Returning to the scene of the crime; a familiar feeling for the denizens of Murkeyside. Or at least that is what tonight would be were it not for Liverpool’s humiliating capitulation at The Britannia Stadium on the closing day of last season. The Premier League fixtures offered up the swift opportunity for cathartic revenge, exacted on Stoke City on the opening day of this campaign, if not by as emphatic a margin. Having seen Arsenal splutter against West Ham, I suspect that Brendan Rodgers bravado is more genuine than footballing bluster.
Arsène has enjoyed the summer’s discomfort felt at Anfield. Raheem Sterling didn’t do anything wrong, ventured Wenger, before exposing his motivation, “They refused to sell us Suarez so I cannot feel too much sympathy for them.” Sheer nonsense, to my mind. Arsenal utterly mishandled the situation with the derisory +£1 bid, a sharp reminder in window where the club still have issues to address.
And events on the Iberian Peninsula make it seem that Madrid is unlikely to be the source of this summer’s solution in the search for a striker, Real’s toothless display in Gijon underlines the value of Benzema to their squad no matter how centrally Gareth Bale wants to play.
But that has little to do with tonight’s Premier League fixture. Three points up for grabs and neither side can afford to drop any for differing reasons. Arsenal are under pressure, losing the first home game of a season always raises tensions for the second. Liverpool meanwhile are looking to build some momentum which may well carry them further than the squad Rodgers has assembled; it remains distinctly average overall despite the sums invested in Firmino and Benteke. They aren’t the problem; the rest are.
We ‘know’ Liverpool’s approach, Rodgers told us that they will seek to ‘control space’. Arsène put it into simpler terms,
Against teams who came only to defend, we didn’t find the goal. But it happens to all the other teams as well. Normally you would think over 19 games you can sometimes be unlucky once or twice. Most of the time if you really dominate the games you will win.
Tonight will hopefully be one of the ‘most of the times’. Certainly the spark of the opening thirty minutes or so at Selhurst Park would ensure that it is consigned to that; it was as positive a response as we could have asked for, marred only by the manner of Palace’s equaliser. It will be, you suspect, a cold day in Hell before Laurent Koscielny turns his back on an opponent as he shoots. Or not until he is wearing the blue of his country, whichever is soonest, but certainly not in an Arsenal shirt.
If Rodgers was open about his plans, so was Arsène: pace. Which begs the question of whom he will use to exploit this asset which his squad has in abundance. Certainly the pairing of Coquelin and Cazorla in the middle of the pitch paid dividends in South London last weekend and it seems unlikely that will be disrupted tonight unless there is an undisclosed injury to either. That leaves the question of who occupies the right flank, a decision informed by whom Arsène chooses to lead the line.
When Arsenal need pace, they have options. As Aaron Ramsey goes foraging between the lines, Hector Bellerin’s sense of adventure provides the width and it worked to good effect in the corresponding fixture in April. Very good as he broke the deadlock, sparking a furious avalanche of goals which ended the contest in a ten-minute spell. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is a popular mantra and rightly so. There’s a very real danger of switching things around just to maintain an element of surprise but if it is unpractised or unfamiliar, the risk of the strategy undermining the result exists.
The question for Arsène is whether putting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right outweighs the advantage of the roaming Ramsey, even if the latter adds another body to what will undoubtedly be a packed central area? I think it does but only if Giroud leads the line. If he goes with Theo Walcott, the need for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace diminishes and indeed Ramsey’s desire to be in among the goals, with runs into the penalty area means that the advantages of his inclusion far outweigh Ox on the right.
You know there’s a but coming; Chelsea. The bus was parked and the Ox/Walcott axis paid dividends. Wenger could opt to put Cazorla on the right if he wants Ramsey’s ‘fight’ in midfield but the Spaniard seems miserable on the flanks and unable to influence play as well, flourishes with sharp passing and quick sprints from the central positions. If you put him on the wing, the smile dims; if you inflicted that suffering on a puppy, the RSPCA would prosecute.
With Liverpool not expected to be much different tonight in terms of approach to Chelsea, the pace wins over in my mind and the line-up I would pick (Arsène will choose) is:
Cech; Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Cazorla; Oxlade-Chamberlain (Ramsey), Özil, Sanchez; Walcott (Giroud)
Whatever XI takes the field, Arsenal need three points. Chelsea’s first win of the season may be the stirrings of a run being put together and the two point advantage accrued over them needs to be maintained, as well as the obvious requirement of not letting Manchester City get any further ahead. A win tonight sees Arsenal swap places with Liverpool, currently in fifth and makes a the gap to the top – what would be three points – seem less arduous to overhaul than the five or six points which will exist with failure.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.