EMIRATES STADIUM, London — Liverpool produced an emphatic 4-3 comeback victory in their 2016/17 Premier League season opener away to Arsenal on Sunday afternoon, with four goals in under 20 minutes sparking a relentless second half in north London.
Going behind to a Theo Walcott strike, shortly after the England forward had seen his penalty saved by Simon Mignolet, the Reds needed a moment of magic from playmaker Philippe Coutinho to prompt their revival.
The Brazilian's inch-perfect free-kick gave Petr Cech no chance just before half-time, and this gave Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp the impetus to drive his side on at the interval—and with goals from Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and another from Coutinho sealing a 4-1 lead just after the hour mark, it served as the ideal inspiration.
Arsenal grabbed two back through ex-Southampton duo Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers, but the Reds held firm and secured their first three points in what they will hope is a watershed season under the German manager.
The Emirates Stadium rose into a crescendo of jeers at full-time, as the disaffected Arsenal support voiced their concerns over another summer of frugality from Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, who, with only two weeks of the transfer window left, has made just three signings compared to Klopp's seven.
Speaking after the game, the Frenchman rued how his side was "not ready physically," as well as citing the inexperience of his starting lineup—which included 21-year-old Chambers and 20-year-old Rob Holding paired at centre-back—as a key factor behind their capitulation.
But for this crucial campaign opener, this could also be attributed to Klopp's Liverpool side, with the German unable to call upon a number of his most prominent names.
However, the major difference between Klopp and his esteemed counterpart was that the Reds manager was prepared for this, as Liverpool made light of their own injury concerns in a display that promised much for the season ahead.
Arsenal headed into their first clash of 2016/17 noticeably depleted. The Gunners had already seen veteran squad players Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky leave on the expiry of their contracts before an injury crisis struck.
Former Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck played his last game for the club in May's 2-2 draw away to Manchester City, with the 25-year-old's knee injury keeping him out for the summer's European Championship.
Per Mertesacker, another key absentee, is also unavailable due to a knee problem, with the lofty German expected to be sidelined until the new year, while his fellow centre-back Gabriel Paulista will be out until October.
Utility man Carl Jenkinson rounded off Wenger's list of injury concerns before Sunday's clash, but the 66-year-old was also unable to call upon Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud, with the trio still working on their fitness following their involvement at the Euros in France.
Koscielny's absence was arguably felt the most, with Wenger forced to field his inexperienced duo at the heart of defence, with the Arsenal back four of Chambers, Holding, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal starting with an average age of just 23.
Elsewhere, Alex Iwobi (20) started on the left wing, while the still relatively inexperienced Mohamed Elneny (24) and Francis Coquelin (25) partnered each other in midfield.
Though they started well, pressing high and with an intensity that put Klopp's energetic Reds to shame, Arsenal quickly faded, and speaking after the game, Wenger told reporters that his youngsters "cost us the goals," with Mane's excellent second-half strike, dancing through the Gunners' back line before firing into the top corner, particularly damning.
However, though Wenger highlighted the inexperience of his side, he was still able to call upon Cech (34), Monreal (30), Walcott (27), Aaron Ramsey (25) and Alexis Sanchez (27), with the average age of Arsenal's starting lineup (24.9) just one year lower than Liverpool's (25.9).
Klopp named a positive, expansive side for the first game of the Reds' campaign, with Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno forming his back line in a 4-3-3 formation.
Lallana was joined by Jordan Henderson and £25 million summer signing Georginio Wijnaldum in a three-man midfield, supporting Mane, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in attack.
This new-look system saw Liverpool attempt to overwhelm Arsenal moving forward, with Moreno, Clyne, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana, Coutinho, Mane and Firmino all working on their combination play with first-team development coach Pepijn Lijnders during their pre-match warm-up.
With Lallana and Wijnaldum pushing forward in box-to-box midfield roles, Mane's pace on the right flank stretched the Arsenal back line, while Coutinho drifted in from the left to thread balls through to the diligent, hardworking Firmino—who operated in a selfless role as Liverpool's nominal No. 9.
After a slow start, this kicked into gear during a frenetic 20-minute spell in the second half, with Coutinho's second goal—a simple, close-range effort following an intelligent run across the six-yard box—bearing the fruits of Lijnders' pre-match supervision, as all of Klopp's outfielders interchanged in an impressive buildup.
But as Klopp attested after the game, during an upbeat appraisal of his side's start to 2016/17, Liverpool were far from their best:
This Is Anfield @thisisanfield
Klopp: "Today we were far away from showing our whole quality. Lots of nice signs, that's all."2016-8-14 17:36:16
Though magnified by the positivity of three points gained, this provided a welcome juxtaposition to Wenger's gloom—despite Klopp finding himself in a similar position heading into the clash.
Just like Wenger, Klopp was unable to call upon a number of his key players, with Loris Karius (hand), Mamadou Sakho (heel), Joe Gomez (heel), James Milner (ankle), Lucas Leiva (hamstring) and Daniel Sturridge (hip) all left on the treatment table, while Emre Can was only passed fit to start on the substitutes' bench.
Karius, Sakho, Can and Sturridge would, ostensibly, take up first-choice roles in Klopp's ideal starting lineup, and this saw Liverpool start the Premier League season without their spine.
But despite this, they were able to seal the victory, and this underlines key differences in the approaches of Klopp and Wenger.
Speaking ahead of Liverpool's pre-season preparations, Klopp detailed how he was looking to utilise a busy summer to improve his squad's fitness—but, as Wenger did after Sunday's game, he also lamented the distractions of Euro 2016:
The problem with pre-season is that for the first three weeks we have 15 players who will have been away at the European Championship and we also have to see how the squad is changing.
On another planet we would have six weeks together where we train because in this league it is the only time when you can only train. In all of the [pre-season] games we will play we will play out full training. So if we play our best in pre-season then I’ve done something completely wrong. It’s another session, it’s not about beating our opponents. I don’t care about how big the opponent is we will say nothing about the situation.
Liverpool played nine games during their off-season, along with triple sessions overseen by new fitness coach Andreas Kornmayer, and while their money-spinning tour of the United States saw them lose to both Chelsea and AS Roma, and their final outing away to Mainz 05 served up a miserable 4-0 defeat, this proved hugely beneficial.
Meanwhile, Arsenal played just five pre-season friendlies, with Wenger clearly looking to lighten the load on a thin squad.
But while the likes of Koscielny, Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud did all advance to the latter stages of Euro 2016, Arsenal saw fewer of their players (eight) depart to the tournament than Liverpool (12), with the Reds joint with Juventus as the most-represented club in France this summer.
Like Wenger, Klopp gave his summer internationals time off the recuperate following their involvement at the Euros, with Milner, Lallana, Clyne, Henderson, Sturridge, Can, Mignolet, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke, Joe Allen, Danny Ward and Martin Skrtel all given three weeks' holiday.
But despite this delayed preparation, and the impact of injuries to his key players, Liverpool were ultimately better prepared for Sunday's opener at the Emirates.
That Klopp conceded that his side were "far away from showing [their] whole quality" in north London serves as a statement of intent at the beginning of a campaign that will see Liverpool unburdened by European football, able to concentrate their efforts on the Premier League and domestic cups.
There were no excuses from the German, and Sunday's victory should be a sign of better things to come this season, with Liverpool already having delivered a frustrating blow to one of their top-four rivals.
Jack Lusby will be covering Liverpool throughout 2016/17 as one of Bleacher Report's lead correspondents. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.