Liverpool v Arsenal - The Tamest of Top-6 Rivalries?
Liverpool v Arsenal - The Tamest of Top Six Rivalries?
Arsenal headed to Anfield on the final day of the 1988-89 season knowing that only a two-goal victory would be enough to prise the title away from Liverpool.
George Graham's men could not have been presented with a more daunting task. The Reds were the dominant force in English football, they were the defending champions and they boasted such legends as Alan Hansen, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, John Barnes and Ray Houghton within their ranks. Liverpool were also on a remarkable 24-match unbeaten streak, so they were widely expected to cruise to victory in front of their adoring fans.
The Gunners enjoyed a 19-point lead at one point in the season, but found themselves trailing by three points on that fateful afternoon at Anfield, with a slightly inferior goal difference. They had not won at the famous ground in 15 years and they appeared resigned to their fate, while Liverpool's self-belief appeared to be impregnable. Yet Graham pulled off a masterstroke by playing David O'Leary as a sweeper, and they stifled the life out of the hosts. Arsenal took the lead through Alan Smith on 52 minutes and that teed up a tense finale.
The game went into injury time. Liverpool fans bit their nails to the quick and Arsenal supporters contemplated the abject misery that was to come. Then Barnes was dispossessed and Arsenal streamed forward, bringing both sets of fans to their feet. Michael Thomas received the ball 30 yards out, rode Steve Nichol's challenge, surged into the box and dinked a delightful finish over Bruce Grobbelaar. Cue pandemonium among the travelling Arsenal supporters and despair etched on the face of Kenny Dalglish as he prowled the touchline. It was the most thrilling finale the English top flight had ever seen and it paved the way for a ferocious rivalry.
Liverpool gained sweet revenge the following season, taking four points off the Gunners and bringing the title back to the northwest. However, in 1990-91 Arsenal finished seven points clear of the Reds after beating them 3-0 at Highbury. The stage was set for these two titans of the English game to battle it out for glory on an annual basis for decades to come, only it never quite worked out like that.
The 1990s saw the advent of the Premier League and Liverpool regressed. Arsenal enjoyed a successful period under Arsene Wenger between 1998 and 2004, but then they also fell away, unable to keep pace with oil-rich sides like Chelsea and Man City.
There have been some remarkable games between Arsenal and Liverpool since 1991, but very few have been genuine title deciders, and that has taken the shine off the rivalry somewhat.
There are a few exceptions to that rule. In 2001-02, Liverpool came closest to stopping Arsenal from winning the league. They took four points off the Gunners that season, but still finished second. In 2013-14, both teams were also battling for the title, and Arsenal picked up a strong 2-0 victory over Liverpool at The Emirates in the early stages of the campaign. Yet the Reds made a mockery of Arsenal's status as Premier League leaders by thrashing them 5-1 at Anfield in February. Wenger's side would fall away, while a resurgent Liverpool came within a whisker of securing a first title since 1990, only for Steven Gerrard to slip at a crucial moment against Chelsea and hand Man City the league.
The ensuing years saw Arsenal regress, while Liverpool improved under Jurgen Klopp. Both teams have firmly established themselves as members of the Premier League's Big Six, but Liverpool v Arsenal is no longer one of biggest matches of the season. Pundits are unlikely to draw a ring around it when the fixture list is announced and mark it as a title decider.
If you ask Liverpool fans to name their biggest rivals, they would probably say Man Utd, Everton and perhaps, more recently, Man City after engaging in a titanic battle for the title with Pep Guardiola's men in 2018/19. There is a deep enmity between Liverpool and Chelsea following a contentious Champions League clash and that match in which Gerrard slipped, so Arsenal are a long way down on Liverpool supporters' hit lists.
Ask the same question of Arsenal fans and most will say Tottenham, followed by Chelsea and Man Utd. Many Gooners cannot abide Chelsea since Roman Abramovich began splashing the cash, Jose Mourinho riled Wenger and the Blues plucked Ashley Cole from north London. Their hatred for Man Utd, whipped up during ferocious title battles in the 2000s, was reignited by Robin van Persie's move to Old Trafford. There have not been any contentious transfers between Arsenal and Liverpool - the Gunners' £40,000,001 bid for Suarez resulted in failure back in 2013 - so there has been little to fan the flames of animosity.
The clubs are not geographically close, so there is no great reason for them to hate one another if they are not fighting for the same silverware. It has been a long time since both teams were among the favourites for the title in the Premier League odds, and anyone interested in football spread betting will note that there is a perceived gulf in class between them at the moment. Yet both clubs have the potential to flourish in the years ahead, so the rivalry that burned so deep in 1989 could well be reignited in future.
Both Liverpool and Arsenal are steeped in history and they are stalwarts of the English top flight. Neither club has benefited from a petrol billionaire like Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour. They both follow a self-sustaining model and the duo are run by prudent American investors. There are many similarities between these teams and they could yet return the summit of the English game. Both clubs boast huge fans bases and if Financial Fair Play is enforced properly then they could certainly face one another in title deciders in the not too distant future.
There have been some epic clashes between them over the years. Few fans can forget the 4-4 draw in 2009, when Andrey Arshavin scored four times and still could not lead his team to victory. Liverpool fans will cherish Robbie Fowler's rapid hat-trick to put the Gunners to the sword in 1994, plus the 5-1 triumphs in 2014 and 2018. Arsenal supporters will fondly remember Thierry Henry waltzing his way through the Reds' defence in 2004 to inspire his team to victory during a crucial moment in the Invincibles season.
You are typically guaranteed goals, excitement and drama when these teams met, but it would be great if the outcome was as important as on that fabled afternoon in 1989, when these grand dames of English football treated the neutrals to 90 minutes of exhilarating action.