Football returns, events on the pitch taking over from the mania which engulfs the game in the final week of the transfer windows. Next years holiday is already planned to avoid the madness again; it’s quite therapeutic. Arsenal travel to Anfield seeking their first win and goals of the season as a run of tough fixtures commences. History resonates through this fixture with those of a certain age and beyond recalling the importance of a trip to this side of Stanley Park. The hosts’ diminished circumstances have not subdued that feeling, evidenced by Carl Jenkinson‘s enthusiasm for the clash.
This lunchtime’s fixture is the start of the future; the Arsenal squad is what it is until the intervention of the Winter transfer window or a substantial bid by any Russian, Finnish or French clubs for any players. There would be some surprise if anyone was allowed to leave which will no doubt disappoint the numerous lumberjacks amongst Arsenal supporters.
It is also the first encounter with a team who will not consider a goalless draw to be a good result. Liverpool’s start to the season has been mixed; trounced at The Hawthorns, they were unlucky not to take all three points from Manchester City yet woeful against Hearts in the Europa League. With Brendan Rodgers passion for the passing game underlined by the dispatching of Andy Carroll to Upton Park, Liverpool are in transition with the dour pragmatism of Kenny Dalglish’s reign being gradually transited out of their game. Equally Arsenal are adjusting to a new life with the new arrivals from the summer bedding in.
The two defences have been interesting contrasts with Liverpool finding themselves breached too frequently by opponents willing to outpass them and put them on the back foot. That is a pressure which Arsenal have the pace to exploit and it would no surprise to see Arsenal revert to playing Podolski in the central role for this fixture rather than the double-pronged attack he formed with Giroud last weekend. Shifting that tactic allows Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to occupy the right hand side of the attack, putting Sahin and Jose Enrique onto the back foot. Allied to Cazorla centrally and Gervinho on the left, there is an interesting mix of pace and individuality.
All of which pre-supposes that Arsène is not toying with the idea of replacing the Ivorian with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and putting Walcott on the right. A lot of that depends on whether the manager feels Walcott is distracted by the contractual negotiations. Equally, if he has the view Walcott is not likely to sign, does he plan for his departure in January and make the winger an impact substitute? It is the quintessential football dilemma – the long-term good of the club versus short-term gain? Three points overrides any such thinking, surely?
The key question for Wenger is defence. Laurent Koscielny is fit to return and I believe this is a change which will be made to compensate for the mobility of Suarez and other Liverpool attackers. Had Carroll been in favour, Mertesacker would probably have remained in the team but this is not the case and the Frenchman’s form last season was nothing short of exceptional. It gives Koscielny the chance to bury the ghosts of his two previous visits; a harsh dismissal and an own goal in successive matches is about as calamitous as it gets – perhaps a hat-trick this afternoon to compensate?
However, does the manager break up a partnership that has kept successive clean sheets? It is harsh but neither Stoke or Sunderland offered much attacking threat on the ground. A lot depends on the fitness of Wojicech Szczesny. If the Pole has recovered, I can see the change to the central pairing being made. If not, I believe the manager will want to maintain as much consistency in front of Vito Mannone as possible to give the inexperienced Italian confidence in the understandings built in the two previous encounters.
I would expect the line-up to be as follows:
Mannone (Szczesny); Jenkinson, Mertesacker (Koscielny), Vermaelen, Gibbs; Diaby, Arteta, Cazorla; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud, Podolski
It has been four years since the last defeat at Anfield and maintaining that record is an important aim for this season in the longer term. It breeds more confidence, particularly a clean sheet, and from these small steps, momentum can be built.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.