Up until Watford spoiled the Kop party by handing Liverpool their first loss of the season in February, many people believed Arsenal were about to receive company in the Invincibles club.
Liverpool had won 26 of their 27 league fixtures before that night at Vicarage Road, only dropping points in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United. They sat 22 points clear at the top of the Premier League with just 10 games to go following the defeat, meaning they were still almost certainly going to be crowned champions for the first time in 30 years.
The fact they had gone so close to going unbeaten brought about obvious comparisons to Arsene Wenger’s legendary Arsenal side.
In 2003/04, Arsenal went the entire league campaign unbeaten winning 26 and drawing 12 of their 38 league games. They won the league pipping Manchester United and Chelsea. Thierry Henry won the golden boot with 30 league goals to his name as Arsenal outscored every team in the league (GS 73) and had the best defensive record to boot (GC 26). Liverpool at the time of the season being suspended had 27 league wins and had scored 66 goals in their 29 games, conceding 21.
With goalscoring wingers and playmaking forwards a big feature of both sides, as well as attacking full-backs and legs in midfield both sides follow a similar mould. Liverpool focus a lot more on pressing and fast transitions, while Arsenal famously focused on possession and passing the ball quickly (something that was dubbed ‘Wengerball’ by the media).
So who would win in a fantasy battle between these two teams in a one-off game?
Wenger’s traditional possession football would play right into the hands of Klopp’s side. The high intensity press, often led by False 9 Roberto Firmino, would look to catch Arsenal out high up the field and the two demons on either wing Mane or Salah would look to profit.
The problem for Liverpool however, is just how good Arsenal were at keeping the ball. Everyone was comfortable on the ball. All comfortable in tight spaces, most capable of beating a man in a tight space to gain an extra yard. They trusted each other and had believed completely in their manager’s philosophy.
Thierry Henry was arguably the best striker in the world at this point in his career, so any slip up from Liverpool would likely see them fall behind through him while Virgil Van Dijk would be up against the toughest task of his career to date.
Arsenal’s wingers would tuck in and swap constantly, while Liverpool’s full-backs would push so high up that the vintage Arsenal counter attack would be another problem for them to deal with. Formations in this one could play a big part though.
Arsenal played a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation, while Liverpool play a 4-3-3 formation almost exclusively. That extra man in midfield could be enough to suffocate Arsenal into surrendering the ball. Bergkamp, while still a top player, was past his prime at this point and him dropping deeper to help the midfield would be ill advised. While Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva are quite clearly the superior footballers of all the central midfielders on the park, Liverpool’s system is such that individual quality is often rendered useless against the unit of Anfield Road.
I’m quite confident that Ashley Cole, for me the best left-back of all-time, would be able to deal with the threat of Mo Salah on that flank however I’m less confident of Lauren dealing with Sadio Mane. The Senegal international has skyrocketed to the top of many people’s list of wingers in the world game with multiple seasons at the top level over the last few years. His movement, pace, skill and intelligence would have him giving Lauren a very tough time and I think he’d come out on top in that battle.
Robert Pires would have a field day against Trent Alexander-Arnold with the space the youngster leaves behind him, but the energy and tenacity of Jordan Henderson would mean Pires would often find himself double-teamed and could struggle to influence the game as much as he usually would.
All in all, I think the Liverpool system would end up being the difference. While man-for-man Arsenal have the better team in my opinion, stylistically Liverpool would be able to implement their philosophy better and I think they would come out on top thanks to Sadio Mane’s brilliance.