Football Features

From a ‘prototype Liverpool’ to world-beaters, can Arsenal fulfil Ceballos’ prediction?

By Chris Smith

Published: 18:53, 12 September 2019

Dani Ceballos says Arsenal are working on “some similar things” to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, backing them to become a dominant force in Europe.

Since Unai Emery arrived in 2018, the north Londoners have closed the gap on the Premier League’s top four from 12 points to just one, while they reached the final of last season’s Europa League – their first continental final since 2006.

The Gunners were sunk 4-1 by rivals Chelsea in that showpiece but the season’s progress was there for all to see.

And Ceballos has backed Emery to turn Arsenal into a juggernaut capable of going to toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world once more, telling the Guardian: “We’re working on some similar things [to Liverpool…] Arsenal finished a point short of the Champions League and a small step from winning the Europa League; his arrival will be positive.

“In a few years, Arsenal will be in the top 10 teams globally, competing for everything.”

Emery’s £72m summer addition of Nicolas Pepe has left Arsenal armed and dangerous with one England’s most threatening front threes, and Ceballos has been quick to praise the Ivorian, as well as Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang and the Gunners’ “best” player, Alexandre Lacazette.

“We’ve got a very good, compact side and the three up front really make the difference,” he added.

“You can compare [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang to Cristiano [Ronaldo] when he was at Madrid in the sense that he plays close to the goal, he lives for scoring. He’s very important for us, fundamental.

“[Nicolas] Pépé is very direct. And [Alexandre] Lacazette, for me, is the best player: he understands the game perfectly and, if he’s 100%, he’s going to give us so much.”

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Of course, the signing which truly kick-started the Klopp era at Anfield was that of Mohamed Salah in 2017, with the Egyptian lining up alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in what has been the most potent attacking trio in England and Europe over the past two seasons.

From here, comparisons become incredibly easy: Aubameyang is often deployed out wide but he’s there to score. He and Salah were two of the three players to share last season’s Premier League Golden Boot with 22 goals, each were “fundamental” for their sides.

The other was Mane, whose trickery and ruthlessness in front of goal know no bounds, while his pace acts as a pressure valve, getting his side up the pitch quickly to reassert dominance. That’s exactly what Pepe has been signed for, with the Ivorian completing the third-highest number of dribbles (102) in Ligue 1 last season – topping that metric in the Premier League this season already (15) – and scoring, yes, 22 goals, second only to Kylian Mbappe.

Pepe’s lightning speed makes Arsenal a more multifaceted side, able to pop a ball behind the opposition defence or quickly release pressure on the break.

Then there’s Firmino, knitting it all together with his movement creating space for others, working hard in the press and offering Klopp a dynamic presence through the middle. As alluded to by Ceballos, Lacazette is the most accomplished footballer of Arsenal’s front three and has the ability to feed Pepe and Aubameyang, is intelligent enough to create and exploit space around him, and can also notch up impressive goal tallies for himself.

Of course, a top-heavy side can only get you so far over a 38-game season and if you’re still leaking goals, you won’t challenge for a title, as shown by Liverpool’s 2017/18 side which finished fourth having conceded the most goals (38) among the Premier League’s top four (although that would be an improvement on the 51 Arsenal shipped last season).

But January 2018 ushered the landmark arrival of centre-back Virgil van Dijk, while goalkeeper Alisson and deep-lying midfielder Fabinho followed last summer. Liverpool have been water-tight ever since, conceding the fewest goals (22) in the Premier League last term and notching up the third-highest points total (97) in competition history.

“Great goalkeepers win you point after point after point and you don’t even notice it … This goalkeeper is winning them point after point after point.”

Gary Neville on Alisson’s Liverpool impact.

Although that still wasn’t quite enough to pip Manchester City to the title, it did help secure a sixth Champions League crown and the Reds now top the Premier League, winning four from four so far this term.

While Ceballos has admitted the two projects are similar, the Spaniard was also quick to allow Emery more time to progress along the road.

“We can’t compare it at the moment,” he said. “We’re working on some similar things but Jürgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in 2015. Unai came last season.”

And you do get the feeling Arsenal are still a couple of defensive signings from getting closer to that level. David Luiz is a decent acquisition but at 32, is a defensive plaster, while Bernd Leno is a good shot-stopper but nowhere near as reliable as Alisson.

However, if they can do their best “2017/18 Liverpool” impression this season, few would bet against them kicking on to finally drag themselves back among Europe’s elite.

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