been confusing and somewhat peculiar for a club of their size. A penchant for headline-making big name veterans has done little for the reputation of Manchester United and a number of others have not really been of the required quality. This may be the root of the problem, although it is easier to just blame the owners for just being there.

There is little doubt the hiring of the people working for the owners is something they can certainly be accountable for. What sort of owner will eventually turn up? The current trend seems to be for US sports team owners, who invariably want a return and are now becoming very data driven. United is a cash cow and a prime asset for an investor, so it would seem likely that if it’s not Ratcliffe (and nobody knows that sort of stance he would eventually take to team funding), then another US owner would takeover.  The age of the oligarch and sportswashing middle eastern state may be at an end, the former for obvious reasons, the latter because of the negative PR that surrounded Newcastle United. If and when it does happen, there will be no shortage of buyers.

But the very nature of modern football means a team can lurch from crisis to new horizon in the matter of nine days. When Brentford thrashed United 4-0, it seemed that the 20-times champions were staring into the abyss. A 2-1 victory over Liverpool ended with the sun creeping over the Old Trafford stands with churns of milk and jars of honey being served up in the boardroom. Pundits eulogised about Erik ten Hag, the nearest person they’re ever going to get to Guardiola in terms of appearance, who seemed mightily relieved that his decision to leave Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire on the bench worked. United were [far] better for it. Too much emphasis may have been placed on the win, for Liverpool have been out-of-sorts in their first three games of the season.

Only a fool believes a great team can go on forever

And now, the talk is of Jürgen Klopp’s side being in  a mild decline, which is premature. Only a fool would pretend that a great team can go on forever, the continuation depends on replacing and enhancing a squad while in flight and on the evidence of the acquisition of Diaz and Jota, Liverpool have bought well. Sadio Mané decided he wanted to move on and he’s now at Bayern, but how much of his determination to leave was brought on by the arrival of new, younger forwards?  Mane was sold for just under £ 30 million, a bargain for Bayern, but Liverpool paid £ 67.5 million for Benfica’s Darwin Núñez, a big fee for a relatively untried striker who was red-carded in his Anfield debut against Crystal Palace. Liverpool’s transfer activity is generally carefully handled and their net spend for 2022-23 so far has been just £ 5 million, a big difference to their peers. They also recouped some good money for squad players like Minamino, Williams and Grujic and allowed the popular Origi to move on a free.

But if there are concerns, it should be the inevitable ageing of key squad members. Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Thiago Alcantara are all 31 years old and Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah are both 30. Jordan Henderson (32) and James Milner (36) are even older. On the plus side, Jota, Diaz and Núñez are all 25 or under, and Trent Alexander-Arnold is a mere 23. Andrew Robertson and Fabinho are at their peak but goalkeeper Alisson has years ahead of him. Some, if not all, still have some mileage in their careers, but the time is approaching to talk of succession.

Although the die-hards will be wringing their hands at the way their team has started the season, Liverpool may also be suffering from exhaustion. They had a lengthy, all-fronts campaign in 2021-22, one that culminated with two trophies and two agonising near misses. It would be understandable if they were a little flat after such an intense year, especially given the style of play Klopp advocates. More worrying for Koppites is that Liverpool do appear to have been “sussed” by some teams and this may be prove to be the catalyst for change, if indeed that is possible.

On the evidence of the first three weeks, United are not as woeful as Brentford suggested and Liverpool may not be quite as potent as they have been in recent years. Neither will be in any serious trouble and both will be contending nearer to the top than mid-table. Klopp won’t need reminding that City already have a five-point advantage over his team, although Liverpool will probably still be their biggest challenger, and Ten Hag will be aware that one impressive victory doesn’t make a season. But that could all change in another nine days.