THERE has been an adage since 2014 that Arsenal represent gift opponents for Liverpool.
It is true that the 5-1 dismantling of Arsene Wenger’s team in that year was so comprehensive that the after-shock of that event can still be felt. On the day it felt epoch defining and if Arsenal Football Club’s slow descent from its lofty early 21st century perch is to continue, history may mark that fateful game at Anfield as the mighty blow that broke the camel’s back.
As recently as March this year, Arsenal again took a proper hiding at Anfield. The manner of victory looked familiar — a rampant Liverpool all but putting the visitors to sleep within 45 minutes — but its inevitability even prior to kick-off should have troubled Arsenal the most.
Such was the confidence amongst Liverpool fans and even across the neutral media that Liverpool would win last season’s encounter that it seemed fate had been overly-tempted. Surely Wenger would be pinning all manner of scripts on to Arsenal changing room walls to goad his supine team into some sort of reaction? ‘They’re laughing at you, boys! They say you’re there for the taking. You’re going to show them, right? Right?!”
And it came to pass that once again, Arsene’s boys laid down like puppies. They did not react. They did not fight. But neither in truth did their leader. Wenger chose to ignore history and the strengths of modern Liverpool and the recent available evidence of Liverpool’s dispatching of Tottenham and played the highest of defensive lines. Modern Liverpool have quick players. Fleet of foot but quick in the mind, too, as manager Klopp recently noted.
Arsenal are back at Anfield on Sunday to face Liverpool. This Liverpool are now even faster. This Liverpool will run at you and run at you. Not now just utilising the speed of thought of their Brazilians and the dash of Sadio Mane. Now there is Mohammed Salah, a cheetah on the right wing, to contemplate, now there is a twin threat from full-back positions.
Albie Moreno and kid genius Trent AA may not provide Liverpool with the defensive surety of a James Milner or a Nathaniel Clyne, but they know how to turn the opposition round with their exuberance and God-given speed .
Surely Wenger and his assistants will have taken note of Liverpool’s destruction of Hoffenheim on Wednesday night. If the Arsenal manager was in the stands that evening with a pen and paper, he would have scribbled that Liverpool did to the Germans exactly what they have routinely been doing to Arsenal. It looks even more frightening from higher up doesn’t it, Arsene? From higher up you can see the patterns Klopp’s Liverpool weave. From the back rows a child would be able to appreciate Liverpool’s mastery of a team set up to permit raw pace and brilliant movement to seize the day.
Where football and the Reds are concerned I am always of a nervous disposition. I have never been confident of a Liverpool victory. Regardless of the opposition and ignoring the status of the club at any given point in history, I have never been one to take a win for granted. You won’t hear, “We’ll absolutely batter these today” round our house. I’ll truck no casual fate tempting. Fuck that.
So despite the body of evidence before us I cannot feel ready to assume that we will take Sunday’s points. Liverpool are getting better, and can hopefully get better still when injuries clear up and when treacherous little shits finally come to heal. Heck there’s even still time for the club to sign more decent footballers. Crazier things have happened. My fear — and I know not whether it is rational or not — is that Arsenal will be fresher than Liverpool and that they will have more motivations than they will ever need.
Arsenal owe us several. That’s a given. They should also be better equipped to fight across the span of 90 minutes than a Liverpool team that will be playing its fifth match in 15 days (Arsenal having just three fixtures in the same period). Arsenal will welcome back their talisman Alexis Sanchez. He is well rested, but hopefully not match-sharp.
Jurgen Klopp will again put the blinkers on in selecting his 11, and cross his fingers. He will simply pick his first-choice players or at least the ones that have served him most productively over the course of the past month. Some of the current side have had rests in the last fortnight. Lovren, Moreno, Trent, Can, Milner and Salah need not be leg weary. The freshness concerns will be around Joel Matip and Jordan Henderson, who have proven prone to an injury in recent times, and to Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino — the team’s two main stars at the moment .
Expect no rotation from Klopp then, and no quarter given. This Liverpool are bit mad. They know only one way — forwards, ever forwards, and always on the front foot. Good, that’s how we like it. Arsenal, if you could just stick to the script that would be peachy. Onwards, Reds.
Match details: Kick off Sunday, 4pm. Live on Sky Sports.
Predicted team: Mignolet; Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Can; Mane, Salah, Firmino.
Odds: Liverpool 23-20, Arsenal 5-2, Draw 27-10.
Last meeting: Liverpool 3 Arsenal 1, March 4, 2017.