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 City and Liverpool won’t be shifted easily, if at all

IT would be nice to say the forthcoming Premier League season is full of unpredictability and intrigue, but the truth is, it is going to the “same old, same old”, with Manchester City likely to win their fifth title in six years and Liverpool chasing them all the way. The romantics hope for something unexpected, a new Leicester story or two, but for 18 of the 20 Premier clubs, the league is about trying to claim places for Europe or staying out of the relegation zone.

The past five seasons have seen the Premier boil down to a two-horse race, with Liverpool largely filling the role of a pacemaker, apart from 2020 when they won their first Premier title. Jürgen Klopp’s side may never unseat City under Pep again, but they have something in their trophy cabinet that City feverishly covet, the UEFA Champions League. And yet when the history books are written about this period of bad taste and bling, City will be remembered for their achievements in the Premier and Liverpool will possibly be remembered for the Klopp factor and the way his reign in the dugout helped to rekindle the spirit of Anfield.

The gap between City and Liverpool and the rest of the Premier is growing by the season. Last season, the margin between second-placed Liverpool and third-placed Chelsea was 18 points, in 2019, the gap between second and third was 25 points. In these two seasons, the difference between City (champions both times) and Liverpool was one point. It is doubtful that any title-chasers have been so tightly matched so consistently. In the past, champions were chased hard, but very few times have we seen two teams go head-to-head so often with such a high level of proficiency. In the 1930s, when Arsenal ruled English football, the main challengers changed frequently, as they did during Liverpool’s golden period in the 1970s and 1980s. Arsenal and Manchester United were fierce rivals between 1997 and 2003 and in 1997-98 and 1998-99, were separated by a single point.

The Pep Guardiola- Jürgen Klopp dynamic makes the rivalry between their two clubs even more interesting. Both preside over “system teams”, squads designed to work within the framework constructed by their manager. Pep has his footballing ethos, Klopp is a disciple of the press. Others have tried to copy but these two clubs also have resources and are smart in the market. They have the best coaches, the best goalkeepers, the most options when it comes to scoring goals.

It is hard to see where an alternative Premier champion can be found. In the last four seasons, the records of the top club have been startling. The top three champions since the Premier began, in terms of victories in a season, have all been recorded since 2018 with 32 victories out of 38. That’s City in 2018 and 2019 and Liverpool in 2020, all winning 84% of their games. The average for the champion club in the Premier era has been 70%.

These teams also know how to score goals; in the very early 21st century, champions like Manchester United (2003), Arsenal (2004) and Chelsea (2005) had a goal-per-game rate of under two. City hold the Premier record with 2.79 in 2018 and their recent successes have above the champion average of 2.13 per game. Three times since 2018, City have enjoyed a goal difference of over 70 goals. City, as well as scoring prolifically at times, also keep their own goal relatively intact, although not as effectively as José Mourinho’s Chelsea of 2005 and 2006.

Over the past five years, including the 2022-23 season, Manchester City have spent £ 580 million on transfers, compared to Liverpool’s £ 405 million. City have been very active in player trading and have brought in £ 413 million in transfer sales. Their net spend has been £ 168 million in this period. Liverpool accrued £ 191 million in transfer sales, resulting in a net outlay of £ 212 million. City pay more than any other Premier League wages (as per 2020-21 financials), with their £ 323 million just £ 18 million higher than Liverpool’s wage bill.

The overwhelming strength in both clubs is clear to see and that’s why it will take something spectacular to knock either of them off their pedestal. The two-horse race resumes on August 5, the same contenders.