Burnley should feel flattered. After giving their usual feisty performance at the Emirates last weekend and slipping to the inevitable narrow defeat, Sokratis Papastathopoulos suggested Arsenal’s next game against the league leaders might be slightly easier.
Theoretically that should see Arsenal’s fans travelling to Merseyside on Saturday in good spirits, though don’t bank on it. If Liverpool are easier to defend against than Sean Dyche’s bottom-half battlers you would never guess it from Arsenal’s recent results at Anfield. Last season the Gunners lost 5-1. The season before that it was 4-0 to Liverpool, the season before that it was 3-1, and though there were a couple of high-scoring draws either side of Jürgen Klopp’s appointment as manager the absolute stand-out horrorshow as far as the London side were concerned was a 5-1 drubbing on Brendan Rodgers’ watch in 2014 when Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge ran riot to such an extent that Arsenal barely dared to cross the halfway line after the first half-hour.
Five years ago Arsenal had gone into the fixture as league leaders as well, so it is unlikely they will feel especially emboldened by the knowledge that along with Liverpool they are the only side in the Premier League to boast a 100% record after two matches. Liverpool only lost one league game last season, and though they did not score quite as many goals as Manchester City they scored 16 more than Arsenal and 44 more than Burnley.
Perhaps Sokratis did not mean to be quite so complimentary about Burnley in any case. Though headlines predictably picked up on the notion that Liverpool might come as a bit of a rest, what the Arsenal defender actually said was: “Maybe it is now easier because you don’t have to fight a lot: Liverpool also play football.” Liverpool do not have the equivalent of Ashley Barnes, in other words, nor are they quite so fond of the long balls and aerial combat.
Burnley will still take that as encouraging praise, though the analysis is a little short on what Liverpool have been doing to such impressive effect in the last two or three years. They are not top of the table by accident, after all. Or champions of Europe, or among the unluckiest of runners-up last season in the only major European league that produced a title race worthy of the name.
What Liverpool set out to do is pressurise defences into mistakes when they are without the ball and strike quickly on the counter when in possession. The overall idea is not a million miles from what Burnley do – both Klopp and Dyche demand a similar workrate and level of commitment from their players – though with Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mané at the front end Liverpool have players with the quickness of thought and movement to take advantage of even momentary slackness in an opponent’s defence. Liverpool have potential matchwinners all over the pitch as well. Salah might be the poster boy but there are goals in all the front six and even the back line has proved adept at switching to attacking mode. Dyche used to be fond of saying that Sir Alex Ferguson’s best teams at Manchester United would have a hundred different ways to kill you. If you nullified the threat up front, for example, Ryan Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo would find space on the wings, or Paul Scholes from central midfield.
Liverpool are somewhat similar at the moment. While opponents can try to keep Salah or Firmino quiet, there generally aren’t enough men available to do the same for the midfield threat from Jordan Henderson or Giorginio Wijnaldum, not to mention runs from deep by Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is returning to the team as well, and Arsenal need no reminding how explosive he can be from midfield, or perhaps they do.
Liverpool actually play Burnley next week, so the superficial similarities and rather more obvious differences between the two sides can be discussed at length at Turf Moor. Arsenal have the small matter of Tottenham at home the same weekend, so Unai Emery’s players are going to get two of their toughest examinations of the season in the space of a few days. If Sokratis is still saying Burnley are the most difficult opponents to play against as August moves into September then he might have a point, because Arsenal could by then be top of the league. But that is looking a little too far ahead just two games into the season. Arsenal have two big hurdles to clear, is all it is safe to say at the moment. Most of their supporters will probably prefer to see what happens first and do the talking later.