Finally, after weeks of waiting, we are ready to kick a ball in anger. Now it matters, no meaningless friendlies, No warmups. No unlimited subs. It all matter and it’s about bloody time.
Let’s be frank – the run up to this season has been intolerable. Whether it the insufferable moaning on social media or the club’s slow prodding way of doing business – this Arsenal pre-season has been one of the worst in recent memory. But it doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is what happens on the pitch for 90 minutes.
For 90 minutes we can leave all the crud behind and just focus on the match. Sure some of the issues we’ve all discussed will become evident but the match the primary area of focus.
And we started off with a cracker.
Admittedly, I never like to play one of the big boys early in the season. The reality is that neither team will be at 100% and these matches are best played when full fitness is achieved and the match has meaning.
While there are some that will moan and whinge should Arsenal lose or even draw – the first match of these season can easily be recovered from. Arsenal have only won 1 of their last 6 season openers. Last season who can forget losing 2-0 to West Ham and the doom and gloom it brought.
I do worry about Liverpool and their lack of European commitments this season. But it’s hard to worry about a match up like this when it happens on day 1 of the season. Well, it’s the match and we might as well have a look at it.
We’re all familiar with the biggest worry we have right now. There is a likelihood when Arsenal take the pitch that the two Center Backs could have almost no Premier League experience between them. With all 3 top choice CBs out (Kos the only one lacking match fitness.) While it looks likely that the club will sign Shkodran Mustafi, it doesn’t help for this match.
That means it’s either a pairing of Chambers and new boy Rob Holding or Chambers and one of the fullbacks – likely Monreal moving inside.
Either move is likely to dictate what Wenger does in the midfield. With such inexperience there I think Wenger will opt for a strong midfield in front of the back line. We’ve put both Elneny and Granit Xhaka as the 6 and 8 respectively. Both offer defensive cover but have a range of passing to effectively get the ball out of the back and find Arsenal’s attackers on the counter.
However, with Liverpool now more likely to employ Klopp’s Gengenpress Wenger could drop one of the two deep lying midfielders for Santi Cazorla. Santi is apt at getting out of a pressing team and his two footedness and guile gets him out of pressure quite effectively.
Liverpool’s press is the worry and Wenger needs cool and quick passers to get the ball out of the back. How he sets up the back 4 and the 2 midfielders in front of them could be the key to success or failure on Sunday.
The Arsenal Attack
Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud will likely play no part in tomorrow’s match even though there are some rumors that the German international could make an appearance the bench. We should all assume that this is unlikely.
Without a new striker in and Giroud not ready for prime time, Wenger is likely to move Alexis into the 9 role with Ramsey in the 10. Out wide on the left it’s definitely going to be Alex Iwobi who continues his meteoric rise to the top. The right side is still questionable.
On Thursday Tim Stillman in his Arseblog column talked how Alexis could get the best out of Walcott especially out wide. Obviously Walcott has his deficiencies, namely his lack of defensive cover and his woefulness last season in front of goal.
However, Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t all that much better. The Ox is the king of the preseason pantomime. He looks like Lionel Messi when the pressure is off but looks more like Lionel from the Sunday league when it matters most. Both come with their problems but given the runs we saw from Theo against Man City, and Liverpool’s new look defensive line, I think we could see Theo get the nod over the Ox. I caveat this by saying Theo could also start the bench as a back up to Alexis as the number 9.
Wenger v Klopp
Wenger v Klopp is an intriguing matchup. Both managers have intense respect and admiration for each other. They seem to believe in the same way of running their club. A lot of recent comments about youth and transfers from Klopp could be attributed to Wenger if you didn’t know better.
