Styles make fights, as the old adage goes, with the contrasting methodologies of Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp often facilitating duels of the most enthralling nature.
Sunday's seismic Premier League bout between leaders Liverpool and hunters Arsenal will be the 14th meeting between Klopp and Arteta - the third since 23 December 2023 and perhaps the last for quite some time. The Gunners' point at Anfield just before Christmas was one supporters were content with, but a woeful run thereafter had many questioning their competence and capacity to challenge.
Their dire streak culminated with a 2-0 defeat to the Reds in the FA Cup third round. Once again, Arsenal failed to back up impressive control with efficient play in the final third.
Arteta's tactical wrinkles in their previous meeting surprised his opposite number, whose side succumbed to a Gooner barrage in the opening exchanges. "It’s difficult to prepare for what Arsenal did tonight," Klopp commented post-match. "In the first half, it was a different set-up with [Kai] Havertz and (Martin) Odegaard more or less as double No 10s – 4-2-2-2 with wingers wide."
It was a ploy the visitors slowly got to grips with, and the sense of inevitability surrounding this Liverpool side meant there was little surprise that they eventually toppled the Gunners in north London. Klopp's decision to step down at the end of the campaign will only heighten the omnipotent feeling of destiny on Merseyside in what was meant to be a rebuilding year following the disappointment of 2022/23. On the contrary, Arsenal were poised to 'kick on' having pushed Manchester City all the way last term, but doubts remain as to whether they can produce a similar challenge.
Back-to-back victories in the wake of the winter break have restored some optimism at the Emirates, but the litmus test for their resurgence arrives this weekend.
Arsenal must beat heavy-metal Liverpool to stay in title race
The exciting novelty surrounding Arteta's Gunners has evolved into impressive stability in 2023/24 at the sacrifice of watchability. Arsenal are more cautious and secure compared to last season, and their wastefulness in front of goal has occasionally seen their supremacy in matches go unrewarded. While their open-play xGA is the lowest in the Premier League (12.64), their open-play xG is only the seventh-highest (28.40) and they've only scored 23 times - adding a league-high 14 from set-pieces.
Arteta's knowledge of what it takes to win a league title has seen his Gunners team emerge as one of trepidation and caution. Majestic possession sequences now come few and far between, with Arsenal arguably as pragmatic as they've been since the Spaniard's debut campaign. There's nothing wrong with that, but a decline in excitement means supporters will become more demanding when it comes to tangible success.
The absence of a game-breaker in the frontline - Bukayo Saka is close - and an outstanding goalkeeper means Arsenal cannot produce the sort of overperformance Liverpool have this term. The Reds have scored more goals than expected and conceded less than projected, but that's what the presence of Alisson and Mohamed Salah does. The latter won't be present on Sunday due to injury, but that won't deter Klopp, with Liverpool continuing to purr in his absence.
Pep Guardiola's influence saw the German drift somewhat away from the ideals which turned him into a two-time Bundesliga champion with Borussia Dortmund. Klopp's philosophical alteration guided Liverpool to the top, but now the German is attempting to reign supreme with the style that feted him. This current Reds outfit resemble his Dortmund sides and early Liverpool units, with their harnessed aggression, running power in midfield, athleticism in defence, and chaotic characters up top rendering them incredibly tough to overcome. They embody their charismatic manager, and Arteta must embrace the chaos that's bound to ensue on Sunday; not attempt to completely nullify the visitors because that's simply not going to happen.
A 4-1 victory over Chelsea in midweek saw them restore their five-point lead over Arsenal and City at the summit. 15 games follow Sunday's duel, but Liverpool's advantage, one that might feel a little bit larger due to the 'Klopp leaving effect', means there's a feel of 'must-win' about the upcoming fixture. This is the last chance for the Gunners to impact the Reds directly, with a draw/defeat also being seized upon by City - who appear imperious once more and have a game in hand.
Previous woes against Klopp's side were put to rest with a project-defining 3-2 victory at the Emirates last season. The Gunners' triumph immediately vindicated Arteta's project, allowing a fanbase to indulge in dreams and delusions once more. This was a youthful but mature Arsenal that could genuinely challenge.
If that success was about putting to rest the demons of yesteryear - it was only Arsenal's second Premier League win over Klopp's Reds - then Sunday's bout concerns the reaffirmation of a sleeping contender. Anything but a win would feel like a considerable blow, but three points would see the Gunners re-emerge at the forefront. The gap would just be two.