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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Will Arsenal or Liverpool be City’s main rivals post-Klopp?


Arsenal‘s Premier League clash with Liverpool on Sunday represents a battle for the present and the future. In an instant, Jürgen Klopp’s decision to step down as Reds boss at the end of the season changed the dynamic of this and forthcoming campaigns.

Part of the reason it came as such a shock is Liverpool’s current potency. At precisely the moment it appeared they had reestablished themselves as Manchester City‘s principal rivals, Klopp announced that he would soon be walking away.

This weekend’s game at Emirates Stadium is a test of both the newfound durability of “Liverpool 2.0” and Arsenal’s chances of proving last season’s title challenge was not a one-off. And by manoeuvring into position now, one of these sides can establish themselves as the leading candidate aiming to break Pep Guardiola’s stranglehold on a trophy he has collected in five of the past six seasons.

Klopp was the only manager capable of shattering that monopoly. Can he do it one final time and set Liverpool up for life without him? Or will Mikel Arteta continue to enhance his burgeoning reputation by transforming Arsenal into City’s most credible threat in the years ahead?

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At first glance, Arsenal’s need for victory on Sunday is more immediate. The Gunners are five points behind leaders Liverpool and level with City having played a game more. Defeat would leave them facing a deficit that would dramatically reduce their margin for error in the final 15 games of their league campaign. There is also something of a wider, more existential battle going on in the red half of north London as they seek to showcase greater durability after failing to go the distance last season.

Arteta has regularly speculated on the points total that might be required to win the league and his most recent declaration on the subject highlighted that “what will happen in direct games” between rivals is “a big consequence to that number.”

Arsenal lost the league by five points last term and were beaten home and away by City. Their recent loss of form — one win from seven games across all competitions — highlighted a profligacy in front of goal that was only partially rectified in wins against Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest, even accounting for the seven goals scored in those two matches.

Victory this weekend would be a major boost to this young team’s self-belief and bring them back within touching distance of Liverpool, a team facing questions of their own over whether they are truly the real deal after exceeding all expectations to this point. Both know City usually come good from this point and so no lead will feel entirely comfortable, even if Liverpool win on Sunday.

It is perhaps the respective midfields that offer the most interesting comparison between the two sides: Klopp has rebuilt his team’s engine room in double-quick time, while Arsenal briefly made Declan Rice the most expensive footballer in Britain by signing the England international from West Ham United for £105 million.

Liverpool were scuppered in moves for Jude Bellingham, Moisés Caicedo and Romeo Lavia, the latter pair choosing to join Chelsea. They allowed Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — among others — to depart and eventually settled on Dominik Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch to supplement Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and the injured Thiago Alcantara in midfield.

It was a staggering turnover, but Klopp’s alchemic skills have come to the fore with Liverpool reinvigorated and again overwhelming teams with their energy and guile, as Chelsea can most recently testify after Wednesday’s 4-1 defeat at Anfield. Szoboszlai, Mac Allister and Jones simply overwhelmed the Blues, and who could have seen that coming after such a turbulent summer in which Chelsea won their transfer battles?

By contrast, Arteta largely got the targets he wanted. Arsenal failed with a move for Aston Villa‘s Douglas Luiz in September 2022 and retain an interest in a player now much harder to acquire since signing a new contract, but Rice was always their preferred option last summer. Kai Havertz was Arteta’s choice to upgrade the No. 8 position, a decision that has not been entirely vindicated by the Germany international’s performances to date. Emile Smith Rowe was handed only his second league start of the season in Tuesday’s win at Nottingham Forest, and Leandro Trossard has also played there on occasion. Rice has also played as No. 8 and there is a suspicion that Thomas Partey‘s impending return from injury might tempt Arteta to hand him that advanced role more often.

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Arteta upset at ‘fake news’ that he’s leaving Arsenal

Mikel Arteta responds to the rumours that he might leave Arsenal at the end of the season.

Arteta would certainly like to have emulated Klopp’s speed of improvement in midfield. There are key decisions to make and greater cohesion to find. Arteta has still to prove himself in the elite club occupied by Klopp and City boss Guardiola, even after starting the week by strongly refuting a report in Spain that he was tempted by the soon-to-be-vacant job at Barcelona. Perhaps lost amongst those denials was Arteta’s somewhat evasive answer to whether he could ever see himself managing another English club, something Klopp ruled out in the aftermath of last week’s shock announcement.

“Today, no,” he said. “But I don’t know. I played for two great clubs in this country. I moved around in different things. I am extremely young and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In the context of persistent speculation that Arteta would be the outstanding continuity candidate to replace Guardiola whenever he leaves City after spending three years in his coaching staff, the lack of specificity here might raise an eyebrow or two. Of course, at age 41 Arteta is indeed a young manager, and although he has spent four years in the dugout and five as a player with Arsenal, he retains an affinity for City and Everton, where he first became known in the Premier League from 2005 to 2011.

Ironically, it would in theory be harder all-round for Arteta to succeed Guardiola the more he succeeds at Arsenal. Could he, say, win the league and then join City should Guardiola leave in summer 2025 when, coincidentally, Arteta’s present deal at Arsenal also concludes? Arsenal’s best hope of retaining Arteta on a long-term basis is for him to fulfil his potential at the club — completing what he describes as “a beautiful journey” — but to do that he must take the Gunners past Liverpool on a consistent basis.

Klopp insists he will not reconsider his decision to leave Liverpool under any circumstances and so he is seeking to go out with a second league title and give his successor the best platform from which to build. But there are big questions on the horizon.

Mohamed Salah, injured for Sunday’s game, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk all have less than 18 months left on their contracts. Al Ittihad are widely expected to return with a massive bid for Salah in the summer, creating an immediate conundrum for Liverpool in their post-Klopp era: can they risk losing their talisman and iconic manager in the same summer, or would a fee of more than £150m for a 31-year-old give the new boss the firepower to remould the team in their own image?

For now, Klopp is desperately trying to ensure that Liverpool stay in the present. With Guardiola firmly ensconced at City and about to move into the stage of the campaign where his team habitually delivers relentless consistency, Arsenal and Liverpool are jockeying for position as the defending champions’ leading challengers now and beyond.

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