Liverpool away. 1971, 1987, 1989, 1991; 1950 if you’re older. For Arsenal supporters this is a fixture which resonates through the ages. I suspect that it’s older supporters who feel the edge more; Liverpool’s dominance from the mid-70s to late-80s made Manchester United’s rule over the Premier League pale into insignificance.
Ending the Merseyside dominance of football in 1989 was the first ‘power shift’; like every one since, it’s been a false dawn but Graham’s Arsenal demolished the foundations of their success and in typically Arsenal fashion, failed to build on it. Maybe that’s the Arsenal Way; we do the leg work and someone else nips in for the glory.
The careers of Jürgen Klopp and Arsène Wenger are entwined no matter the clubs they manage. The German’s heavy metal football against Arsenal’s orchestral manoeuvres; both are distinctly off-key in recent times.
“Embattled”, “Beleaguered”, or even both; the football hipster’s poster boy and the purists icon are both under pressure. Liverpool’s season collapsed in a week. Three home games, three defeats; Swansea, Southampton and Wolves all walked away with single goal victories that dumped the Merseysiders out of the title race, EFL Cup and FA Cup. It hasn’t improved much since then with the win over Tottenham and draw against Chelsea the only bright spots.
That’s Liverpool’s one strength this season. Their record of five wins, four draws and no defeats against the top six this season ought to put them neck-and-neck with Chelsea but like Arsenal, dropped points at unexpected times undermined the title challenge. One defeat at home this season and in their last eighteen Premier League matches at Anfield; if you’re a top six club and it’s a home game, Liverpool are in fine fettle. If your big free bet is on a home win, you can do worse.
50 – A Certain Symmetry
It’s Wenger’s fiftieth match against Liverpool and he has a decent record, That’s a risky phrase as Gary Neville will tell you but Arsène’s biggest problem is not knowing how his players will react to this fixture. Emotions run high when you mention big matches away from home. We don’t do well but Anfield is something of an exception, to the extent that the 1 – 5 drubbing three years ago is an anomaly rather than the norm. It’s our only defeat in a decade with late goals salvaging the home side a point in the two subsequent visits.
The question is whether we can repeat those performances, combining the goals with a tighter defence. 2017 hasn’t been kind to Arsenal but it’s far worse for Liverpool and we must capitalise on that. It’s time for Arsène to be brave. He’s demanded the same from his players this week, that they show character and are on the ball from kick-off. His team selection governs how they react. News of Mesut Özil’s illness presents that opportunity, even if its been greeted with suspicion.
Against a ponderous defence, lacking pace and with error-prone goalkeepers, we need to be aggressive and dynamic in attack, with pace on the flanks and a goal threat. Özil is not that player and leaving him at home or on the bench at best. A £42m sub? It’s a game which demands the players be ready to work as hard defensively as in attack and the German isn’t in the side for that; he’s the precocious talent who unlocks defences in chess matches. This won’t be; Liverpool will press and look to compress the game in Arsenal’s half. Bring it on if you have Welbeck and Walcott on the wings with Sanchez down the middle.
Be Brave, Arsène
It’s a courageous decision, especially for a player locked in contract negotiations with the club. But it has to be done. Özil is easily marginalised is big matches away from the Emirates when we see less of the ball. That has to be the way we approach the game because it is how we get results. Hard work, channelled aggression rather than ill-discipline; these are the characteristics we need to find in the big matches. These are the characteristics we lack all too often.
That personnel change shifts the dynamic of the team, moving a 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-2-1 or straight 4-3-3. Certainly Welbeck is more instinctive when Alexis drops deep or chases the ball, and will filter into the centre. And Xhaka with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin the anchor, offers a different attacking problem for Liverpool to deal with. Ox has been a revelation in the centre and can’t be dropped on form. Names though, weigh more, even if they contain just four letters.
My line-up for today,
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscienly, Gibbs; Xhaka, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Walcott, Sanchez, Welbeck
This is a vital match for us. While defeat won’t end top four hopes, far from it but the cumulative effect can be damaging. I expect Bayern in midweek to be ruthless but the tie is over. Even winning doesn’t salvage any pride; we were stripped of all dignity in Munich.
Back in Time
The Premier League is far more important to the club, while leaving us in the top four must be Wenger’s objective for the end of the season. Symmetry’s a theme. He arrived just as we scraped into the UEFA Cup, defeat today could leave us in the final Europa League spot. Defeat tonight could leave us in sixth and even though the points gap to the top four is far from overwhelming, psychologically for these players, you sense it would be.
Fear is a powerful motivator and there’s a sense that the players aren’t good at responding to pressure in big games. It’s a time to prove themselves, to build a platform for the remainder of the season.
Finally, Dad’s Jukebox reaches 1994 later today. The perfect soundtrack for your big match build-up goes live shortly.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.