While Liverpool’s struggles this campaign have left them in no position to maintain their top-of-the-table rivalry with Manchester City of recent years, at least Arsenal’s emergence as contenders has kept the Premier League title race interesting for onlookers this season.
The Gunners boast an eight-point advantage at the top of the table ahead of their trip to Anfield on Easter Sunday. With Man City, who boast a game-in-hand on Mikel Arteta’s men, in action away at Southampton the day before, Arsenal will be looking to at least preserve their lead when they lock horns with the Reds.
Given the Gunners haven't won the Premier League since 2004 and haven't finished any higher than fifth since 2016/17, their emergence this year has admittedly come out of nowhere. Even if City manage to topple them at the top of the table in the forthcoming weeks, Arsenal at least look set to compete in next season’s Champions League and end a seven-year absence from Europe’s elite club competition.
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Liverpool have, admittedly, been unrecognisable from the side that nearly won an unprecedented quadruple last year, and has won every major honour going during the Gunners’ Champions League exile. However, as frustrated Kopites watch on, there is an air of familiarity about Arteta’s Arsenal.
Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli have been two of the star men for the Gunners, with the pacey inverted forwards earning light comparisons with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane from the Reds’ peak years under Klopp. While neither 21-year-old has quite matched the scoring record of the African pair just yet, they are Arsenal’s leading goalscorers with 13 goals apiece - Saka also boasts 10 assists to his name - and have been crucial to their emergence as genuine title contenders.
And both players are forwards Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp knows only too well. The German has regularly praised the pair, who have both previously been linked with moves to Anfield, publicly in the past. Given the Gunners' own struggles at the time in juxtaposition to the Reds’ own success, such transfers back then did seem plausible.
Speaking in 2019, after Martinelli registered a brace in Liverpool’s remarkable 5-5 draw with Arsenal in the League Cup, Klopp said of the Brazilian: “He’s a talent of the century, he’s an incredible striker, so it’s really difficult. It was not in this game only. I watch a lot of football, so I saw the Europa League games of Arsenal.
“He’s 18 years old, right? So our scouting department is all over the world and stuff like this, but I think Edu gets all the credit for that signing – he came from… wherever. He’s really unbelievable.
“So young, looks so mature already, is a proper threat. Yeah, he looks like a really decent player. I didn’t want to put any backpack [pressure] on his back with this thing [his earlier remarks] but I just really like good football players and obviously he’s a very good one.”
The praise from the successful Liverpool manager hasn't stopped there.”I think Martinelli, very early I was excited about him and he’s become exactly the player I expected he would be. He deserves everything coming his way," he said three years on from his initial praise.
As for Saka, Klopp has previously labelled him as an "exciting player" and once declared: “I think from the first day since he’s been playing he’s been incredible.”
When challenging for an unprecedented quadruple last season, at a time when Salah’s future at Anfield was uncertain, Liverpool found themselves increasingly linked with the England international.
Yet rather than issue a hands off warning to the Reds, Arteta took such interest in Saka as a compliment.
"I think that’s great news when you have a lot of talk and people willing for you players, it’s a really good sign," the Spaniard said. "They should be proud because that means they are doing extremely good work.
"I am really happy with Bukayo, and with what he’s doing, with how he’s developed and the importance he has on the team. Most importantly with the impact that he’s able to make in each game. This is something that we want to keep improving in each game, because he has the capacity to do it."
Alas, Arsenal’s imminent return to the Champions League and ongoing title challenge looks certain to end any suggestion of the young forwards leaving the Emirates anytime soon.
Martinelli signed a new-long term contract until 2027 in February this year, while Saka is tipped to pen an extension of his own in the months ahead.
How Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher wishes things were different.
“Jurgen Klopp has had little cause to be envious of other squads during his Liverpool reign,” the former defender wrote in his weekly column for the Telegraph. “He does now. He must wish half of Arteta’s team were in his starting XI.
“Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli bring the lightning pace and penetration that Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane introduced to Klopp’s 4-3-3 system five years ago. ‘Not so long ago, Klopp must have investigated if it was possible to lure the Arsenal duo to Merseyside. Suffice to say that ship has well and truly sailed.”
Liverpool have spent the past year revamping their ageing attack, with Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez, Fabio Carvalho, and Cody Gakpo all brought in. While Salah would sign a new contract with the Reds last summer, Mane departed for Bayern Munich with Roberto Firmino now set to leave the club at the end of his contract.
Despite such speculation and admiration for Martinelli and Saka, no Reds move was ever forthcoming. It would seem, at the time, Liverpool knew how difficult it would be to lure either of the pair away from the Emirates.
Should Arsenal have remained title pretenders, absent from the Champions League, perhaps they would have become available sooner rather than later and the Reds could have taken advantage. But their own performances in reviving the Gunners have seemingly cemented their Emirates futures.
In truth, Klopp enjoyed the same from Salah, Mane, and Firmino when their own high-flying performances transformed Liverpool into champions of England, Europe, and the world. Now, the Reds can only hope their chosen long-term successors eventually have the same impact, but they won't stop the German from kicking himself at missing out on the Arsenal pair.
As a result, having missed any potential opening to lure Saka and Martinelli away from the previously struggling Gunners, all Liverpool can do is watch on enviously and wonder what might have been.
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