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.

The Grey Neutral: Knees, Qatar and jobs

THERE’S no doubt the scenes witnessed in Budapest at the Hungary v England game were unacceptable and the outrage was warranted. But let’s think about this, can England look itself in the eye and claim racism isn’t a problem in the UK? No, absolutely not, which is why English footballers are taking the knee at every available opportunity – notably week-by-week in the domestic football. Not everyone agrees with the action, though. Rod Liddle, writing in the Times, said if England want to take an anti-racist stand, they should not go to the World Cup in Qatar. Liddle refers to the knee gesture as corporate virtue gesturing, and adds:  “The notion – advanced by some – that if you don’t take the knee, you’re a racist, is as obnoxious as it is inaccurate”. Interestingly, it is noticeable the TV and media seems to play down the amount of jeering that takes place at some grounds. Liddle goes further by claiming that if “England players really do mean something by that gesture, then how on earth are they going to take part in the World Cup finals?.” He points out there is perhaps no country on earth where people of colour get a rougher deal than in Qatar. The proper response is to refuse to attend, he says. We know that will not happen as football has a habit of shelving its morals when it is convenient to do so.

The sportswashing World Cup

They say that the world has enough oil for 50 years, so the future of oil rich states will be under threat at some point. The World Cup is part of a project that aims to reduce Qatar’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The cynics might suggest that Qatar are merely “sportswashing”, which effectively cleanses the country’s reputation and covers-up a whole catalogue of sins, such as human and LGBTG rights. This practice has been going on for decades – you can go back to the 1936 Olympics for an early example of how a regime uses sport to try and improve its image. Although lots of undesirable things were covered up in the Berlin games, nobody was completely fooled. And then there was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was going to be played against a very bleak background. Moscow 2018 was supposed to be similar but somehow, Russia pulled it off. We know too much about Qatar, and we don’t know enough, but the fact remains, this is an unsuitable venue.

Ban them – it’s simple

Returning to the subject of racism and those Hungarian fans. While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would surely be far more effective. It is time to get tough rather than showing disapproval through very benign gestures. Conversely, Refusing to play an opponent that harbours racists, bigots and right-wing thugs would send a very strong message.

Jobs for the boys

Being a Premier League manager is a perilous job. Expectations are high and mostly unrealistic. How many Premier League managers have won silverware of any kind when managing an English club? The answer is just six: Mikel Arteta, Rafa Benitez, Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Who has the best win rate among Premier managers? Guardiola with 73.13% before the season started. The longest serving manager in the top flight is Sean Dyche (36.8% win rate), who took over Burnley in 2012. On the subject of win rates, Mikel Arteta, the current holder of the “one defeat and he’s out” trophy, has won 51.1% of games since he took on the Arsenal job. The Gunners face Norwich at home next, the latest vital game in Arteta’s short managerial career.

Other games to watch this week: Leipzig v Bayern; Napoli v Juve; Sporting v Porto, Leeds v Liverpool; Hearts v Hibs, Marseille v Saint-Etienne.

Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, via Flickr CC-BY-2.0