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Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Dawn of a New Era in the EPL

Can this game be considered a microcosm of the evolution of the EPL and world football—and possibly the tipping point for a tightly contested title race?

For starters, I am a Liverpool fan, so let me get that out of the way. I try to be as unbiased as a "Red" can be, but my team, at this moment, is clicking on all cylinders and flying high, so if I come across as boastful it's only because I take pride in what they have become. And how couldn't I get fired up after the display they put on the other day?

However, let me say this first. Arsenal is not a team to be completely discounted or written off. The display today is, in my opinion, nowhere near a testament to their quality, now or in the future, and they will be a force to be reckoned with going forward in years to come as long as Unai Emery is in charge. I can see the beginnings of a revival within their squad in a simmering and smouldering fire of a slumbering volcano ready to unleash its fury on the world. Mark my words, the Arsenal of old is alive and well in this team, and they are only a few transfers away from becoming a top three team in the EPL. And I will go on record in saying they could very well win the league (for real) within the next three years.

The Arsenal the other day, however, was not that team. Their play was disjointed after conceding the equalizing goal, and then the crack in their metal continued to widen until the third goal rolled in. The illusion of continuity or semblance of the fabric that the team was made of completely dissolved.

The opening goal was a thing of beauty for any gunners fan: A lightning quick transition, finished off by a well-placed cross to the back post that left an otherwise usually solid Andy Robertson looking like the boy who just stepped on to an EPL pitch for the first time.

Maitland-Niles did well to finish off the cross, extending his leg to get the perfect finish into the open net. But this was the last time Arsenal looked like the fluid and ruthless team they had been in previous games—save for a few flurries of this in the second half.

From this point on we all got to witness the culmination of the past few years of Jürgen Klopp's handy work. A team now refined and molded with attack at the center of its philosophy, but with a base emphasis on defensive rigidity. Even more amazing is how he has been able to use the core Brendan Rodgers mainstays into the dynamic group we see now.

The team that in the final year of Brendan Rogers reign would have been shaken to the core and unsure of itself after conceding so early in a contest looked more sure that the game was theirs than when the first whistle blew. Watching the reaction of the  Liverpool players to conceding such an early goal, I could almost sense from the body language on the field, that there was a sense of unbridled belief in their quality. Both as players and as a team, and that their abilities would carry the day and far outshine Arsenal come the end.

In my opinion, this is an arrogance that comes with training at a high level of focus and intensity throughout the week. One goal so early in a game would have sent most teams—or at the very least, a handful of players—into panic. But this was not the vibe I got watching this game. I saw, instead, almost anger and fury from the Liverpool players on the field. With a sense of, "What are you all getting excited for? We are not even warmed up!" There was a ruthlessness and a fire ignited in each and every player in red. A determination to punish Arsenal for what they had done.

It only took a matter of minutes for this to materialize, and before Arsenal knew it, Liverpool had landed an equalizing blow. The equalizer thanks to the quick reactions of Firmino to pounce on a poor clearance by the Shrokan Mustafi who had the misfortune of clearing the ball right into the side of his teammate Grant Xhaka. The deflection had landed perfectly into the path of the charging Firmino who finished with style and poise. The goal was a classic no-look finish he has been known to do when faced with such an easy tap in like this was.

The second was even better. Firmino showed off why he is arguably one of the top ten in the game at his position. He took the ball into his possession and proceeded to weave, slice, and shred the opposing defense until the space opened up and he tucked the ball into the near corner with power and accuracy. The thing that amazes me each time I see him play is how agile he is for a player of his size, and adept at manipulating the ball to his will. Not long after, Mo Salah caressed a well-weighted ball on his left foot, and in the same instance, redirected that ball across the Arsenal box to an eager Sadio Mane who willingly guided said ball home to its destination, under the bar and into the top of the net, making it 3-1. A penalty kick later by Mo Salah and a second half goal by Roberto Firmino ended the contest all together.

