It was a template that Christian Gross should have followed. No fuss, no need to show his ticket to the press, just the inspector and get on with the job. What was on Arsène’s Walkman that day? Not for him the soulful brashness of Beyond The Pail, of that there is no doubt; an altogether more cerebral affair than the one on the right hand sidebar of this post as well. Although I think he might have a secret hankering after John Cooper Clarke’s Mancunian intonations. And yes, Tube Station was a late addition; not that I needed any particular reason to do so but it worked for me and never let it be said there isn’t some adaptability to the news in the blog. No, it can be as manufactured as anyone.
So to Anfield. The lunchtime kick-off evokes memory of Robert Pires‘ (link 1 on his first name, 2 surname, 3 here) finger-wagging celebration; a similar moment of Arsenal genius would be most welcome today.
The talent is certainly there to conjure such moments, Cazorla and Podolski both showed that in last season’s win in the corresponding fixture. Both sides are much improved since then, Liverpool sit fourth, Arsenal top. Few would have given any money on the latter and the players are revelling in showing their severest critics wrong. With the run of fixtures coming, it is important to remember that by the end of March, Arsenal will have played what might reasonably be termed the ‘big’ matches; City and Chelsea will both still have to go to Anfield. At that point, being in contention, within a two-point gap of the leaders if not top, still leaves a title challenge in place.
It is asking a lot the players, depending a lot on niggles and knocks being managed through until the current walking wounded have recovered. Sometimes that certainty of playing breeds confident performances, the sort which have seen Arsenal unbeaten at Liverpool for six years. Surrender in 2007 was abject, even Peter Crouch was made to look a world-class striker as the defence went AWOL. No such fears today with the combination of Mertesacker and Koscielny looking to continue their astonishing record of thirty-odd games without defeat when they have played all 90 minutes together. Arsenal are looking to win their third consecutive win at Anfield for the first time in forty years, Alan Ball’s brace sealing a 3-1 victory in 1974. A quick search didn’t reveal that game from the highlights on YouTube so this from 1975 at Highbury will have to do.
Mertesacker‘s observations on the psychology of the England and Germany resonate in this match. Today’s programme notes from Brendan Rodgers gloss over that record, trying to push it out of minds; it doesn’t work when the graphic shortly afterwards shows clearly the home sides failures in the past four attempts at the fixture. Would they have limited it to four if Liverpool had won them? I doubt it, why should they? Anything which gets players thinking about such records helps doubts surface in adversity, even in a small way. It is up to Arsenal to reinforce them with their own performance.
That graphic highlights the differences between the two clubs this season. Both are scoring a goal every six shots (roughly); Liverpool having more shots, have found the net more frequently but defensively, Arsenal are miserly. As a rough measure, it encapsulates the efficiency of Arsenal this season. It is rare for a lead to be dropped, perhaps that is why the performance and result at Southampton a few weeks ago, bit so deeply; it was so unusual that you sat up and took notice of the combination. The squad has learned to win ugly but also to avoid defeat when not playing well. That obduracy serves title contenders well and it is something they will need to draw upon in coming weeks.
The decision for the manager is whether to stick or twist the XI which beat Crystal Palace. It was, he freely admits, a subdued performance but that is not so much of an issue when you win. Today, there needs to be an energy, a drive from midfield of the sort provided by Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere. It is dangerous to take the manager’s comments at face value but the latter’s inclusion seems unlikely from kick-off. The former though is having come on as substitute for Lukas Podolski. I think Rosicky’s zip in midfield is going to be crucial; let’s hope it works better than the one on the manager’s coat.
Whilst Podolski offers more of a goal threat, he has given the impression of coasting at times since returning from injury. No faulting his application against Coventry but I felt he was missing on Sunday. There but not fired up; he wasn’t alone in that of course and Arsenal won so did it matter. Efficiency. Today it will. Whilst we can look at the lapse of concentration from Kolo Toure last week and point to the weakness, it would be folly to ignore the strikers. Arsenal need the whole of XI on the pitch to be focussed and applying themselves, back to front will need a continuation of the defensive work that has served them well.
The other question for me is left back. Nacho Monreal recovered from St Mary’s and on Sunday got forward well early in the game but I wonder if Wenger will consider Kieran Gibbs pace more of an attribute today in counter-attack. We know that whichever does not start will slot into the left midfield as a late substitute if Arsenal are winning but whilst the Spaniard has seemed to nail the position down, I suspect the manager will prefer Gibbs today.
It leaves the line-up,
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Cazorla, Özil; Giroud
A good result today will do wonders for the PR side. It will help maintain the players confidence as well and that is no bad thing with games ahead. Crucially, a bad result does not signal a collapse or anything else. I think the performance will tell us more in those circumstances. Recent seasons have seen Arsenal sides freeze in the headlights in the big games, something repeated in Manchester this time around. Those poor performances ought to inspire, serve as a motivation on top of those reasons already in place. A win today would be a way of silencing some of the doubts and you sense that is something the players want to do. So go out and do it.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.