x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Arsenal and Liverpool up for early title test

Both clubs must show they have what it takes to maintain a true contender's form over the length of a season, writes Richard Jolly.

Arsenal top the Premier League table with 22 points from nine matches. Sang Tan / AP
Arsenal top the Premier League table with 22 points from nine matches. Sang Tan / AP

Much has changed in two-and-a-half months. When the season started, the widespread assumption was that, in some order, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea would form the top three and Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool the next three.

Their fate, it seemed, was to contest the final Champions League place. Instead, one of them could be champions. There are questions to answer and doubters to convince but analysts suggest teams should be judged after 10 games. And, conveniently, the 10th takes Liverpool to the Emirates Stadium.

While Brendan Rodgers tries to downplay expectations and avoid talk of the title, Arsene Wenger has been more bullish about Arsenal’s chances. Saturday’s match should help determine if both have effected a transformation from pretenders to contenders

They are certainly teams with renewed belief. Arsenal were galvanised by Mesut Ozil’s signing, Liverpool by Luis Suarez staying. An intriguing subplot is that Arsenal submitted two offers for the Uruguayan, who appeared keen to join them. Liverpool rejected the infamous £40 million (Dh235.5m) plus £1 bid that Suarez thought triggered his release clause. Instead he has remained and returned to his explosive best.

Indirectly, Suarez highlights the central flaw in Arsenal’s candidature: because he didn’t arrive, Wenger’s sole frontline striker is Olivier Giroud. The injured pair of Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott can also operate as a centre-forward, and Nicklas Bendtner has come out of the cold to sit on the bench. But Arsenal are over-reliant on the Frenchman to lead the line and score goals. Mathieu Flamini has re-established himself as the tackler-in-chief in the midfield since his return but, with the anchorman injured, the stylistic concern is if Arsenal have a surfeit of passers and whether an imbalance in the playing ranks will cost them.

There are other, familiar issues to address. Arsenal have improved at the back but can be caught on the counterattack, as they were when Mikel Arteta was sent off at Crystal Palace last week. While it is passe (and, given their record of winning crucial games to clinch a top-four finish, often incorrect) to criticise them for a lack of mental strength, a side without silverware since 2005 have to prove they can win trophies.

Liverpool, with only one honour since 2006, also have to convince, in that respect. Sir Alex Ferguson said in his autobiography that they are eight players short of being a title-winning team and some of Rodgers’s charges seem a more natural fit for a side placed between sixth and eighth – which, given that has been their fate in the last four years, is not surprising.

It means they, too, are dependant on a select core. Even though the Uruguayan missed the first five league games, he and Daniel Sturridge have contributed 14 of their 17 goals. With the summer signings Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto making a minimal impact, Liverpool are yet to show they have match-winners in reserve. They have beaten United at Anfield but, given a record of one victory in 14 matches against the top eight last season, still have to show they can win big games.

That is also levelled at Arsenal. As both had easier starts to the season than, say, United, many of their points have come against the also-rans. The burden of proof falls on both.

Liverpool were last in the title race in 2008/09: since then, they have finished 110 points behind the various champions, never taking more than 63 in a season. Arsenal’s last challenge came in 2009/10 and they have not topped 75 points since 2007/08. For each, the test is to show they can they sustain their form over an entire campaign.

It bodes well that they have managed to maintain it for much of a calendar year. Liverpool have taken 56 points from 28 games, Arsenal a remarkable 61 from 25. That is title-winning form. But, then, seasons do not run from January to December.