It’s the sort of scene that is giving Mikel Arteta increasing satisfaction, and that Jurgen Klopp would well recognise. There have been more than a few moments this season when the Arsenal manager has been sitting in his office only to be greeted by a long-serving member of club staff.
“I’ve never seen this before,” one told him recently. “I have never felt that unity across the club, with our supporters.”
They are words that might be easy to say when you’re winning but there’s much more to it than that. It is, as Klopp and Liverpool would profess, about meaning more.
Arteta gave a highly instructive answer in this regard on the podcast Michael Calvin’s Football People. The Basque had been asked how long it would be until we see the full impact of his coaching, and Arsenal start enjoying real success.
“It depends what you call success,” Arteta responded. “I mean, if it’s winning titles or it’s bringing our club together. For me, bringing the club together is much more powerful. We have a club that was in a difficult state, with a lot of cracks, a lot of division. At the moment, this is a very different club. And that’s an incredible credit that everybody has to take, from the top of the club to every player. Because we did that together.”
When just written down or taken out of context, these words – much like some of Arteta’s ideas in the All or Nothing series – might look easy to lampoon. They might even be described as Brentian. That’s something else Klopp could empathise with.
Except, when you see and hear Arteta actually say them, it’s difficult not to be struck by his sincerity or earnestness. And, when you take a trip to the Emirates right now, it’s impossible not to see the reality of it. It’s hard to lampoon winning, especially when you keep doing it.
This is what many critics don’t get about the celebrating. It is something else Klopp will surely recognise all too well, though. The Arsenal fans, just like Liverpool back in the German’s early days, are enjoying themselves again. They are – to paraphrase a line that was said a lot around Anfield back then – enjoying just being Arsenal fans again.
The club now has the same sort of uplifting optimism that Liverpool did six years ago.
There is arguably nothing like it in football. It is almost as good as actually celebrating trophies because it offers the joyous hope that they are within reach; the idea of trophies. Almost everything is exciting progress. Anything seems possible.
That is where Arteta’s side are right now. For Arsenal 2022, read Liverpool 2015-17 – maybe into 2018. This of course doesn’t mean that Arsenal will become what Liverpool were between 2019 and 2022. There are a lot of variables. Some of the driving factors have been the same, though.
From looking back at Klopp’s management over those erratic first three years, there are many parallels with what Arteta is doing now.
There was a clear tactical ideal that initially required compromise, but also a lot of concerted training-ground work. Both coaches are quite protective of the “real” work they do at their bases. It was why you saw none of that in All or Nothing: Arsenal. It was why Klopp once put on an open session in pre-season but then laughed that this was only the simple stuff.
There were then the necessary gimmicks. Against Arteta’s lightbulbs and diagrams, there was Klopp’s insistence the squad salute the Liverpool crowd after a 2-2 draw with West Brom.
Outsiders criticised them as deluded but that’s sort of the point. It is about, to repeat another famous line, turning doubters into believers.
That is most true with the players themselves. Unable to just go out and buy the five key players required in the manner some of their rivals can – or as Pep Guardiola did in the summer of 2017 – both have had to gradually hone their squads, window by window. Players who don’t fully buy in have been abruptly cast out.
This is something furthered, and tested, by the specifics of Arteta’s coaching. It was also influenced by Guardiola, and the manner he used to tell a younger John Stones to keep trying to play the ball out no matter how many mistakes he made or what he heard from the crowd. Take last week against Tottenham Hotspur. It took courage to keep playing so high when Harry Kane kept picking out Son Heung-Min on the break, but Arteta had spent the week telling them to play through it; to persevere in the system… to believe.
It is, according to the chatter on the Arsenal training ground, about trusting the process. Similar phrases were used around Liverpool. “It’s an agreement a team makes with itself,” Klopp assistant Peter Krawietz said in Raphael Honigstein’s 2017 book Bring the Noise. “A social contract. Yes, we can do that together.” It exactly describes Arsenal right now, especially with games where the risk from playing so high seems so fraught.
The word within the Premier League is instead that opposition clubs are struggling with Arteta’s 3-2-2-1-2 shape with the ball. Arsenal’s own players get it, in the way Klopp’s burgeoning squad did in 2017.
Liverpool are now on the other side of all this. Whereas Arsenal have the clarity that comes from a new idea coming together, Klopp has to figure out the problems arising from an old idea that might have run its course. Hence the recent formation changes. Hence the wing-backs just not having the same impact. There is a growing view they have been “rumbled”.
That is one of a few factors fostering Liverpool’s underperformance. Another is the inevitable after-effect from a half-decade of going full throttle to try and keep up with Manchester City.
No club that isn’t state-backed is going to be able to keep that up indefinitely. You are always going to reach a point that looks, well, a lot like this.
It is why talk of a title challenge from Arsenal has been restrained. It is not just about their relative lack of depth or experience. It is about the wider context, as Arteta also referenced on Thursday.
“The next step, now we have the foundation, is to win. And we are building a team to win, knowing that this era is unprecedented in English football because nobody has ever had in this league teams that are capable of winning 100 points.
“And they are doing that for many years now, something that we haven’t done ever in the history of this football club – even in our best times.”
These are good times, however, because they are exciting times. They won’t necessarily bring consistency – perhaps starting with Sunday – but they do bring hope.