Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Who Has the Edge?
Can you believe it, friends?
After a summer of cup competitions, world tours, and far too many never-ending transfer sagas (can I get a #POGBACK, anyone?), we finds ourselves just days -- hours, really -- away from the first English Premier League weekend of the season.
Gone are the summer months of playing for national pride (sort of). For most footballers out there, it’s the club colors that take precedence now, and for many of us, that’s a welcomed sight.
To make the view from the start even better, the first matchday of the league calendar has a variety of exciting fixtures to help supporters launch into the campaign head-first.
2015-16 darlings-turned-depressants Spurs travel to Goodison to take on Ronald Koeman and an Everton side somewhere in between rebuilding and selling. (We’ll see what happens once the John Stones War Chest from the Etihad comes in. Stay tuned.)
Stamford Bridge will get its first official taste of Antonio Conte spittle, as new-look Chelsea host Dimitri Payet and potential (Europa League) contender West Ham.
You can’t forget the start of what should be a fascinating title defense for Leicester City, as they face off on the road against perennial yo-yo club/ship without a captain/probably-going-right-back-down Hull.
But while those matches should prove to be well worth watching, one fixture easily stands out above the rest.
And no, I’m not talking about Stoke at Middlesbrough.
Arsenal vs. Liverpool
In a match that needs no introduction, the Gunners begin the 2016-17 edition of the Arsene Wenger Farewell Tour -- or “La Tournee D’Adieu d’Arsene” for t-shirt purposes -- against a familiar foe from the northwest, Jurgen “Heavy Metal” Klopp’s Liverpool Football Club.
On one hand, it’s a bit cruel for these sides to start the season with a fixture of this magnitude -- so much for easing into the season, right? -- but there’s no reasoning with the EPL Scheduling Computer, so best to make the most of it.
If the previous meetings between Arsenal and Liverpool have any bearing on this match, best to expect fireworks.
Other than an entertaining nil-nil at the Emirates last August, two goals have been the bare minimum when these two have gotten together of late with three of their last six matches producing five or more scores.
Not many Reds fans will forget the 5-1 thrashing they put on Arsene’s crew at Anfield in February of 2014 -- four goals for LFC in the opening 20 minutes, and it could have been more -- though the reverse came true the following April, as the Gunners hammered nail after rusty nail in Brendan Rodgers’ coffin in a 4-1 win in North London.
Last year saw parity restored to the rivalry, as the two played to a pair of draws that couldn’t have gone much differently.
The aforementioned scoreless tie in London was followed up nearly five months later in a swashbuckling 3-3 affair on Merseyside that saw an Olivier Giroud brace all but seal the points for the visitors, only for Joe “Stoke Xavi” Allen to pull the Reds level in additional time.
Despite a modicum of success in recent years against Arsenal, the Emirates has not been a kind place for Liverpool in recent memory, especially in league play. The last win for LFC away from home in this rivalry came way back in August of 2011, a 2-0 win for the road side that featured an Aaron Ramsey own goal as the eventual game winner and a late clincher from substitute Luis Suarez.
As a sign of how things have changed in the five years since, Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva are the only two survivors of the 18 in the squad named by Kenny Dalglish for that match. Andy Carroll featured as a lone striker for LFC, while Andrey Arshavin -- Russian Messi! -- was in the XI for the Gunners.
In other words, it’s been a while.
Despite finishing in the Top Four every season since the advent of the internet (…no, seriously), Arsenal and their supporters get a lot of grief for a variety of reasons, the majority of which involving Arsene Wenger’s, um, frugality in the transfer market, his tireless battle with zippers, and the club’s inability to win anything other than the FA Cup at a time when the FA Cup doesn’t really matter.
The squad came as “close” -- and I’m using that term loosely -- to the title last year as it had since 2004-05, finishing 10 points back of champions Leicester for a second place finish amid little fanfare.
And yet, you don’t earn runners-up status in the Premier League for nothing.
