Arsenal take on a Liverpool side feeling the benefit of a full pre-season with Jurgen Klopp in their opening 2016/17 Premier League fixture. Thore Haugstad explains how the Gunners are shaping up…
For weeks, if not months, anxious Gooners have called on Arsene Wenger and the boardroom to spend some of their considerable cash reserves. Many want an upgrade on Olivier Giroud up front, as well as a reaction to the injury crisis in defence. Yet for now, little else except rumours have materialised. That means Arsenal enter the Premier League opening weekend with their fourth and fifth choices at centre-back. This is a weakness Sunday’s visitors, Liverpool, look well-suited to exploit.
The good news for Wenger is that Arsenal should be okay elsewhere, despite further absences. They will miss Giroud and Mesut Ozil, who have recently resumed training having been granted extended time off following the Euros. (The need for proper rest is acknowledged by Wenger, who will remember how Ozil struggled in the 2014/15 season, only to later admit that he had returned from the 2014 World Cup exhausted.)
That means Theo Walcott or Alexis Sánchez will play up front, and the lively Chilean would surely worry Liverpool if picked. Options on the flanks include Walcott, Alex Iwobi, Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. In central midfield, where a knee injury makes Jack Wilshere a doubt, Wenger has Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey and new signing Granit Xhaka to call upon. No major shortcomings there, either.
The defence is another matter. Hector Bellerin will start, but Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista are out injured, while Laurent Koscielny has just returned to training and has, alongside Ozil and Giroud, been ruled out by Wenger. That means the three best centre-backs are all missing.
“This is very frustrating, but it’s a part of the game as well,” Wenger says. “Sometimes you find a solution that you wouldn’t find if you had no injuries. We are short on the experience front and this, centre-back, is a position where experience plays an important part. Of course we will look to add, we are working on it, but until Sunday I have to find an internal solution and an efficient solution.”
Jurgen Klopp will, despite some absences, field a decent back line and can also count on a midfield boosted by signings Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum
Wenger’s options are Mathieu Debuchy, Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal and Rob Holding, none of whom seem particularly convincing. The most likely duo seems to be Chambers and Holding. Chambers, 21, started two league games last season, while Rob Holding, 20, was recently signed from Bolton for £2 million. Wenger could also move Monreal into a central position, which would require Kieran Gibbs or Debuchy to step in at left-back.
It is no help that Liverpool arrive in a better state. Jurgen Klopp will, despite some absences, field a decent back line and can also count on a midfield boosted by signings Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum. Daniel Sturridge is a doubt, but Divock Origi offers comparable qualities. The pressing machine will fire on all cylinders.
The bad news for Arsenal is that Klopp’s pressing game has so often been effective against expansive, possession-based sides. They stress defenders, force errors and launch lethal transitions; only Tottenham have an equally devastating effect on an opponent’s passing game. This is what makes Arsenal’s makeshift defence look particularly fragile for Sunday.
The City nightmare
The latest indication of Liverpool’s ability came six days ago when they beat Barcelona 4-0 at Wembley, with most chances arriving after aggressive tackling in midfield. It may have only been a friendly, but it was a pattern that emerged throughout last season. Indeed, some of Liverpool's best displays under Klopp came against teams known to be slick and technical, yet prone to naivety: Manchester City, Everton and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal.
Liverpool had already played at Arsenal and Everton before Klopp arrived, but the game at City proved telling. Like Arsenal now, City had defensive worries: captain Vincent Kompany was injured and Nicolás Otamendi benched; in their place played Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis. Liverpool ripped them to shreds in a 4-1 win.
They harried City defenders trying to build from the back. Transitions were launched as the nimble feet of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino snuck in behind a backtracking defensive line, and Liverpool were 3-0 up within 33 minutes. “In defence, in attack and in possession, I have never seen my team play in the way they played tonight,” said Manuel Pellegrini. “It was a complete disaster.”
Wenger’s route one
Liverpool would later draw 1-1 against City in the League Cup final, but another case study materialised in the league fixture between the two sides at Anfield as the Reds went 3-0 up within 60 minutes. Again, they disrupted City’s passing with a series of tackles and ball recoveries high up the pitch.
Consider also the 4-0 win at home to Everton. While Liverpool found it easier after Funes Mori was sent off on 50 minutes, they were already 2-0 up at that stage. Put under heavy pressure, the Toffees' passing was erratic and Roberto Martinez's men made two errors that led directly to chances.
Earlier, in January, Arsenal had visited Anfield. Like City and Everton, they too were pressed out of their customary style, even if they did nearly nick a win. They would go on to record the highest possession in the league overall (56.9%), but managed only 40.5% that night. Their pass completion ratio also crashed to 71.1%, while their most frequent passing combination did not involve Ozil or any other playmaker: it was Petr Cech to Giroud.
The fact that Wenger used long passes to navigate Liverpool's pressure was the key to Arsenal emerging with a point, but they will surely not play like that at home. Barring dramatic changes or wild fitness gambles, a makeshift Arsenal defence will build from the back against a Liverpool side racing out of the blocks. There can be little doubt as to what Klopp will target. Should the worst happen, the calls for Wenger to strengthen fast may grow even louder by Monday morning.