Liverpool will provide the biggest test of ‘new Arsenal’ – a team built to be braver
There is an image from their match in December 2018, a fraction of a second snapshotted from a whirlwind 90 minutes, that encapsulated Liverpool and Arsenal perfectly. Roberto Firmino has the ball, but not at his feet. It is just to the side of his body, in the perfect place for him to wrap his left boot around it to apply both power and accuracy. Firmino’s arms are outstretched for balance, but he barely needs it. One of Anfield’s penalty boxes belongs to him.
In the same shot, three Arsenal players are visible – “players” is used very much as the description of the profession rather than their status in the moment. Lying on the floor are Sokratis and Lucas Torreira, watching the ball but helpless. Just outside the penalty area, Shkodran Mustafi is bent on one knee. All seem photoshopped into place for comedic effect to give them a perfect view of Firmino’s goal but the powerlessness to stop it. Their club is a punchline. Arsenal went to Anfield on top of the Premier League, keen to protect their bubble of self-confidence. They lost 5-1.
In only three of the last 13 seasons have Liverpool and Arsenal finished within 10 points of each other. When one is rising, the other toils in the dirt. That run started in 2008-09 with Liverpool’s title bid under Rafael Benitez. Then Arsenal got the upper hand as Liverpool fell away under Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson. Liverpool surged again under Brendan Rodgers, but Arsenal surpassed them when Rodgers too lost his way. Now a longer-term dominance during Jurgen Klopp’s mini-dynasty.
The league fixtures between the two clubs have become a passable bellwether. Since the start of 2015, Liverpool have played Arsenal 12 times and lost only once. During the eight years before then, they met 17 times and Liverpool only won twice. That fits the general storyline of Arsenal’s decline due to enforced austerity and then mismanaged wastage and Liverpool’s redemption under Klopp and Michael Edwards.
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The temptation is simply to frame Arsenal as one of the best of the rest – since losing 2-0 to Chelsea and 5-0 to Manchester City they are unbeaten and have taken more points than any other team but they have also not played a team currently in the top six on that run. That itself would be an improvement (Arsenal lost all six league games against Everton, Aston Villa and Wolves last season), but it suggests that, again, their bubble may burst at Anfield.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Perhaps Arsenal really have changed because, well, Arsenal have changed. Their seven most defensive players in the Manchester City defeat were Bernd Leno, Rob Holding, Sead Kolasinac, Calum Chambers, Kieran Tierney, Cedric Soares and Granit Xhaka. None of those started Arsenal’s last league game and most supporters would probably only want one of them (Tierney) to at Anfield. They have been replaced by new faces and fresh blood. Mikel Arteta has picked the nine youngest starting XIs in the Premier League this season and it has been their elixir.
At their best under Klopp and Rodgers, Liverpool were/are a team that tries to blow teams away in the opening 30 minutes with front-foot, pressing, rampant football; a Catherine wheel of energetic running that dizzies an opponent. The best examples of that came against Arsenal: 4-0 up in 20 minutes in 2014, the aforementioned early 3-1 lead in 2018. In that latter match, Arsenal were left helpless. Aubameyang touched the ball 13 times in 71 minutes and six of those were kick-offs.
But that is exactly what Arteta is trying to replicate at Arsenal, a team that sets the tone for its own performances. Their best wins this season – Leicester away and Tottenham at home – have involved those Liverpool principles of pressing hard and passing quickly through the lines. Arsenal were 2-0 up at Leicester inside 18 minutes and 3-0 up in the north London derby after 34 minutes.
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Now Arteta’s team faces another test of their resolve. Losing at Anfield, even heavily, should not cause their world to collapse in on itself as in recent years. Arteta believes gainfully in something bigger, a club now snapshotted in wider focus on its route to somewhere better. But winning on Saturday, even taking a point, would provide a mandate for that vision.
The only way Arsenal can do that is through courage – sit back and Liverpool’s front three will surely prove too much. But then bravery is exactly what Arteta has been so delighted to see over the last two months. It’s time to exorcise some Anfield demons. It’s time for the youngest team in the Premier League to prove that they can cope where their predecessors failed so miserably, lying flat on the ground as their fate unfolded.
Arsenal have a new, fresh team, but there are psychological wounds that this club suffered at Anfield and must be healed