Liverpool arrive at The Emirates which by the time kick-off comes, will most likely be the meeting between second and third in the Premier League. It has been a while since a meeting in This Old Town (in no way is this a contrived link to this morning’s playlist) between the pair has been against such a lofty backdrop, Arsenal have kept their place in the top four during difficult times whilst the Merseysiders dropped thanks to flawed policies on and off the pitch. David Brent’s over-performing squad have at least been afforded media recognition whilst their hosts suffer sniping from all quarters, cheerleading coming from a bitter and twisted Scot whose powers to bear a grudge over fallen empires have shown remarkable stamina.
Most of the pre-match attention has focussed on Liverpool’s strikers, Arsène noting in today’s programme notes the almost revelatory decision by Brendan Rodgers to play with two forwards retreating into midfield when needed as opposed to the current obsession with 4-3-3. Arsenal’s initial attempts to stifle supply to Suarez by signing him failed with Wenger apparently noting that “it was not the most subtle thing we have ever done” which is seemingly at odds with his claim that “It was not meant to be provocative at all – it could be interpreted like that, but it was not our purpose“. Whatever the case was, the bid failed and the consternation among supporters appeased.
Not that the players have given up on him joining, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere both making it clear that the Uruguayan would be welcome at the club were he to join next summer. Brent believes that his tough love regime has brought on an improved focus and maturity from his lead striker, the obvious notion that Suarez has decided to put himself in the shop window has escaped his attention. Not that he will care; the fee will rise if he has a good World Cup and scores thirty goals here, especially with Real Madrid the preferred destination for selling club and player. Suarez’s return halted a dip in Liverpool’s form, his six goals coming in four games against opposition whom the club would probably have hand-picked as a warm-up to bring him into his stride.
Liverpool meanwhile are set well to continue to the stifling patterns woven by Dortmund and Chelsea in their recent midweek visits to The Emirates. Arsenal’s biggest opponent in the opening phases have been themselves, an uneasy echo of the 2 – 2 draw where a repeat of the two-goal headstart ceded cannot be repeated. The energy of Flamini in midfield has yet to be injected by anyone else and Arsenal miss that cajoling feistiness, the impetus his performances bring.
It is a state of affairs which will, contradictorily concern and not bother the manager. He will want to see others step up to the plate in that respect, to drive the team on. Demand more, perhaps, from his creative players to force opponents onto the back foot and to nullify their attacking qualities by forcing them to defend. He will be looking to his defensive players to apply themselves more rigorously than recent games where we have looked and been vulnerable to the counter-attack.
But he will know that the squad forged their position in the Premier League on the back of a run which had the same absence; Mathieu Flamini was not at the club until late this summer with Champions League qualification secured without him. A win dug from the depths of inconsistency can provide more inspiration than rolling over opponents every week by four or more goals, arrogance the enemy with the latter. It would be nice to test that theory though…
And in a way, too much importance is being attached to the Frenchman, talismanic qualities being attributed where none ought to exist. Every club needs a go-to player, the one who when the chips are down, the others turn to. Normally that is a striker or a creative talent; Arsenal seem to look to a combative midfielder for inspiration to lift their collective performances. We have drifted into a path of over-reliance before – Henry, Fabregas, van Persie – and there is enough talent in the squad to avoid that but if offers an interesting perspective of the squad mentality; the unassuming players are adopting the leadership roles, experience taking hold. Arteta, Mertesacker, Sagna, Flamini; all driving the rest forwards with their differing approaches from the scruff of the neck to the calm leading by example. Maybe his is the spice that is needed to make the contrasts work, to bring the best out of everyone.
This the match where focus will turn to the combination of Özil and Cazorla, their interaction and prompting. Equally, retaining possession is going to be crucial. A team which thrives in those circumstances needs to balance that with the pace of counter-attack. At times, the passing has been too ponderous when opponents have crowded out the player in possession; Dortmund were experienced in that style of play but Norwich also had success when they took the ascendency either side of half-time, inducing unforced errors.
Much is made of Liverpool’s strength in defence but they have conceded just one fewer than Arsenal whilst scoring three less. The media narrative of their positive start is overtaking the reality. Olivier Giroud takes the focus of comparisons today but Arsenal have a wider repetoire of goalscorers than their strikers with the midfield chipping in regularly, Aaron Ramsey most notably. It is this variety which is the biggest weapon in Arsenal’s armoury and the potency which will ultimately deflate Liverpool’s bubble.
Today’s line-up pretty much picks itself with injuries and the impact of midweek on those returning from injury,
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Wilshere, Ramsey, Arteta; Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
Avoiding defeat has to be the minimum requirement today, a draw will be enough to return to the top of the table provided Chelsea do not go goal-crazy at St James Park this lunchtime. A win would stake a marker for the upcoming fixtures, boosting belief for now and the remainder of the season.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.