But Klopp represents the new era and Wenger an older era. Klopp is as he says “rock and roll” to Wenger’s “classical music.” Arsenal have done well against Klopp lead teams. Essentially going toe to toe with them. The 3-3 thriller last season was vintage between these two teams. With Giroud having one of his best games ever in an Arsenal shirt. Their last match up when Klopp was at Dortmund was a 2-0 win for Arsenal
The style against Liverpool this time may be less smash and grab than it was in January. Without a target player like Giroud up there but Wenger is likely to want to use their speed to keep Liverpool honest. Liverpool for their part will look to take advantage of Arsenal’s weakness at the back and intensely press the 2 centerbacks (duh, right?) Against expansive teams like Arsenal, Klopp’s pressing has done well. Against City last season they completely disrupted City’s passing game and made them look absolutely abject. They were completely on the front foot against us back in January too.
Then Wenger switched things up and began using the long ball to negate the high press. The problem is as I just mentioned no target man – ala Giroud – to look for as an outlet. That means Wenger will have to rely on his players to get out of the jams the press creates. With both teams still trying to gain fitness, it will be important for Arsenal to maintain composure against the press, not play stupid passes and look for the easy outlet (sometimes meaning playing it out rather than looking for the option.)
Like I said it had all the makings of a classic – were this being held in late October or early November or even in the down side of the season. On the first day, expect to see errors as each team still tries to get its season legs under them. If there is to be a winner it will be the team that can keep the early season errors to a minimum.
Frankly we don’t see an energetic affair. Sure, it will likely look that way at the outset. But as we’ve said it’s early in the season and each team is probably about 85% ready for the season. Both teams carry injuries to significant players. It has all the makings of one that wobbles across the finish line then is an intense back and forth.
A Final Word – Per as Captain
We’d be remiss if we didn’t address Wenger selecting Per Mertesacker as this year’s captain. Some will use the fact that he is out until January as proof Wenger doesn’t value the role of Captain any more. I’d kindly like to disagree. Since his arrival at Arsenal, we’ve heard of Mertesacker’s presence in the dressing room and on the pitch. And while he cannot be on the pitch, he is still going to be around the team and his presence off the pitch can be as valuable off it as on it.
The fact is however, he wants all his experienced players to be leaders and while Per is out – it will be up to them to lead the team on the pitch.
Players to Watch:
Arsenal. Alexis Sanchez. He’ll likely lead the line and while he may not score his ability to run at defencee, can open up spaces for other players to exploit.
Liverpool. Sadio Mane. Klopp has been really big on the former Southampton man. He definitely has all the skill to be a terror but he needs to be consistent, which he wasn’t for Soton.
Injuries and Suspensions:
Arsenal: Wilshere (knee), Gabriel (ankle), Jenkinson (knee), Mertesacker (knee), Welbeck (knee)
Liverpool: Leiva (hamstring), Karius (broken hand), Gruji (concussion), Matip (ankle), Sakho (calf), Milner (heel – doubtful), Sturridge (hip – doubtful)
Referee: Michael Oliver
UK: Sky Sports 16.00 GMT
US: NBC Sports Network 11:00AM EST
Arsenal 2 – 2 Liverpool
Match Facts (Courtesy FourFourTwo.com via Opta Sports)
- Arsenal have lost just one of their last nine Premier League meetings with Liverpool (W4 D4 L1).
- Liverpool have only won one of their last 20 away trips to Arsenal in all competitions (W1 D8 L11) and have collected just eight points in 10 Premier League games at the Emirates Stadium.
- The Gunners have lost just two of their last 15 home games on opening day (W10 D3), although those defeats have come in the last three attempts.
- Liverpool v Arsenal has seen more hat-tricks than any other fixture in Premier League history (5).
- Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals than any other team in 2016 so far (41).
- Roberto Firmino has had a hand in 13 goals (nine goals, four assists) in 15 Premier League appearances in 2016 so far, including two goals versus Arsenal in January.
- Olivier Giroud has scored four goals in his last four Premier League meetings with Liverpool.
- Liverpool played the most Premier League games on a Sunday in 2015-16 (18), while Arsenal played the third most (15).
- This will be Arsene Wenger’s 21st season in charge of Arsenal since taking the job in September 1996 – no other current Premier League manager has been in charge of their current club for more than five consecutive seasons.
- Games between these sides have seen 16 goals in the 90th minute or later, more than any other Premier League fixture (Liverpool 9, Arsenal 7)