It feels like we’ve just come back from an international break, doesn’t it? Thanks to Southampton’s wonderful efforts in the EFL Cup, we had to sit out last weekend’s round of Premier League fixtures. That gave us a whopping two weeks to prepare for a trip to Anfield for an important Top Four six-pointer against Liverpool.
Somehow, I’ve little confidence the extended preparation time will make much difference. Arsenal’s record against teams in the top six this season has been dismal: just the one win (against Chelsea, of all teams) in six games. Each game has been examined to death but the common factor is that Arsenal have lacked intensity and organisation against tough opponents. Nobody can reasonably expect Arsenal to go into this game fired up and eager to put a plan into action.
By contrast, Liverpool enjoy the taste of big game success. They’ve yet to lose against a team in the top six, and have won four of their eight encounters. For all their troubles against relegation-threatened teams and plucky teams from the Football League, Liverpool know how to secure a result in a big, heavyweight game. It’s where Klopp succeeds in making his team run harder and play with a pace and penetration that unsettles the opposition.
Going by this, there’s only one outcome: Arsenal are going to lose and lose badly. To get a good result, we’ll have to either hope Liverpool have an off day or be ruthless enough to exploit their frailties in defence. Now’s as good a place to start as any. We’ve slipped down to fourth place since our last game, and a defeat tomorrow evening would see Liverpool leapfrog us into the top four. That should alarm plenty of people at the club.
Let’s be positive, though. Arsenal have been boosted by the returns of Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey from injury. Mesut Ozil is a doubt but should be okay to play as well. Danny Welbeck has gained some useful minutes playing for the U23s during the break and should be part of the squad. Alexis should be well-rested and ready to torment Liverpool’s backline. Bar Elneny, who damaged his ankle against Sutton in the FA Cup, the squad is looking healthy.
With a healthy squad, the starting line-up is predictable. Coquelin and Xhaka will likely pair up in midfield. Ahead of them will be Ozil, Walcott and Iwobi, with Alexis leading the line. As always, I’d like to see Welbeck and Lucas play. They could have important roles to play as outlets in a game where the opposition will look to disrupt our passing as much as possible. With Liverpool’s backline pushing up, we’ll need pace and movement in behind.
On Liverpool’s end, Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson are doubts. This means we could see Klavan or Lucas in the heart of their defence, and Emre Can anchoring their midfield. They could be potential weak links for us to exploit. Up top, we’ll need a plan to deal with Sadio Mane. He adds another dimension to Liverpool’s attack by giving them penetration and unpredictability, and seems to perform well against us. Coutinho drifting in field from the flank and Firmino dropping off will really test our midfield’s defensive capability as well.
I can say with some certainty that this will not be a dull affair. This is a fixture that has produced several high-scoring games and dramatic moments. With both teams struggling for form and vulnerable at the back, this could well be another goal fest. In which case, I pray that we win by the odd goal in a seven goal thriller and not end up on the receiving end of another big game thrashing.