Despite an inability to make the most of the dismal campaigns of their chief rivals, the Gunners were still excellent for much of the season.
As we’ve come to expect, no team converted more of their passes (84.2%), no team held the ball more (56.9% possession), no team had more assists (53), and only Manchester City scored more through open play.
More of the same can be expected this year, as -- for better or worse -- essentially the same group returns, at least for now. (Arsenal have been heavily linked with Shkodran Mustafi of Valencia, Riyad Mahrez of Leicester and apparently a “superstar” striker, but as it’s Arsenal, don’t hold your breath.)
The lone major addition in the offseason, former Borussia Monchengladbach midfield anchor Granit Xhaka, is expected to a upgrade a position marshaled last season by the adequate-but-not-excellent Francis Coquelin and the now-departed Mikel Arteta.
Xhaka’s not going to blow you away on a stat sheet -- he only posted three goals and one assist in 28 Bundesliga appearances last season -- but the 23-year-old sees the field well, is good in the air (3.4 aerials won per match), and is sound on the ball, attributes that could go a long way for an Arsenal side.
There are other positives, of course.
Mesut Ozil’s coming off his first “complete” season in England after leading the league in assists with 19. The German’s been up and down at times in his brief Arsenal career but seemed to find his feet in 2015-16.
Chilean dynamo Alexis Sanchez was a handful when healthy for the second year running, hitting 13 goals and 4 assists in 28 appearances. Rumors are circling that he’s open to a move elsewhere, though it’s hard to imagine Arsenal letting him go.
Petr Cech might be 34, but he’s still one of the best keepers in the world and represented a fine bit of business for Wenger last offseason. Only Watford’s Heurelho Gomes earned a higher WhoScored.com rating among goalies who started 30 matches or more.
Despite all the criticism, Olivier Giroud managed to finish sixth in the EPL in goals scored with 16 and to notch 6 assists in 26 appearances last year. The big Frenchman might not have the favor of Gooner Nation, but he’s not nearly as useless as people claim. (Their words, not mine.)
Hector Bellerin’s only 21, but the young Spaniard had a phenomenal campaign last year at right back, starting 44 games for the Gunners in all competitions and creating nine goals, trailing only Ozil and Sanchez in that category. To cap it off, Bellerin’s reputation -- once tarnished after appearing in an unwatchable Puma commercial last offseason -- has been fully restored after he earned a spot on last season’s PFA Team of the Year.
The biggest issue facing Arsene Wenger for the 2016-17 opener involves the backline. First-choice center back (and club captain) Per Mertesacker will be sidelined four to five months with a knee injury suffered in preseason, and his immediate replacement, Brazilian Gabriel Paulista, will miss six to eight weeks with an ankle issue.
That leaves either Callum “Antsy” Chambers or former Bolton youngster Rob Holding as the only options left standing to partner with an apparently less-than-100% Laurent Koscielny in central defense.
Not exactly cause for confidence.
In a strange twist, LFC finished six places below the Gunners in last season’s standings, yet optimism on Merseyside is likely a good deal higher than it is in North London.
The prospect of what Jurgen Klopp can conjure with a full offseason to implement his system is intriguing, especially now that he’s armed with more players suited to his style and without the distraction of European competition lingering each midweek.
And yet, the Klopp Revolution hasn’t fully taken hold just yet, leaving opinions divided around a side that languished in mid-table last year and hasn’t won a league title since 1990.
On one hand, ‘Pool finished 10 points above Chelsea and 13 ahead of Everton and were only 6 points away from Champions League football. Plus, they were a Wembley penalty shootout and a second half in Basel away from winning two trophies last season.
On the other, LFC was 21 points adrift of Leicester -- Leicester? -- for the title, lost both finals in gut-wrenching fashion, and have now added just one piece of silverware to their trophy case in the past nine seasons.
All depends on how you look at things, isn’t it?
Offensively, LFC did have a bounce-back year in terms of goals scored, as the Reds put in 63 last campaign, 11 more than the year previous.
