Arsenal Must Beware Not Only Liverpool But Over-Confidence

If the real battle in the Premier League this season is to finish second behind Manchester City, who in Erling Haaland may have signed not just a mere game-changer but an entire sport-changer, then Sunday’s clash between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates could go a long way to deciding who finishes runner-up. Arsenal’s superb start to the season has given the Gunners and their fans immense confidence. However, as they prepare to face the side who have finished second behind City in two of the last four seasons and won the title in another, they must be careful not to let understandable confidence become dangerous over-confidence.

Biggest Opponent for Arsenal Could Be Over-Confidence

Arteta is Learning From the Past

Arsenal are certainly entitled to be confident going into the Liverpool match because their start to the season has exceeded the hopes of even their most wildly optimistic fans. To date, they have played ten games in total, eight in the Premier League and two in the Europa League, and won all of them bar one. That of course was the disappointing defeat at Old Trafford, when Thomas Partey’s absence in central midfield and manager Mikel Arteta’s excessive meddling from the bench, especially making a disruptive triple substitution when Arsenal were still very much in the game, were major contributors to the loss.

Otherwise, in both the Premier League and the Europa League this season, Arteta has been able to demonstrate that he has learned from his first two and a half seasons in charge at the Emirates how important it is to have a strong squad and not just a strong team. That learning was evident again in Thursday’s defeat of Norway’s Bodø/Glimt in the Europa League. Arteta made eight changes to the team that had started against Tottenham Hotspur and although Arsenal lost their way for much of the second half they still recorded a commanding 3-0 win, with all the goals coming from squad players who must make the most of their limited chances to play: Eddie Nketiah, Rob Holding and Fabio Vieira.

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However, the real cause for Arsenal’s optimism was the result against Tottenham in the north London derby last weekend. Before then, they had faced the seemingly age-old accusation that they were just flat-track bullies, only beating those sides that they were supposed to beat, but the performance and the result against their local rivals were both so commanding that they have inevitably bolstered Arsenal’s opinion of themselves.

Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest cause for Arsenal’s optimism this weekend is not so much their own performances so far this season but those of their next opponents. Having undoubtedly been either the best or second-best team not only in England but in Europe over the last four years, there is no doubt that so far this season Liverpool have fallen far short of their own extraordinarily high standards.

The Reasons for Liverpool’s Relative Decline

There are several possible reasons why Liverpool have not yet matched the form that they have shown consistently for the last half a decade. The first and least plausible one is that Jurgen Klopp is somehow suffering from ‘seventh-season syndrome’. Having spent seven years managing both Mainz and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, he is now in his seventh season at Anfield and some unfortunate parallels have been drawn between this season at Liverpool and his last season at Dortmund, which ultimately ended in him leaving the club. It has been suggested that even the great energiser himself, the man who has said in the past that his players can always draw on his own reserves of energy because he has boundless amounts of it, might just be starting to run out of energy in England.

A far more plausible explanation for Liverpool’s relatively poor form so far this season is the loss of Sadio Mane, who alongside Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino (and then Diogo Jota) formed a Liverpool attack that, at least before the signing of Haaland, was better than anything that Manchester City could assemble. It remains something of a mystery as to why Mane joined Bayern Munich, unless he wanted to absolutely guarantee winning another league title by going to Germany. But whatever the reason he went, there is no denying Liverpool are feeling his absence painfully. He may never have received the plaudits that Salah, Liverpool’s other great attacker, has enjoyed, but he was arguably both more of a team player and harder-working than Salah, who, for all his genius up front, has never been as dogged in tracking back as Mane.

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Nevertheless, for all the fears that Klopp has run out of steam or that Mane’s absence has immeasurably weakened Liverpool, the most likely explanation for their downturn this season is that after experiencing nearly the greatest club season ever last season, they are now definitely suffering the worst ever hangover. As every Liverpool fan was justifiably proud to proclaim, their team played in every single possible game that they could have played in last season. However, instead of celebrating a truly historic quadruple that would have put even Manchester United’s fabled treble in the shade, they missed out on both the Premier League and the Champions League and eventually had to settle for a ‘mere’ domestic cup double. As many Arsenal fans were keen to remind them, that was something that their own club had been the first English club to achieve in the 1992-93 season, or nearly thirty years ago.

But Beware the Wounded Lion – or Liver Bird

However, Arsenal and their fans would be extremely foolish indeed not to beware the wounded lion, or perhaps wounded Liver Bird, that Liverpool might be. After such a disappointing start to the season by their own illustrious standards, Klopp and his team will surely be supremely motivated to finally put in the type of performance, especially away from home, that has been the bedrock of their recent triumphs.

Liverpool are still a fine team, one that has shown its quality by winning every available trophy over the last four seasons, even if, unlike Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, they have not been serial winners who have won the same competition, particularly the Premier League, again and again. This Arsenal side, other than their recent imports from City (Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko), have nothing like that experience of consistently winning trophies. If they are to start changing that, they will need to remember at all times who they are playing on Sunday. If they don’t, Liverpool will have every chance of reminding them who has been the second-best team, and even at times the best team, in England over the last five years.