I remember being in the concourse of a bustling Liberty Stadium in October 2015, eagerly awaiting team news for Arsenal’s match against Swansea City, hoping for a Joel Campbell start, of all things. As I was waiting in hopeful expectation of the Costa Rican continuing his run in the team, I watched and enjoyed the last twenty minutes of Jose Mourinho being schooled at the Bridge by a resurgent Liverpool, Chelsea were champions at the time and had endured a tough start and Liverpool had just appointed Jurgen Klopp as replacement to the outgoing Brendan Rodgers. The last fifteen minutes of that game blew me away, Liverpool outran and outfought Chelsea, dominated the ball and peppered Chelsea’s goal, they scored two goals and got all three points.
I’d written Liverpool off before the 2015-16 season had even started, they lost Suarez the year before and looked toothless without him. Arsenal had finished thirteen points above them the previous year and Liverpool’s acquisitions the following summer did little to provoke worries of them closing that gap , to add to that they had also sold a young and exciting Raheem Sterling to Manchester City. We looked head and shoulders above them and by October that was being proven by performances and league position, Liverpool had started poorly, sacked their manager and were left with some very average players.
Arsenal had a spine of Cech, Koscielny, Ozil and Sanchez that year, Liverpool’s was Mignolet, Sakho, Lallana and Firmino. Arsenal were bringing seasoned pros off the bench in Walcott and Cazorla, Liverpool were using the likes of Jordan Ibe and Joe Allen. The difference in quality was vast and the strength in depth, staggering. Arsenal played out that Premier League season in second place, coming up short to the surprise package in Leicester City. Liverpool finished eighth, eleven points behind Arsenal. It’s worth noting that Liverpool did reach two finals that season too but gladly, it’s also worth noting that they lost them both. Ultimately, they played out a few a really good games like that one at Chelsea but they were inconsistent and ultimately they proved to be losers in their cup finals.
It would be hard to find a starker contrast between a set of so called ‘big six’ clubs, over the past five years then Liverpool and Arsenal, while Liverpool have been cementing themselves in the coveted Champions League spots, Arsenal have dropped out and not returned. While Liverpool have been fiercely consistent in the league, recording their highest point tally’s in the league for over forty years, Arsenal have largely been inconsistent in the league, with last season epitomising that. Perhaps the most striking and telling stat between these set of clubs is that Liverpool finished higher last season than they had for thirty years, while Arsenal finished lower than they had for twenty-five years. For Liverpool It was the best of times for Arsenal it was the worst of times.
So why did the directions of two of the most decorated clubs in English football take such different paths after the summer of 2016?
Firstly, the clubs took a very different approach in the transfer market. Arsenal and Liverpool both set out to bring in a centre-back, midfielder and forward in the summer of 2016. Liverpool chose to invest the bulk of their money that summer in players that had played and proved themselves in the Premier league, they filled their midfield and forward gaps in the shapes of Gini Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane, and where they did bring in players from outside the English shores, they chose to spend nominal fees or bring in free transfers like Joel Matip who they picked up on a bosman from Schalke. Arsenal though begun on the path of using analytics as the basis of their recruitment, signing Mustafi and Lucas Perez for a combined fifty-two million, Xhaka was the midfielder Arsenal opted for, the Swiss cost more than Wijnaldum or N’Golo Kante that summer.
Arsenal spent thirty million pound more than Liverpool that summer and not one of the Gunners recruits had played a single minute of Premier League of football, this was a risk and one that didn’t pay off. It seemed to kick start a whirlwind approach to recruitment for Arsenal and an internal battle within the club. The head of recruitment at Arsenal that summer was Francis Cagigao, he has since left the club and admitted upon his departure that he warned against the signings of Mustafi and Perez, he labelled the latter as a ‘mid-table player,’ a comment which is hard to argue with given the spells he had with Arsenal and West Ham. After a promising start, Mustafi also proved to be a disappointing acquisition, the less said about the German centre back the better and it’s only now, five years on that we’re seeing the best of Granit Xhaka. The following summer when Arsenal opted to sign Sead Kolasianc on a free, Liverpool opted for the recently relegated Andrew Robertson to fill their full back needs. Liverpool bought and sold better than Arsenal consistently over the next few years.
It’s clear in the small comparisons with some of the players that were signed by the Londoners and Merseysiders that the wrong decisions were made at Arsenal. In the summers of 2016 and 2017 Arsenal would have had the same, if not more pulling power than Liverpool but it would appear Arsenal chose to go down a different path with there recruitment strategy. It’s surprising and disheartening to learn that Arsenal have actually spent more money on players than Liverpool have in the last five years. Clearly the lack of financial backing hasn’t been the problem, it’s been how the club is set up, it’s recruitment team and decision makers have made some very costly errors. It comes as no surprise then, that in the last five years we’ve seen several faces from our recruitment teams axed, Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi have both joined and subsequently left the club and long-time club servant Francis Cagigao was also shown the door last summer.
