Liverpool arrive at the Emirates tonight for the first of the festive fixtures. In twelve days time, it ends with the visit of Chelsea; the new year begins with a bang.
We’re not dissimilar to this evening’s visitors. Except for goals. Liverpool are scoring lots of them away from home, at least three in every away match in all competitions since Tottenham gave them a hiding at Wembley. A team with that reputation? Against our leaky defence? It has all the makings of carnage.
It will be a surprise if it is. The leaky defence only conceded goals in one home match in the last six; no matter what you think, that’s a decent record but like Liverpool’s, it’s down to the standard of opposition. I’d expect us to keep a clean sheet against teams we’ve faced, just like winning 13 of the last 14 at home in the Premier League. You can only beat the opposition placed in front of you.
I expected Liverpool to win comfortably against the teams they have faced. And just like us, the one half-decent side they faced put three past them. Tonight’s question is whose forward line can score more than their leaky defence concedes.
The answer isn’t so clear-cut. When the back four first re-appeared, it was under the guise of ‘needs must’. Against United, we were two-down already and needed to chase the game. One goal followed so the back four stayed. And stayed. Now, three clean sheets later, it will be a surprise if we revert to a back three. But not entirely.
Shkodran Mustafi, the catalyst for change, is fit again and I suspect, plays tonight. Would you feel more secure with Ainsley Maitland-Niles facing Mo Salah in a three or five? I’m going with the former.
Arsène put the cat among those pigeons with the news Sead Kolasinac is fit for tonight. Tuesday, it seems, was a pre-match runout. And because it wasn’t taxing, probably not any more intense than a training session for him. The Bosnian would be my choice for left wing-back in a five, and left-back in a four at this moment in time.
I’d prefer to see Maitland-Niles develop in the centre of midfield where we have obvious problems. We know he can handle first-team football; he’s proven that. Now it’s time to find out if he is ready for the battle in the centre of the pitch and the festive period offers the chance of to see that.
Kolasinac offers another problem. We know about Salah’s devastating pace but that means we get the chance to raid their defence on the left as well. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s defensive strength is his pace; his weakness is inconsistency and Kolasinac has the strength to make him cower. Ox will no doubt have a stormer tonight and beg the question why we never got that out of him on a consistent basis…
Maybe it will be a four, with Monreal as left-back. I think most of us would think that’s the defensively stronger full-back of the three. That depends on how Laurent Koscielny’s Achilles is holding up, of course. If we’re not sure how Arsenal will line-up, is Jurgen Klopp any more certain? Does he view a shift in tactics as a sign of weakness on our part, having faced us down the years with no change whatsoever from Wenger?
There are some certainties. Jack and Xhaka in the middle; Özil, Lacazette and Alexis up front and I think, supported by Welbeck to force Liverpool onto the back foot if we have a flat back four.
You Know Which Spanish Goalkeeper He Reminds Me Of?
For all that, I do think Mustafi’s return means a back three. No matter how little or much trust that he has in the German, it’s holding himself as a hostage to fortune to keep a back four. All young players face a testing moment in their careers, the game where we find out just how good they are but I’d rather find that out about Maitland-Niles in his ‘natural’ position rather than solving a problem for the manager at full-back.
The line-up tonight I think is:
Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Wilshere, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Sanchez, Lacazette, Özil
The four-goal drubbing at Anfield bears no relevance on tonight’s game beyond offering a motivation for us. Liverpool have scored 14 in the last four meetings between the two sides, we’ve got half that. It’s time to turn the tables and if there is to be a top-four finish from Arsenal, we’ve got to win. Failure to do so will signal our time as a regular habitué of the Europa League for the remainder of Wenger’s tenure.
For the record, I think that’s our level but also that we’ll win tonight. There’s a confidence in Liverpool’s game which Sevilla exposed as brittle; we can do the same. It depends on which Arsenal turns up tonight because we could quite easily go the way of Stoke, Brighton and Bournemouth if we’re as flaky as we were in the opening twenty minutes against United. At least Mignolet is more Almunia than De Gea; we’ve always got a chance…
Enjoy the game wherever you are watching it.