There’s always an urge, and sometimes a directive from websites and Twitter and whatever else, to attach meaning or statements to any match or result. Sometimes, two teams just play each other and the score is the score and that’s your story. It’s not an overarching comment on systems, managers, or society as a whole. But sometimes, you really can’t ignore what one game tells you about the state of two clubs overall.
Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Liverpool yesterday was one of those. One team who look every bit like they’re at the start of something really special, and another that really feels like their time of doing special things has come to a close. We’re only a quarter through the season (and I make sure to never announce this point in any season as the “quarter-pole,” because it isn’t and also because of vengeance that will be brought against me by my horse racing-loving family), and a lot can still happen. But yesterday felt like the entrenchment of something more than one or two anomalies.
We’ve written about Arsenal before, and yet here they still are, atop the Premier League. Not only atop the Premier League, but looking pretty damn sexy doing so. Most of the time, they’ve been blowing teams away with a speed and attacking verve that is rare to see and most every other team in the world is trying to achieve. They are playing football that should be put behind a velvet rope. The Gunners’ attacking midfield three of Martinelli, Bukayo Sako, and Martin Odegaard is beyond electric. It’s beyond Vegas neon lights at this point. They’re fast, clever, they interchange, they find space, they pick passes, they leave tire marks on any defender in their way.
It also speaks to Arsenal taking full advantage of something that is usually not available to Premier League clubs, and there were some just a year ago who were screaming it wasn’t available to Arsenal either. And that’s a rebuild. Mid-table clubs can’t do it, because one bad year could land them in a relegation battle. And if you lose that battle, you can ruin your club forever. Top-of-the-table teams can’t do it, because losing out on Champions League money can truly hamper your plans, and players you might want will opt to play for clubs that are in the elite competition year after year. It was less than a year ago that Juve’s Dušan Vlahovic was blowing off Arsenal to sign for Juve because of the latter’s status. How does he feel about that now? That doesn’t mean teams don’t miss out on the top four every so often, but there is almost no patience for even taking one season to not even try.
But Arsenal, never a candidate for relegation and in such a mess after Unai Emery’s reign of huh, didn’t have much choice. While the payments for their newish stadium had kept them from really spending cash like some of their rivals, it also provides an income that assures their comfort. Which bought Mikel Arteta more time than anyone gets to rebuild the team. Anywhere else, maybe any other manager, gets canned before Arteta does. Even Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool likely would not have been given quite as much time as Arteta has been, had he not shown more evidence of a brighter tomorrow than Arteta did. And we’ll come back around to that. To be fair, it was only a season and a half or so, but that’s how quickly things move in soccer.
Yesterday’s starting 11 for Arsenal featured just one player over 25. Which means that just about everyone is ready to enter their peak years. Which is obviously a salivating prospect for Arsenal fans (shudder). That doesn’t mean it’s automatic, and growth isn’t always linear. That was in evidence at the end of last season when Arsenal spit up their Champions League place. This is still a different team when Thomas Partey isn’t around to anchor those attackers and let Granit Xhaka braveheart all over the field. Depth will be tested when the cup competitions kick in and however seriously they want to take their Europa League run. No one has any idea how a World Cup cannonballing into the middle of the season will affect teams (seven of Arsenal’s starters yesterday could play serious roles for their countries in Qatar).
But there’s no getting around that the patience and flexibility afforded to Arteta has started something special here.
On the other side of the coin, there may be no getting around that the sun has set on Klopp’s Liverpool, at least this version. Whereas Arsenal were filled with kids ready to kick the door down, Liverpool looked every bit a lineup riddled with guys who have already seen it all, are over it, and are making noises like Nick Nolte playing Han Solo. Six of Liverpool’s starters were over 30, and a seventh in Robert Firmino was brought on to replace one of their few young players in Luis Diaz when Diaz came off injured in the first half.
They looked miles slower than Arsenal, which is what led to Arsenal’s first two goals on the counter that no Liverpool defender got within javelin-throwing distance of stopping. Other than the last half hour of the first half, they couldn’t dictate where the game was played. Thiago and Jordan Henderson just can’t get there when they don’t have the ball. That only got worse when Fabinho came on. Arsenal’s penalty may have been on the soft side, but it came after a stretch of play that was as panicky and rash as anything Liverpool have displayed in years, thwacking and hacking at clearances from their own box that didn’t go anywhere. They were asking for it. They can’t press effectively, and once a wave starts against them they all become something that takes down their house. It has looked like a spent side well before Sunday.
It was a side built for the past, and one that looked to have peaked last spring and took its shot at historic glory. It missed, and is now depleted. They’re caught in the middle of trying to rebuild the airplane in midair. They’ve tried to redo the front line, bringing in Diogo Jota, Diaz, and Darwin Nunez in recent seasons to take the team forward. The defense has been buffeted by Ibrahima Konaté and to a lesser extent Calvin Ramsay this season (though through injury the latter has yet to play). Liverpool don’t have (or won’t spend depending on whom you ask) the endless money pit to rebuild everything at once. They left the midfield to last. And now they’re paying for it.
And it’s still a question of whether Klopp can build or helm a second great team. He’s never done it, either at Mainz or Dortmund. The latter is the better comparison, where they built a team that won the Bundesliga twice and made a Champions League final. Sales and age made it go stale, and Klopp left.
That’s not much of a criticism though, because so few managers do build second great teams at the same club. Most of the premier managers in the world don’t even try, like Antonio Conte or Carlo Ancelotti or even Pep Guardiola (though that may be changing with the endless checking account of Man City). And the Premier League is unforgiving. Spurs’s last cycle of excitement ended with the 2019 Champions League final, and they spent the next two seasons in the wilderness. It was even worse for Man United and Arsenal. Chelsea have dropped out of the Champions League places a couple times in the “City” era, but were able to immediately haul themselves out of it by throwing around money that Liverpool just don’t have. Nor does anyone else other than City, and it’s a question if Chelsea still do under Todd Boehly. How long before Newcastle join this discussion?
When you’re not run by an oil-and-blood nation, you can only get so much to go right for so long. You have to be almost perfect in every way. Liverpool were for most of five seasons. But again, things move quickly in soccer. The road back is uncertain. Ask Arsenal, who look to have navigated it, finally.