They took the second-most shots per game (16.6) and were fourth-best in the league at hitting the target (5.3), though the fact that a whopping 46% of their shots occurred outside the box -- I’m looking at you, Phillipe Coutinho -- compared to just 28% from their opening weekend opposition is perhaps a bit concerning.
The transfer move for Sadio Mane -- the latest purchase from LFC-feeder club Southampton -- should help in that category.
The lightning-quick Senegalese attacker is known more for his dribbling prowess (top 20 in the EPL in dribbles per game last season) than for his distance shooting, and after notching double-digit goals in his first two seasons in England, Mane should be a welcome offensive addition to Anfield.
Also, the aforementioned Coutinho continues to be the brightest light in the Merseyside constellation, taking home LFC Player of the Year honors for the second season running. No one shoots more than the little Brazilian -- 4.3 attempts per game in a league where only six players averaged more than three -- but when he connects, it’s something special. Injury limited him to 24 appearances last season, but he still managed eight goals and five assists and is the creative spark in the ‘Pool midfield.
Nathaniel Clyne was as steady as it gets at right back last season, starting 33 of 38 league games and finishing 84% of his tackles. The 25-year old was the calm in an otherwise turbulent back line last season and will be counted on heavily again this time around.
Speaking of reliable, James Milner’s first season at Anfield was one of his best in his 14-year EPL career. Despite turning 30 during the campaign, the now ex-England midfielder paced the Reds with 11 assists, a total good enough for fifth-most in the league last year. Unfortunately for Liverpool fans, Milner is an injury doubt for the season opener after tearing a muscle in his foot last week against Barcelona.
After arriving last summer from Hoffenheim, Roberto Firmino slowly came to a boil over the second half of the season, notching 10 goals after the turn of the year to just one over the first five months. Anfield’s newest Brazilian might have to adjust his position after the emergence of Divock Origi, but while you’re open to question his choice in haircut, you can’t deny his versatility after the 24-year old featured on the wing, at center forward and in an attacking mid role last season.
Defense will be Jurgen Klopp’s main area of concern, as Liverpool will open the year with a giant question mark at left back and an untested center back partnership.
Alberto “Slapstick” Moreno was scheduled to move elsewhere this summer, but with no one coming in to take his place (…at least for now), the Anfield faithful will have to hope the Spaniard keeps it together on the flank at least until the end of the month.
In the center of defense, gone is long-time servant/hitman Marten Skrtel, who moved on to Turkey this offseason, while Mamadou Sakho’s heel injury is set to keep the Frenchman on the training table until late August.
Replacement center back Ragnar Klavan looks like an intelligent purchase for only $5 million, but the 30-year old will have to forge an instant connection with Dejan Lovren, something easier said than done.
Ironically, it feels like the match sets up in similar fashion for both teams, as the talented attacking core of each side will be favored to exploit the opposition’s defensive shortcomings, although they’ll go about it in different ways.
We know Arsenal will win the possession and aerial battle while Liverpool will press and counter, and you’d imagine whoever plays their game better will win the day.
If the LFC’s front six can disrupt the Gunners’ passing rhythm and force cheap turnovers -- and after watching ‘Pool’s 4-0 demolition of Barcelona at Wembley last week, you’d favor them to do so -- it’s not out of the question for the Reds to snatch a vital away win to kick off the season.
On the other hand, if Arsenal can work their way around the press -- or simply exploit tired legs as the match progresses -- Sanchez, Ramsey, and Ozil should have space to operate, making it difficult for the Reds to keep a side that scored 65 times last season at bay for 90 minutes.
It’s likely that we can expect a few mistakes -- possibly defining ones -- in this opening match of the campaign. You’d assume goals will be on the cards as well, with Klopp fist pumps and Wenger one-man standing ovations to follow.
Yet even if the match proves uneventful, the simple promise of the return of the Premier League, the excitement, the passion and the hope it brings, is all we really could ask for this weekend.
The EPL’s back, y’all.
See and believe.