IT'S September 2006 and due to an absolutely 100% random quirk of the fixture computer, the artists then known as the Big Four are facing each other on the same day. It’s Chelsea vs. Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and Manchester United vs. Arsenal at Old Trafford. It’s Grand Slam Sunday. It’s “all four majors”. It’s, let’s be honest, a bit too heavy on the golf terminology. It’s also a pair of forgettable games, containing a combined total of two goals. It turns out RANDOMLY scheduling all of the clasicos on a single day is risky, something that is underlined the following season when the experiment is inexplicably repeated, with the same number of goals.
The point here is that yes, big Premier League games in the 2000s were often hulking cold war demonstrations of space stifling but that there was an alternative available. There’s one “big” league fixture that always delivers and we get another slice of it this weekend when Arsenal travel to Anfield to play Liverpool. In May 1989, three years before the Premier League came into being, Liverpool tried to eke out a 1-0 defeat to the Londoners in the final game of the season, a result that famously would have earned them an 18th league title. Instead, Michael Thomas broke through and the rest is a well-stocked nostalgia content industry.
But it seems that legendary game at Anfield ushered in a new paradigm in matches between two of English football’s biggest clubs. Between 1977 and 1984 Arsenal scored just seven times in 15 league encounters with Liverpool, but by April 2009 you could witness eight goals in just a single Premier League game between the clubs. Welcome to the Entertainment Industry.
A list of the sort of Premier League records that Liverpool vs. Arsenal fixtures have in their locker is to glimpse the sort of bristling elan that pulses within them:
- The most 90th minute goals of any Premier League fixture (17). Take your pick but few are as good as Neil Mellor’s soaring, bending winner in November 2004. Everyone remembers Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run ending at Old Trafford a month earlier but this was the second defeat and in some ways ended the Invincibles era more decisively than the ill-tempered and largely unfair reversal against Manchester United.
- The most hat-tricks of any Premier League fixture (6). From Robbie Fowler’s formerly peerless 4m33s hat-trick in August 1994 (Fowler: “I don’t mind people taking over in terms of the goals they score, both in the Premier League and for Liverpool, but the hat-trick is the one achievement I want to stay as mine forever”) to Andrey Arshavin's four goals from four shots in the 4-4 draw at Anfield in 2009. Or maybe you prefer Thierry Henry’s stylish treble in April 2004, perhaps one of the moments when the unbeaten season seemed genuinely possible. Or you might enjoy the mechanised stylings of Peter Crouch’s three goal haul in March 2007, or the lesser remembered Fowler effort in December 1995, or the most recent in the fixture, Roberto Firmino’s treble at Christmas 2018. When’s the seventh coming? Soon.
- The most goals of any fixture in Premier League history (169). 1-0 to George Graham’s Arsenal; the Benitez Defence Doctrine; it’s not like both of these clubs haven’t experimented with defensive football at various points but it just doesn’t seem to have much effect when they face each other. Only in 1998-99, when both fixtures ended 0-0, has there not been at least one clash to get the pulse racing. In 2015-16 there was a goalless draw at the Emirates early in the season but then the teams shared six goals at Anfield in what was Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League match against Arsenal. And Klopp has thoroughly enjoyed facing Arsenal as Liverpool manager, that 3-3 kicking off a sequence of 33 goals in 11 league games against them, which even a child can work out is three goals per game.
So the history is exciting, but so is the present-day, with Mohamed Salah posting elite numbers and scoring goal of the month contenders in every lunar cycle. Salah is yet to score in November but has assists in each of his last five Premier League appearances and has four goals and two assists in four Premier League games against Arsenal at Anfield. Cutting on to his left foot and forcing a flying save from Aaron Ramsdale at precisely 18:53 on Saturday? You can’t rule it out.
But you also can’t not envisage Emile Smith Rowe, socks lower than a triathlete’s, gliding through one-on-one with enough time to write a two star review of Liverpool’s high defensive line. Fresh from England success and with goals in each of his last three Premier League appearances, the Arsenal man is six years younger than Fowler’s famously rapid hat-trick and hungry to make his own history. Luckily in this fixture it’s almost obligatory.
Find more of Duncan’s insights at theanalyst.com