When John W Henry arrived in English football nine years ago, Arsenal were a team that Liverpool’s American owner looked to for inspiration. The Emirates was home to one of the Premier League’s most stable clubs. The Gunners were a complete contrast to the chaos Henry found on Merseyside.
In the course of a decade things have changed massively. Arsenal go to Anfield on Saturday with six points from the opening two games of the campaign yet they are surrounded by an air of uncertainty. The Big Four of 2010 has become the Big Six and Unai Emery’s side are closer to the bottom of that elite group than the top. With significant changes in the Champions League format on the horizon, England’s gilded superclub circle could shrink to a quartet again within the next five years. It is a bad time to let standards slip.
Since Jurgen Klopp took charge at Liverpool, Arsenal have not enjoyed their trips to Anfield. They have leaked 15 goals in four visits and taken only one point. The extent of the turnaround in the fortunes of the clubs has been dramatic. The decade opened with Liverpool flirting with bankruptcy and is ending with them as incumbent European champions. Arsenal, once a mainstay of the Champions League with 19 successive campaigns, are starting their third season in Europa League exile.
It is of course easy to blame Stan Kroenke for the London club’s descent into the relative doldrums. The American took control in 2011 and until recently has been content to let Arsenal tick along without proper investment and rigorous oversight. The reality is that complacency was rampant at the Emirates even before Kroenke took the helm and let things drift even further. Henry admired Arsenal’s approach because they had built an impressive modern stadium and Arsene Wenger was fiscally responsible in a world where Chelsea and Manchester City were able to bully rivals with money. The game was leaving Wenger behind, though, and stability never works as a substitute for progression.
Much will be made at Anfield about the contrast between the opposing centre backs. Virgil van Dijk has been superb for Liverpool since his £75 million arrival from Southampton last year. Arsenal’s back line will be anchored by David Luiz, an £8 million signing from Chelsea. The 32-year-old Brazilian is prodigiously talented but has a long list of gaffes on his record.
When Van Dijk was at Celtic, Arsenal were in talks with one of the Scottish club’s officials about a potential role at the Emirates. The appointment never worked out but both sides parted on good terms. The Celtic man, knowing the centre half was keen on joining a Premier League club, suggested to Wenger that the Dutchman would be a bargain at the asking price of £12 million. The Frenchman was not remotely interested. Van Dijk joined Southampton. Wenger’s central defence continued to leak badly.
Arsenal’s recruitment has been poor. Like Liverpool, they take a statistics-based approach to transfers. They even bought an American company, StatDNA, to crunch the numbers on players. Results have been mixed at best.
Emery has plenty of talent available but his squad is lopsided. It is top heavy with forward-going players and weak in pivotal positions. There have been attempts to address this during the summer but the defence and midfield are still unconvincing.
Liverpool have, at least on the face of it, been much better in their use of analytics. That is only half the story. The best signing that Henry has overseen during his time as principal owner of the club is Klopp. The manager has given Anfield a sense of direction that Wenger never really installed at the Emirates. The Frenchman’s great years were at Highbury.
Klopp has not only given Liverpool purpose but he understands that paying big money for proven talent – in the right position – is sometimes more important than trying to be cleverer that your rivals. As brilliantly as Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have been over the past few years, the key to Klopp winning the Champions League was the signings of Van Dijk and Alisson Becker: expensive players in positions that Arsenal have neglected. Liverpool, too, paid too little attention to these roles before Klopp’s arrival.
Five years ago the Merseyside club aspired to compete with Arsenal. They were disappointed to miss out on Alexis Sanchez, who chose London over the north west, but it would have been a glamour signing rather than a serious attempt at team building. Liverpool dodged a bullet. Today they operate in a different manner. It is unlikely that a similar scenario could occur now. They target different types of player than the Gunners.
Henry learnt from Arsenal’s experience in moving to the Emirates, too. At the time the plans were made to depart Highbury, the extra £3million in revenue every matchday made a massive difference to the club’s bank balance and made the move worthwhile. The changing financial landscape and the influx of television money negated that advantage. It has made more sense to expand Anfield rather than start again from scratch and the development of the Main Stand and the proposed changes to the Anfield Road end have not required the borrowing and debt that Arsenal and Tottenham Hotpur have incurred in their stadium moves.
But the most important thing is success on the pitch. Emery is rebuilding from a position of weakness and it must haunt fans at the Emirates that during Wenger’s waning years Arsenal interested Pep Guardiola and Klopp. Liverpool have had plenty of luck in the past four years but in appointing the German they got the crucial decision right.
Arsenal can bounce back. The Kroenkes – particularly Josh, the owner’s son – are becoming more involved and there is a realisation that money needs to be spent. The time for stability is over and the club requires a dynamic approach. That’s what Klopp has given Liverpool. Anfield will be a big test as to whether Emery and his players can supply that dynamism.