As Arsenal prepared for their Premier League trip to Anfield in the final moments, manager Mikel Arteta took the unusual step of blasting “You don’t walk alone” from speakers placed around the pitch as his players trained.
That didn’t do the trick. Ironically, it was Arteta who really ignited the atmosphere during a furious confrontation with opposite number Jurgen Klopp on the touchline after taking exception to a Sadio Mane challenge by Takehiro Tomiyatsu.
After an uneventful half-hour, Liverpool immediately sprung to life and beat Arsenal 4-0 in November 2021. Klopp’s side completed a league double against the Londoners at the Marguerite and relegated them between those two matches. Good action at the Carabao Cup semi-final stage.
There were 24 points between the clubs at the end of last season. Liverpool threatened to pull off a historic clean sweep across all four competitions with remarkable consistency on all fronts, before falling agonizingly short in both the Premier League and Champions League.
By contrast, Arsenal have lost five of their last 10 league games to secure a top-four finish and the accompanying Champions League qualification, a sense of anguish that arch-rivals Tottenham have capitalized on. Their setbacks.
However, since last May, there have been tremors.
Not only did Arsenal close the gap, they overtook Liverpool and disappeared into the distance. They are 29 points clear of Klopp’s eighth-placed side at the top of the table and have wrapped up a first Premier League title since 2003-04. No one will laugh at Arteta’s methods.
Arguably, a club that hasn’t even finished in the top four since 2015-16 has been gifted this opportunity to claim the game’s biggest domestic prize.
Yes, all of their rivals have struggled this season, with even Manchester City not quite as strong as they have been in recent years. But Arsenal have set a ridiculously high standard in 9 games to reach 72 points. For context, at the same stage a year ago, Liverpool had scored 70 on City as an underdog.
Whatever happens during the run-in, there are lessons from the rapid progress monitored at the Emirates to the Anfield hierarchy.
For a start, it’s proof that you’re not as far away as you sometimes feel. Last April, interim manager Ralf Rangnick announced that Manchester United were “six years” behind Liverpool. This morning’s schedule makes a mockery of that prediction. The terrain can change quickly.
Critics mocked the loyalty shown to Arteta when Arsenal were flattered to cheat, but that faith was repaid in his third full season in charge. Liverpool have a similar approach to stability and have a long-term plan under Jurgen Klopp.
Arsenal are a case study in how they can recruit brilliantly without vast resources, even when faced with the dire situation of operating outside the prestige and riches of the Champions League.
Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdale were added to the squad before last season. This time they added Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, with Leandro Trassart and Jorginho following in the January window.
Liverpool’s transfer business last summer didn’t help them. Darwin Nunez has shown his undoubted ability, but Fabio Carvalho has been increasingly favored and Calvin Ramsey’s first season has been blighted by injury. Developing skills takes time and patience in a world that increasingly demands instant results. Just look at the influence of 21-year-old duo Gabriel Martinelli and Bucayo Saka on Arsenal’s squad now.
The loan system has been cleverly used in the case of young French defender William Saliba, who has kicked on quite impressively since spending last season at Marseille.
Look at the Arsenal midfield – Granit Xhaka, Odegard and Thomas Partey. It was resolved and dominated. A perfect blend of silk and steel. They have 18 goals and 12 assists in the Premier League.
What about Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago, James Milner, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, Arthur Melo, Stefan Bajcetic and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? A combined three goals and four assists. A lot of chopping and changing. Hence little energy, balance and control.
Liverpool’s owners know they need to effectively buy a new midfield player in the summer. Just as the engine room propelled Arsenal to glory, it has been at the heart of this season’s regression under Klopp. Yes, Liverpool looked defensive and toothless in attack, but an active midfield, providing defense and creativity changes everything.
You can’t overlook the aforementioned good fortune either. Jesus’ prolonged absence aside, Arsenal largely avoided a costly injury setback. Conversely, Liverpool have suffered more than anyone else. Luis Diaz, who underwent knee surgery, has not kicked a ball since Arsenal ended a 605-minute goal drought against Liverpool in all competitions after a controversial 3-2 defeat at the Emirates in October.
The difference between these teams is underlined by the fact that nine Arsenal outfield players have started 20 or more top-flight games this season – Martinelli, White, Sacha, Gabriel Magalhas, Xhaka, Odegaard, Saliba, Party and Zinchenko. For Liverpool, only five players have reached that figure: Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Andrew Robertson and Virgil van Dijk. Continuity always helps.
Arteta has been ruthless in moving on older players whose best days are behind them. A prime example is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was earlier sacked as captain by the Spaniard after disciplinary issues.
Liverpool are currently in transition, with Klopp torn between one team and another. He has already reshaped the attack in the last 15 months with the signings of Diaz, Nunez and Cody Kakpo. Now attention turns to other areas. He has to decide who is having a bad year and who is down. There is no room for blind faith.
There is a debate among Liverpool supporters – which scenario is more unpleasant – Arsenal or City for the big prize?
Certainly no love lost with City. For some, watching them win their fifth title in six seasons will be daunting, especially given the rivalry and foul chants that marred last week’s match between the two clubs at the Etihad. For others, it will be easier for City-Triumph to wait for them to respond to the list of charges that they are accused of breaching the rules of financial fair play as it is almost expected given their resources.
Some will begrudge Arsenal, who have not picked up a point at Anfield since 2016, their first real title challenge and the fact that Arteta will draw level with Klopp on the number of Premier League titles.
Liverpool had to fight very hard for a long time to end their title drought. Since 2004, Arsenal have been unbeaten in those 30 years.
However, you can’t argue with how Arsenal have handled the pressure and stuck to the task this season. Nurturing young talent, finding value and quality in the transfer market, ignoring external noise, creating a special team ethos, staying true to their principles and supporting a manager who believes in them innately.
Now Liverpool have some serious ground to cover.
(Top image: Robin Jones/Getty Images)