Let's go back to the Salah penalty for a moment, because this is key to me, in both the game and my notion that the EPL has drastically changed with the rise of Liverpool's brand of football. At this point in the game everything came unraveled for Arsenal who otherwise still looked dangerous going forward, but lacked options once in the final third. Prior to this it seemed as if from the second Liverpool goal, Arsenal as a whole was unsure of who to mark and what to do tactically to slow down Liverpool's attack. But once Salah converted, their third desperation took over. As shown by the overused, but entirely accurate phrase, "school boy defending" consumed each and every Arsenal player from there on out.

This was in stark contrast to the professional defensive shape that had started the game. Which brings me to my point that managers like Pep Guardiola and Unai Emery emphasize attacking players and systems that lack defensive resolve. Take, for instance, PSG's disaster last year against Barcelona. PSG was up 4-0 going into the second leg of a Champions League Round of 16 tie—under the leadership of Unai Emery. The second leg was there for the taking, but when the team faced adversity they completely fell apart. The same happened to Pep Guardiola's Manchester City team the same year. They, like PSG, had a lead going into the second leg of their Round of 16 tie against AS Monaco, 5-3. It was not exactly an impressive defensive performance by either team, but the second leg was worse and they ended up losing 3-1.

My key point I want to make here is this: In a day and age where offense takes priority in a team setup, and defense is viewed as less so, it is remarkable at how balanced Liverpool are. The game against Arsenal showed that the philosophy—whether true or not—of attack first/offense is our defense is not the only option in today's game if you want to win. Liverpool's performance proved that defense doesn't need to be sacrificed in order to win against the top teams in the EPL. In fact, defense can be used in unison and as a part of a team's attacking philosophy.

I would argue Liverpool's defensive, not offensive performance, is the team's greatest asset this year. A foundation built on the recent acquisitions of Allison Becker, Virgil Van Dijk, and Andy Robertson that I believe will make Liverpool a team more than capable of winning more than the league title this year. Time and time again, the back four of Liverpool, along with their holding midfield, snuffed out attacks. They swarmed the ball when they needed to, and in other instances remained in position, regardless of how many Arsenal attackers came to bear down on any one of their positions. This is the key to the team, and what makes them dynamic.

The short of it is that Klopp has instilled a defensive organization that is effective and capable of dealing with the "blitzkrieg" strategies employed by other Premier League teams of our time. This, along with the three-headed attack of Salah, Mane, and Firmino, is the reason that Liverpool has what it takes to not only win the English Premier League, but also to add multiple other trophies (i.e.the "Holy Grail" Champions League to their trophy cabinet).

Some of you might feel this is an overstatement and premature. I am not willing to crown them yet because they have a long way to go, and many important fixtures in the weeks ahead—none more than the upcoming game against Manchester City on January 3. However, I will say that Liverpool have become the juggernaut I think we all envisioned and hoped for when Klopp took over.

Therefore, the game on Thursday will be crucial in either cementing Liverpool at the top of the league or proving that their are still cracks in their armor to exploit. Whatever the outcome, the league has turned a page. Attacking football is on the rise, but only the defensively sound will reap the rewards. Manchester City is a testament to how important it is to be near flawless in the defense. And it starts with the men directly in front the backline (center-mid). Without Fernandinho and Gündoğan in the starting lineup, Manchester City lacked the shield for their defense, which cost them back to back games. Something Liverpool has as of today is a plethora of reliable options. I am referring to the likes of mainstays Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Milner, but even more so Fabinho and Nabby Keita—both recent additions who are now coming to their full powers at this crucial stage. From top to bottom, Liverpool has the talent to make the title theirs. More importantly, key pieces acquired (mentioned earlier) over the past few years are performing and gelling at the right time. It will take something unforeseen to stop this momentum that looks to swallow up all in its path like a tsunami. The wave is here. So hop on and enjoy the ride, or be swallowed up by it. Regardless of what you feel about the team, you can't deny the captivating nature of this season as we wait to see which of the Titans of the English game will be crowned. And maybe this year will mark the beginning of a dynasty? Whose? We shall see... I'm betting on Red.

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