So here we are. Back to match day and the excited nerves are kicking in already. Although I will admit that I’d have preferred us to get back in to the swing of the Premier League without having to play one of the hardest away games in world football right now. And it’s probably made all the worse by the fact that Liverpool drew at home to Brighton in their last home match and lost away to West Ham. It means they will be absolutely hell-bent on picking up three points today and personally I’m not holding out too much expectation that they won’t get it.
And they’ll be at pretty much full strength too, despite what Klopp was telling the media on Friday. He’s gone with the ‘they didn’t train’ and ‘it will be close’ in terms of Henderson and Robertson but I think we have to assume that both are fully fit and have had some kind of magical elixir to get fit for this game and I’m expecting a full strength – bar Firmino – Liverpool side to rock up at Anfield tonight.
That begs the question: How do we go about getting anything from the game?
I think the opening exchanges will tell us a lot. Many managers have referenced that we often start quickly and fast in games and we’ve seen that for ourselves over the last couple of months, but blitzing teams – and specifically The Arsenal – has been a speciality of Liverpool’s for some time now, so I think it would be a tall order to expect us to dominate the ball and the play like we did away to Leicester. We just don’t have enough to match them pound-for-pound in that regard, so the onus will be on our defensive solidity to show that we can stand up to the best of attacks that are out there.
If you’re an Arsenal fan and looking for a positive ahead of the game, that is surely where you have to look, i.e. our defence. We have been keeping clean sheets, we’ve been solid at the back and in our young back five we have a collective of players who are growing together each week. I have faith and a lot of hope in this back line, but it does feel as though this kind of big game has come a little too soon for us. If we were playing Liverpool at home tonight I might be feeling slightly different, but I’m finding it hard in my head to work out how we keep out this Liverpool side.
Obviously the answer lays in the counter, but in order to do that we will need to remain compact in the back line, have our two midfielders closing the gap between defence and midfield, then we need our forwards to be able to spring at pace. With that in mind it could be tempting to play the pacey forwards and put Pepe in instead of Lacazette, perhaps, but his form is down and Lacazette’s has been up, plus in Lacazette we have a hold up merchant and if we’re under pressure and just pumping balls in to channels in the feint hope that Pepe and Auba will get behind, that just won’t work. Or counter attacks need to be controlled in possession and that’s why somebody like Lacazette and Smith Rowe are the two I am looking to in this game. They have to have the courage and performance that ensures retention of the ball during the few times that we have it. That won’t be that often this evening, so when we do get the ball we need to ensure that we make the most of the chances, find the space, pick the right pass.
Liverpool will press their full backs high, they will look for their front three of Salah, Jota and Mane to turn over possession higher up the pitch and force mistakes from us, so what we have to do is break the press and then move the ball quickly from front to back. But not through long passing, but instead through controlled passing.
There’s been plenty of debate about Tierney or Tavares but for me it should be Tierney all day long. Nuno has been amazing but he hasn’t come up against a test like this defensively and Tierney is – I think we all agree – probably the better defender. And it’s defending that we’ll be doing for most of this game and that’s why I’d start him.
I’ve also heard some chatter about playing a back three, perhaps with Ainsley Maitland-Niles as a right wing back. I get that and maybe you could do that and play both Tierney at left centre half and Tavares down the left. It would open up space behind Alexander-Arnold and could cause Liverpool to think twice. But as I said above I think we’ll be doing more defending than attacking, which means it would slot more in to a back five and if we’re penned in and the two Arsenal central midfielders are on the edge of our box close to our back three, it is a tough ask to expect Auba and Laca to deliver anything if they are isolated together.
But I guess this whole evening is a tough ask if we’re honest. Liverpool have lost once against Arsenal in their last 11 meetings, which was that lockdown rope-a-dope we did at the Emirates. That day we relied on two bits of madness from Liverpool defenders and goalkeepers and I can’t see that happening enough times for us to get the win. Indeed, it feels like the biggest challenge is just keeping the score line down, because Liverpool have scored 15 goals in their last five Premier League matches against us. That’s three a game for the last two-and-a-half years. It just goes to show you just how much of an outside chance we have and for that reason I have only hope, but barely any expectation.
But this is not a battle that will define our season so I am less inclined for any knee-jerk reaction based on what happens today. As long as we make a good account of ourselves and can take enough positives going in to the game next weekend, then I’m good with that.
I think i’ll call it a day for now. Will catch you in the morrow. You have yourselves a good one. Fingers crossed for this evening.