It’s game day and I don’t think I’ve ever been as in the dark over how Arsenal might line up tonight for the semi final of the League Cup, as I have for this evenings game against Victim FC/Cheat FC, given our current problems. Question marks are hanging over whether Granit Xhaka has come out of his isolation and is ready to play, whether Smith Rowe and Tomiyasu have overcome their knocks, as well as who on earth we are going to play in centre midfield against a Liverpool Team that I suspect will be stronger than most people believe.
That’s because they previously cheated the system to work in their favour for the first leg last week, so that they could get players back returning, so I think Klopp has an eye on going strong in this match and seeing if he can blow us away, meaning he can afford a little more rotation for the second leg next Thursday. Liverpool have more players they can ‘welcome back’ and if you look at what a lot of the online press are saying, they’re thinking it’ll be a pretty much full strength Liverpool side tonight. So that’s Alisson in goal, Alexander-Arnold at right back, Van Dijk and Matip central defence, Robertson left back, Fabinho, Henderson Jones in midfield, with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino and Jota up top. Of course they are weaker without Mane or Salah but that is a Liverpool side to be feared and for me tonight is about not getting blown away.
We simply must still be in it when we take the second leg back to the Emirates and that means keep it to at least one goal. And given that probable line up tonight, Arteta has to go strong. Conte went with his strongest side last night I believe – barring the ‘keeper – and so there is no worry that the Scum will have had a week’s rest ahead of the NLD. sure, they’ll have played at home and sure, they won’t have had to travel and will have had a day extra rest. But I think Arteta can’t really afford to rest anybody tonight and so unless he’s going to give Leno minutes – which I’d kind of be ok with as he’s a decent enough back up – he has to play the best XI he can cobble together.
Of course unlike Liverpool, we can’t just get games called off because we have a few injuries and can sway the Liverpool-supporting Chairman of the EFL, so Arteta may not have many options to choose from. If for example, there is no Xhaka, then what are the other options? Odegaard slotting in beside Lokonga? Two number eights in the shape of Odegaard and Smith Rowe, with Saka and Martinelli out wide and Lacazette up top? I guess so, but my worry with that is that we get overrun in midfield when poor Sambi is left as a single pivot. I know ESR is a few steps up on quality and experience compared to Charlie Patino, but even if we slot Emile in for Patino tonight, the worry is that our midfield is totally overrun against an experienced Liverpool side who will not hesitate to put the two legged tie to bed this evening with a big score.
That midfield is my biggest worry. Xhaka in the centre of it alongside Lokonga and I’m feeling a little more comfortable. But if he isn’t there tonight then I really hope Arteta considers shifting the system up a bit. For example if we’re not expecting a lot of the ball and will therefore be defending our box a fair bit, maybe a back three with Holding in isn’t the worst idea? Holding had a shocker last weekend, I’m not his biggest fan at all, but as a penalty-box, ‘backs against the wall’, defender, he can do a job if he’s flanked by Gabriel and White. You then can look at Tierney as your left wing back and I’d even consider Nuno Tavares as the right wing back. I’m not too sure with Tomiyasu as the right wing back and so hence my thinking, plus the fact that Arteta might want to give Nuno a chance to redeem himself.
Of course another option is to play Saka as that right wing back and tell Tomiyasu to tuck in to right-sided centre half. It means our formation can shift in game as when we are out of possession Tomiyasu can tuck in or fill the wide right gaps, whereas in possession Saka can occupy a more natural right wing position. Liverpool do like to get the ball out wide and their full backs are deadly, so if we go with the back three it’ll mean a lot of hard running for Tierney and whoever plays right wing-back, but we have youth in the legs and so I wouldn’t be worried about that.
I guess the crux of my argument here is that no Xhaka should absolutely mean a change of system in my opinion. Odegaard played in central midfield against Forest, against Norwich, and on both occasions I thought he was poor. He does far more damage up the pitch but more than that, he doesn’t offer as much defensively. So if you are going to play him in central midfield you probably need another central defender to make up the numbers when we are set up and looking to hold our shape.
In the attacking third of the pitch I think we need the ability top rapid counter and for me that means Marinelli and Saka and has to be Laca up top. Nketiah stunk the place out at the weekend, has one foot out the door, and I’m not in the mood to suggest he deserves another shot like Nuno. Let’s have Laca linking with the other youngsters and see if we can’t get some joy in attack.
We have a pretty shoddy record at Anfield and away goals mean nothing any more in this competition, so for me it is about being tight, compact, not giving an inch and keeping the score down. A repeat of the Premier League game at Anfield and we’re finished in this competition. It is up to Arteta and his charges to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Catch you all tomorrow for a post-mortem.