Optimism is the single biggest force behind our unwavering obsession with football. Hope – a blind belief in a brighter future – is the only thing that softens defeat and the most prominent thought that accompanies victory.
Imagining things will improve – no matter how good or bad they currently are – is what allows each new season to feel so fresh and exciting. Every August the slate is wiped clean. Whilst the bemused outsider sees an endless and pointlessly repeating format, we fans see it all as entirely new. This will be our year. It’s the anticipation that stirs us, perhaps even more than the thing itself.
And so those Arsenal fans unhappy with the current regime should not be criticised for being ungrateful. Yes, consistent Champions League football is better than what most of us contend with, but that precious feeling of hope - the feeling that progress is underway - has been fading for some time. In economic terms, stability is to be applauded, but for the football fan stability is stagnancy, and stagnancy is death.
The worst opening day defeat yet
As the Emirates watched Sadio Mane get a piggy-back from his manager after scoring Liverpool’s third goal in eight minutes, what resonated most was the knowledge that this could not have occurred the other way around
This might sound a tad extreme, but there are few clubs in English football that can visualise their future so exactly like Arsenal. Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City have already erased their memories of last season’s failures and have been allowed to dream big once again. Meanwhile, for the third time in four years, an opening day defeat has left fans and pundits shaking their heads at the stagnation under Arsene Wenger.
Except that this one felt even worse. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp perfectly embodies the spirit of optimism, the excitement and adrenaline that comes from a passionate manager who dreams big, and who knows that allowing the fans to dream big is the most important part of the job.
To lose to fellow title hopefuls faultlessly symbolises how far apart the two clubs have become. As the Emirates watched Sadio Mane get a piggy-back from his manager after scoring Liverpool’s third goal in eight minutes, what resonated most was the knowledge that this could not have occurred the other way around.
Klopp exploited tactical fragility
Pessimism was already high when the Arsenal team sheet was announced, and although injuries limited Wenger’s options it was still surprising to see Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka fail to make the starting eleven. As usual, it was in central midfield where Arsenal were overrun.
Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin have rarely worked as a partnership, largely because neither possesses the positivity or technical skills required to link the lines together with high tempo football; they were predictably flat, and thus failed to take advantage of the defensive weaknesses in Liverpool’s midfield.
This conservative thinking was in direct contrast to Klopp, who in fielding Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana in central midfield (both unreliable defensively) boldly targeted Arsenal’s defensive vulnerabilities. Liverpool consistently attacked through the centre of the pitch via extremely narrow playmakers in a deliberate attempt to unsettle Arsenal’s makeshift centre-back pairing. It was precise, calculated, positive tactical play that made Wenger’s cautious and typically unfocused strategy look conspicuously stale.
The match was won in a ferocious 20 minute spell of Liverpool pressure, and this tactical positivity – searching for the risky pass and pushing forward in numbers – simply highlighted how dramatically different Liverpool and Arsenal have become.
The visitors second goal encapsulated this perfectly. Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Lallana, and Wijnaldum all surged into central areas of the final third, with Coutinho easily finding space in-between Coquelin and Elneny to release Wijnaldum. As Lallana moves to the back post, neither of Wenger’s central midfield players were alert enough to track him. Although it was a goal of individual skills and mistakes, the difference comes from managerial attitude.
Optimism in the mentality
Like Antonio Conte celebrating Diego Costa’s winner on Monday night, Klopp’s excitement visibly rubbed off on the players; it is unusual to see a new signing celebrate a magnificent debut goal by immediately running over to his manager and jumping on his back.
It spoke volumes about the mutual respect, ambition, and comradery that has flowed through the Liverpool squad since the German’s arrival. This, of course, is the main reason why Klopp is able to implement such explosive attacking football.
Arsenal fans watching can be forgiven for feeling jealous. This is not the first time their team have been outplayed, and it would be unwise to assume that the club will have a worse season than any of the past five or six. But, losing to Liverpool – so energised, brave, and optimistic – was particularly painful because Klopp’s team displayed so many of the characteristics they are lacking.
Liverpool may not rise to great heights this season but their fans legitimately believe that they will - and that, counter-intuitively, is more important.
The same cannot be said for Arsenal fans, who see only repetition. In football, standing still feels an awful lot like going backwards.