Secondly, it comes down to who’s in the managerial hot seat; Liverpool have had one man at the helm for the last five years, Arsenal have had three and one caretaker. Wenger, Emery and Arteta couldn’t have been any more different in terms of personality or stages in their respective careers, this has fed the inconsistency of the club. The fact that we’ve changed the title or job role of those men hasn’t helped either, we went from a manager in Wenger, to a head-coach in Emery, to head-coach in Arteta to then changing the title of Arteta’s role to manager, whether you stake much claim to the titles given to the man that stands on the sidelines or not, it’s hard to disagree that it showcases a trend that’s been symptomatic with club, clearly Arsenal have been directionless and confused, restructure after restructure. To contrast that, Liverpool have seemingly had a concurrent and consistent goal, one with stability and patience they achieved last summer, playing the kind of football we saw glimpses of at Stamford Bridge all those years ago.
With all that being said though. when Arsenal face up to Liverpool on Saturday night, they will be just four points behind them with every chance of making that a one-point gap by the time the evening is up. What we’ve seen over the last few months has been encouraging and has given hope to Arsenal fans, the gap between the two clubs had stretched due to bad decisions in the market, boardroom and recruitment team shuffling and the changing of managers but Arsenal have showed signs that they’ve learned from their past errors; the boardroom looks stable, the recruitment team is now an intimate one with Edu and Arteta working in tandem on that front and Arsenal have stuck with Arteta throughout some really difficult patches this season, with talk that the thirty-nine year old is in line for a new contract at the end of this season.
The cull that took place in the summer and more notably in January of this year is also a sign that the club has learned from its previous mistakes, they have offloaded the mistakes that have been weighing the club down for so long; Mkhhitaryan and Mustafi finally left, Ozil and Sokratis were also let go, with all of these players having their contracts ripped up early, leading some to dub Edu as the ‘terminator,’ although this term is said in jest, it does point to a more ruthless approach to squad management than we’ve seen in recent years, a ruthlessness that was sorely needed. Although our form has been disappointing in many respects and nowhere near the expectation level, the majority of players that have been signed by the new recruitment regime are proving to be successful and they seem to be all fitting a similar brief; strong, quick and hard-working. Edu and Arteta seem to have given direction to a previously hapless recruiter. For first time in years, there seems to be direction and focus.
Arteta’s teams have played out some unbelievable matches since he took charge, beating Manchester United, Mancester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs. These wins and performances have been mixed in with bad results, in a way not too dissimilar to the Liverpool team in that 2015/16 season, after all, a week after beating Chelsea at the Bridge, Liverpool would lose at home to Crystal Palace. The playing squad Klopp inherited couldn’t sustain the type of performances he demanded, it seems Arteta has found himself in a similar position since taking charge of the Gunners. Yes, results and league position need to improve but at this stage of Arteta’s tenure we have to keep the faith that those good performances against big teams are a sign of what’s to come more consistently, when the squad is aligned with Arteta and Edu’s vision.
For Liverpool, they go into Saturday’s game knowing that they won’t retain the title, having been knocked out of the FA and League Cup. The transfer talk has already begun over their key players, many speculating that Salah may have achieved all he set out to and wants a fresh challenge, the likes of Gini WIjnaldum is running down his contract and looks bound to join Spanish giants Barcelona. More to that, there has also been talk that Jurgen Klopp may be considering leaving Anfield.
After sliding down the table for so long and watching Liverpool climb up it, this season could well be a tipping point between the two clubs, the power could switch back to the Londoners. This season Arsenal could finish above Liverpool for the first time in over half a decade and with the club now being run in the determined and focused way that it should be, maybe Arsenal can assert themselves over Liverpool once more and maybe just maybe, be the next team out of the two, to win the Premier League.
I’m a lifelong gooner in my early twenties, hailing from coastal North Wales. The passion for all things red and white is passed down from generation to generation in the Collins family, a gift and obsession that was first passed down by my Grandad, who was a regular at Highbury in the 60’s, it’s been a lifetime of sharing the pain and joy together ever since.
It was at a cold and wet trip to Manchester City that I caught the bug, a day that ended in a defeat to a Joey Barton penalty, it’s pretty much been down hill from there but I’m sure the glory days I’ve heard so much about will return and I’m here to document that journey.