Arsenal have reached the midpoint of this pivotal opening month. The two games thus far have brought along gruelling performances and just about acceptable results, which in a way has been much better than what many predicted or secretly dreaded.
On Saturday, the Gunners will take on the Scousers in a fixture that should provide a real and reliable benchmark for both sides and an accurate initial assessment of their chances for the season. Arsenal are arguably the weakest they have been in years. Liverpool, on the other hand, are growing stronger with each training session as their new signings get a chance to gel together. They travel to the Emirates stadium with virtually a fully-fit squad and no suspensions.
By popular logic, Liverpool should win this game on a canter. Given the cumulative problems at Arsenal – due to the transfer of a number of players including the talisman Fabregas, the uncertainty over Nasri’s future, injuries to Wilshere, Gibbs, and other squad players, and a couple of suspensions picked up through irresponsible and borderline stupid acts – there is every reason for fans to be worried.
In almost the exact opposite scenario, Liverpool have signed a number of players for relatively big money. That is supposed to make them appreciably stronger than last season when they snatched a draw in added time.
Why then should anyone expect the Gunners to get even a point out of this fixture?
Wenger’s knowledge of the game and the spirit, desire, and the efficacy with which the Gunners can implement the chosen tactics will stand in the way of the visitors. Time will tell if it be enough to prevent their first win at the Emirates and first in North London since 2001.
The biggest poser for Arsene is picking a balanced starting eleven from the available players. There just aren’t enough midfielders available.
Unless Nasri is picked, which is a big issue in itself given his fractious relationship with the fans, Arsenal will not have three recognized midfielders on the pitch. Arshavin or Van Persie are the two most likely candidates to fill in unless Wenger picks a youngster like Lansbury.
With injuries at the back, it would be hard to see a defender moving into a midfield role but that is another possibility that can be explored.
The way I see it, Van Persie, Walcott, Ramsey, Frimpong, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Szczesny are certain starters unless someone succumbs to a late injury before the game. That puts three positions up for grabs and interestingly, they are all on the left side – Left-Back, Left sided CM, and Left winger/attacker. One can argue that Frimpong can play on the left side of midfield and Ramsey can play on the right or in the attacking position. Since the midfield triangle is often quite flexible, the issue in midfield is not completely positional in nature.
Wenger has to pick three players so that the defence is not exposed on the left, the possession game can be sustained, and there is a balance between attack and defence. All these issues are intricately related.
I have a feeling Arsene will go with Jenkinson at left back as the youngster did reasonably well after coming on at a difficult time against Udinese. Le Boss will also pick Arshavin on the left of the attack while starting Chamakh up front and dropping Van Persie deeper in front of Frimpong and Ramsey.
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Jenkinson – Ramsey, RvP, Frimpong – Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin.
Personally speaking, that line-up is not well balanced. But it’s my best guess for Wenger’s choices based on what I have seen in the past. The keyword there is guess.
In my opinion, that team will struggle to keep the ball and the left flank will be hard to defend. Jenkinson – Frimpong – Arshavin can work but it’s too big a risk. Placing Ramsey on the left is also a possibility but the Welshman has a more attacking mindset and will not track back as well as Frimpong might do.
Even if one doesn’t include Nasri into the starting line-up there are some possibilities that can work.
First option would be to play Vermalen at left-back and Squillaci in the centre. Don’t jump out of you chairs it’s just a thought. And Squillaci can do well if the team does not play a high line.
The second option, and one that I would prefer, is to move Vermaelen in to the left-sided midfield role. Again Squillaci would have to come in at centre-back. Van Persie would move into the central striking role with Ramsey behind him. Jenkinson will perform the left-back duties.
The reasoning behind this is that Arsenal will have Jenkinson – Koscielny – Vermaelen to defend the left half of the pitch while Sagna – Squillaci – Frimpong cover the right. Those trios aren’t ideal but look a lot more balanced than any other than can be created with the players available. In this system Van Persie would be expected to drop deep quite often and play as an extra midfielder. The attacking impetus would come from runs by Arshavin and Theo. Ramsey would cover the central midfield and spread the ball from deeper areas. Jenkinson would be under strict instructions to hold his position and not charge forward.
I don’t want to be too critical of Chamakh but his contribution in recent games hasn’t been substantial. Nasri and Bendtner are other options amongst experienced players but it’s hard to predict how the fans will react to either of them. Then we are left with A.O.C or Miyaichi, both extremely talented youngsters but is this really the right situation for them to make their competitive debuts for Arsenal?
Szczesny – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Jenkinson – Frimpong, Ramsey, Vermaelen – Walcott , RvP, Arshavin.
I know some fans can’t stand the mention of Squillaci and others would not want to break the central defensive partnership that has done well in the last two games. The latter in particular is a fair point and one that might convince Wenger to leave Squillaci out. I am just not convinced any other combination will have the right balance from a tactical point of view.
That brings me to the tactical aspects of this game. Liverpool impressed in the first half against Sunderland but lost their way after the break as the game ended in a disappointing draw from their point of view.
I thought they were too defensive and lacked fitness and/or cohesion as the game went on. But that defensive approach could work really well against the Gunners, especially if Arsenal make the mistake of playing a high line in this game.
Carroll and Suarez will thrive on open spaces in the Arsenal half and Charlie Adam can cause all sorts of problems with his impeccable delivery from free-kicks.
Liverpool have conceded a number of goals in their pre-season games and have a young player at right-back who has, in fairness to him, done reasonably well. Nevertheless, one would expect Arshavin to trouble the youngster.
They also play with two strikers so Arsenal should be able to find more space in the middle if they can move the ball fast enough. In order to achieve that Wenger has to start players who are comfortable on the ball and with the patient short-passing game. Van Persie and Arshavin are players who look for the killer pass almost every time they get the ball. Neither of the duo is particularly likely to move all over the pitch on a consistent basis just to offer himself for a pass in order to keep possession.
This is clear from the passing stats. Players like Sagna, Wilshere, Nasri, Ramsey, Song, and the likes move the ball well and clock anywhere between 60 to 90 passes per game. Others like Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott, and Gervinho are usually between 20 and 30 passes. It is a good indicator of their tendencies and positioning and will limit the possibilities as far as the tippy-tappy style goes. Given their adventurous approach, these players are also likely to have a poorer pass completion rate and will lose the ball more often.
The tactics of the team will have to be tailored to the players picked for the game. If Arsenal play Van Persie or Arshavin down the middle it will be hard to dominate possession and suicidal to play higher up the pitch.
The possibilities are endless but I don’t want to dwell on minor details any further. From a football fan’s perspective, the issues surrounding Arsenal have made this game a very intriguing tactical battle. I won’t be too concerned about the result but will be interested in the way Wenger sets his team up. With the changes in personnel this summer, there is every indication that the playing style will have to change. We might get a glimpse of the future in this game.