Arsenal return to action after a 12 day break since their last outing. In fact, it’s been a full three weeks without a league match, that one being a 2-nil win over Hull City. Of course, before that, Arsenal had lost at Chelsea (3-1), and, even more distressingly, at home to Watford (1-2), effectively ending any dreams about a league title this season. After the win vs Hull it’s been all about cup competitions. The devastating result at Bayern Munich (a 5-1 drubbing in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16) was hardly mitigated by an only somewhat convincing 2-nil win at non-league Sutton United to advance to the quarter-finals of the FA cup. Now, as the break concludes, we have to wonder if Arsenal will be able to regroup for the final three months of the season. A trip to Anfield, as it always is, will surely be a stern test.
That it comes against a similarly beleaguered Liverpool squad only raises the stakes. Jurgen Klopp’s team–who began the season with a 4-3 win over Arsenal at the Emirates–looked very strong in the first half of the campaign. Free from any European obligations, there was even talk of a title run. Since the turn of the calendar year, however, it’s been a downhill slide. The misery of home league losses to Swansea and Southampton has been compounded by more recent away capitulations at Hull and Leicester. This is on top of being put out of both domestic cups by way of a two-legged semi-final loss to Southampton in the League cup and and losing at home to Wolverhampton in the FA Cup. On the brighter side, Pool have had better results against the bigger clubs, including draws at Manchester United and at home with Chelsea; a 2-nil win vs Spurs three weeks ago has been by far their best result in the new year.
As such, Klopp, while not under the extreme pressure faced by our own Arsene Wenger, must motivate his troops to try and get up for a top 4 finish in the one competition in which they remain. For Arsenal, even if it’s the “same old, same old” routine of trying for a similar finish, finding motivation will be even tougher. There’s no famous Anfield atmosphere to provide comfort for Wenger’s men and then there’s the looming prospect of a home leg vs Bayern on Tuesday night. Needing a 4-nil scoreline to go through, it’s virtually a dead-rubber and sure to feature a hostile environment with plenty of “Wenger Out” sentiment on display. If Liverpool can beat Arsenal tomorrow they will jump ahead of us on points, although we do have a game in hand.
Such a result would only compound Arsenal’s current misery. In a statement that is sure to anger those who only want to see his backside, Wenger has said that he will decide about a new contract sometime in March or April while also suggesting he’s not particularly interested in other jobs, including the impending vacancy at Barcelona. Center forward Olivier Giroud claims that the squad is 100% behind the manager, but will that be enough? Surely a good result at Liverpool is an essential first step for the manager and his team in this extremely difficult moment.
How then does Wenger set up to combat the Anfield atmosphere and a wounded Liverpool team that will see this one as an opportunity not only to gain points in the top 4 race, but also to right their own listing ship?
It’s very difficult to say given the two weeks since the most recent game and the fact that the first team struggled so badly in Munich in the one before. Wenger probably has been watching his players closely in training and assessing who might be ready and who might not. Team news suggests that Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny are in full training after injuries. The only first team regular definitely out (if you don’t count Santi Cazorla who appears likely to miss the entire remainder of the season) is Mohamed Elneny who was hurt at Sutton. Mesut Ozil, supposedly nursing a virus, should be available, but could also be spared for this one (and the Bayern return leg) after being the focus of so much extreme consternation from the loudest and most critical Gooners. Wenger also reported that Danny Welbeck could be in line for a start even if he was left out of the squad at Sutton with concerns about the plastic pitch and his ongoing recovery from a long term knee injury.
The success of the lesser teams against Liverpool suggests that a strong strategy is to take away their defensive pressing from the front by giving them more of the ball and trying to play on the break, a style I believe Arsenal have been cultivating since losing Cazorla. Playing in that manner could lead to a very open game and might call for pace up front with starts for the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and, perhaps, Welbeck or Lucas Perez instead of Giroud. It might also suggest that Francis Coquelin returns to his deep lying midfield role despite his difficulties in Munich. Who might pair with him in the double pivot? Granit Xhaka seems the likely choice though the extra running of Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might be better suited for quick counters. Further back, Petr Cech comes in for “cup-keeper” David Ospina while at least most of the back four probably picks itself. Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi and Koscielny will likely start, but who plays at left back? Kieran Gibbs was given the call at Bayern but Nacho Monreal might be poised for a return to the first 11. Facing Klopp’s very pacy group of Liverpool attackers–he can choose from Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Phillipe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum, among others–the Arsenal rearguard will need to be on full alert, especially if trying to play mostly on the break. At least Daniel Sturridge is suffering from (yet another) injury.
Here’s my best guess at the first 11:
Substitutes: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lucas, Giroud
Who do you think Wenger will pick, and, for those of you who believe you know better than the manager, who would you choose?
No matter who starts, Wenger has made note that the team can ill afford a slow start or a hangover from the long period with no matches. The Anfield atmosphere and Liverpool’s own struggles will surely make for a very well-motivated opponent. Can Arsenal match their intensity and do we have the quality to prevail? It’s a crucial match for both sides and both will desperate for a good result. Perhaps the famous words from another Anfield clash almost 28 years ago sums it up best: “It’s up for grabs now…”
Go on then…