Much like the last game we played – Leicester in the Carabao Cup – tonight’s game is a weird one for me because it really doesn’t feel like a game in which we should worry too much about. I mean obviously it’s a big game and I’m sure i’ll be nervous by the time kick off comes around, but right now I kind of just feel like this game won’t be having me spitting feathers if we lose tonight. That’s what I mean when I say that it feels like the League Cup because that game during the week was a ‘nice to win’ but not a ‘must win’.
I read somewhere that Liverpool haven’t lost at home in the league since April 2017. That is a mad stat. That means in three and a half year’s they’ve picked up nothing less than a point and given our record against big teams away from home it means that the odds on us winning this evening are so stacked against us that this feels like a complete free hit to me.
Added to that the fact that Liverpool are only missing Jordan Henderson, whereas we are still without a number of players and I think a slight doubt over Luiz, and for me it all just adds to the feeling of having to manage my expectations for this evening. Normally you go into a a game as an Arsenal fan thinking about how we could get a win, but it all just feels a little too stacked against us right now. Even seeing Leicester dismantle Man City at the Etihad didn’t really fill me with loads of confidence. All it did is make me think how Liverpool will probably walked the league again this season. Sadly.
But Liverpool are what we are trying to aspire towards. That is the marker we are aiming for and much like when Klopp took over and had to slowly build out his vision of Liverpool to get them to where they are now, Arteta’s “project” is still very much underway, but still in its infancy. The COVID situation has effectively knocked six months from the ‘project’ – possibly more when you consider the financial knock on effects of not being able to move players on or bring more players in – so where we are at right now still only feels like the early stages of what he’s trying to do. Liverpool are the finished article though and that’s why I’m hoping my own personal management of my own expectations mean I won’t be too angry tonight when what I think will happen, happens.
They are a team who have physicality, athleticism and move in transition with lightning speed. They will be quite content to let us have the ball at times knowing that they can hit us with – as Mikel put it – waves of attacks that will put our defence under a lot of pressure tonight. In the Community Shield we batted off the Liverpool waves and at the Emirates we had a little bit of fortune to go with our endeavour, but if we have a similar game to that one at The Emirates I don’t think we can ride our luck for that long again.
So who plays tonight for Arsenal to try to find a solution then? I think you have to put Kieran Tierney back in to that left centre-back role because of his long distribution, but also his ability and mobility to cover ground, as well as the importance he plays in transitioning us from a 3-4-3 team, to a 2-5-3 team, to a 5-3-2 team depending on where the ball is on the pitch and whether we have possession or not. We need as much athleticism in the side as possible and for me that means Maitland-Niles has to start, probably on the left with Hector on the right. Gabriel could get the nod through the middle and then I guess it would have to be Holding on the right of that three. The idea of Holding in a foot race with any of Liverpool’s front three is terrifying but this is another reason why tonight is a ‘free hit’; because we are dealing with injuries and players missing that is meaning Arteta doesn’t have his strongest possible team to pick from.
It should be Bellerin on the right of the side and then inevitably I think Ceballos and Xhaka play through the middle. I worry about Thiago Alcantara with his passing range and ability to turn in the middle of the park being able to get beyond one of those two and open us up in the middle of the park, but once again, that’s the best midfield Arteta has, which means we have little choice but to select them both together. A quick caveat though before you think I don’t think either player is any good; I think Xhaka has been superb since Arteta arrived and Ceballos’ improvement has been obvious for everyone, it’s just that they are not the energetic, ground covering, screen that I think our defence needs if Liverpool players pick up spaces in front of our back three.
In front of that eight players (obviously Leno starts so I didn’t mention) I think we have to go for as much pressing and counter attacking pace as possible. So personally for me that’s Aubameyang, Nketiah and Pepe up top. Both Auba and Pepe have the pace to run at Liverpool’s back line when the ball turns over and if we can get it back to front quickly, whereas Eddie has more pace than Lacazette and also will press hard on Liverpool’s back line; harder than Lacazette I think.
This game I am kind of sitting down expecting in my mind to see it as a “we’ve probably lost already, but let’s see what the team can produce” and so for me a success would be if we see signs that we can rattle Liverpool, if we can keep the score down, if we can avoid giving away another frigging penalty against them (it feels like every time we go to Anfield they get one), then I’d kind of be ok with that. I don’t see us breaking the utterly abysmal record against the big six tonight, which sees us having not won away from home for over five and a half years I believe. But there will be other opportunities for us to pick up points against opposition that I would think are more than achievable. Maybe I’m proved wrong tonight, I would certainly love that to happen, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground today methinks.
Catch you all tomorrow.