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Old vs new: Who'd win between Arsenal Invincibles & Klopp's Liverpool?

When Liverpool were thumped 3-0 by Watford in February this year Arsenal fans breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated their own 'Invincible' season all over again. A first Premier League defeat of the campaign for Jurgen Klopp had not only preserved Arsenal's record as unique, but had reaffirmed just how remarkable the 2003/04 season really was.

Only one other team in English football history have gone a whole campaign unbeaten, and the Preston North End side of 1888/89 only played 22 league games. Suffice to say Arsene Wenger's achievement is among the greatest in the sport's history.

But Liverpool are also on course to break records. Jurgen Klopp's side only need 19 points from their final nine games to set a new points-tally record, and coupled with their phenomenal 2018/19 campaign (Champions League winners and 97 points, the third-highest total in English football history) Klopp's team also rank among the best we've ever seen.

Here, we compare Arsenal 2003/04 with Liverpool 2019/20 to find out which is the better side.



WHICH SIDE ACHIEVED MORE?

Arsenal won the league title with 88 points, but got knocked out of all the cup competitions relatively tamely. Chelsea beat them in the Champions League quarter-final, Middlesbrough conquered over two legs in the League Cup semi-final, and Manchester United won 1-0 in their FA Cup semi-final.

Liverpool might not have technically won the league yet, but needing just five points from nine matches we must assume they have equalled Arsenal's trophy count. On 82 points, Klopp's side are just six short of Arsenal's record with nine games left, and Liverpool are also still in the FA Cup.


WHICH HAS MORE IMPRESSIVE TACTICS?

It is unfair to directly compare their tactical complexity, because mere chronology means the latter team will always benefit from advancements in conditioning and increased collective knowledge; tactics build in layers, with each generation more sophisticated and multifaceted than the one before.

Viewed within their own contexts, these two teams are similarly impressive. By 2003/04 Wenger still played in a basic 4-4-2, but they were implementing a brand of cultured attacking possession football that hadn't been seen in England before. All of their back four were strong passers, which was unique at the time, while Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry essentially operated as dual number tens – making it a strikerless system.

Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg made diagonal runs off the flanks to occupy the empty striker positions, creating fluid counter-attacking situations that made Arsenal more like the modern Atletico Madrid than the modern Manchester City.

Wenger innovated in attack, then, but he was never a details manager: Arsenal's majestic forwards made their own decisions, the idiosyncrasy of the manager's tactics largely the result of individual improvisations.

For that reason, Klopp's Liverpool win this category. Tactically speaking, Klopp's team are remarkably complex, with minute details in every department creating a collective energy that far surpasses their individual talent. From a revolving, synchronising midfield trio to the alternating runs of the front three, Liverpool often defy tactical explanation – such is the variety and depth of their tactical instruction.

What's more, Klopp's use of flying full-backs is just as innovative as Wenger's pair of false nines. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson essentially operate as playmakers, revolutionising the role, while Klopp's gegenpressing philosophy has influenced an entire generation of coaches.


WHICH HAD THE BETTER PLAYERS?

Nostalgia generally improves players, who grow into semi-mythical beings through the rose-tinted lens of TV montages and wistful memories. It will take another ten years before the 11 Liverpool starters from 2019/20 hold the same legendary status as Arsenal's Invincibles.

Nevertheless, let's attempt a comparison of each section of the team. On sheer genius of creativity, Henry, Bergkamp, and Pires are a better trio than Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah, although it is a very close-run thing.

In midfield, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva were a magnificent partnership and marginally better than Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho, while the different formations makes Freddie Ljungberg versus Jordan Henderson an unfair battle.

Defensively, Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, and Ashley Cole just cannot compete with Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Robertson – and Liverpool also have the superior goalkeeper.

On balance, that means Arsenal just about take the victory in this category, which makes sense given Klopp's side are more about the collective while Wenger relied on individuality.


WHICH HAD THE BETTER MANAGER?

Wenger's greatest strength during his first ten years at Arsenal was modernising the health and nutrition of English football, followed by an implementation of possession football at a time when the Premier League was still somewhat in the dark ages. Those talents changed the game in England, winning him three league titles and seven FA Cups.

Klopp didn't just change England, he reshaped the whole of Europe. His tactics have become the dominant force across the continent over the last decade, bringing him extraordinary success at Mainz 05, Borussia Dortmund, and now Liverpool. To transform a club three times, altering how football is played around Europe in the process, is the superior achievement.


CONCLUSION

By the end of the 2019/20 season both teams are likely to have won the same amount of trophies in their respective iconic seasons. Tactically, Klopp's greater complexity edges it over Wenger's semi-improvised approach, but in terms of personnel the Arsenal team are marginally stronger.

Liverpool will probably set a lot of English football records this season, and will certainly win more points across the campaign than Arsenal did in 2003/04. But no matter how much praise we heap on Klopp's team, we cannot look past that incredible – unmatchable – achievement of an entire year unbeaten. The psychological resolve it requires was proven by Watford's victory over Liverpool in February. Arsenal's Invincibles are unrivalled.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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