13th January 2016: Premier League Preview – Litmus test at Liverpool

Evening all. We face a big test of our title credentials tonight when we play Liverpool at Anfield, aiming to secure our 79th win over the Merseysiders in the all-time record.

They haven’t beaten us since that 5-1 drubbing at their place back in February 2014, when Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez ran riot, and Mesut Ozil, still fairly new to English football at the time, was bullied into invisibility.

How times have changed though. Sturridge is perma-crocked, Sterling and Suarez are long gone, whilst Mesut’s now the stand-out player in the division, orchestrating both our play, and our rise to the top of the standings.

Both teams go into the game with lengthy injury lists, with the hosts missing the likes of Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and Philippe Coutinho in addition to Sturridge, and Arsenal of course deprived of the services of Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.

Ahead of the game, Arsene Wenger spoke to Arsenal Player about the fixture, labeling the match ‘important’, but pointing out it’s not decisive in terms of the title race. He said:

If it is not a decisive moment in the league, it is a very important moment in the league. I think all the confidence we have gathered and the tactical knowledge we have can be brought out in these types of games. Let’s take one at a time and focus on the Liverpool game because that is a big one. We are prepared and we are focused and I believe that it is down to us to go there and play to our full belief that we have at the moment. There is a desire to do well and to do it together. Sometimes the desire to do well is individual and not always shared with everybody. We feel as a unit we want to do well therefore we have to show that in every single game.

To underline Arsene’s point about the ‘desire’ and ‘confidence’ of his squad to win our first Premier League crown since 2004, two of our players have been speaking about just that as we build up to tonight’s game. First up it’s Ozil, who says victories against the bigger sides has heightened self-belief in the squad:

When you win against big teams – and win convincingly – it gives the whole team confidence. But when you look at this season, we’re on a good path. The self-belief is there, we have developed ourselves and this year we can really achieve a lot. The team know that. We believe in ourselves and you sense that on the pitch. We know we can beat Liverpool and we also know that they will give their best against us, with Jurgen Klopp who will prepare them perfectly. But our aim is to play our game and get the three points – that’s why we’re travelling there.

Whilst his team-mate Kieran Gibbs explained why he thinks tonight’s contest will be close, as well as also highlighting the confidence coursing through Arsenal players’ veins at the moment. He said:

They are a team that likes to keep possession and so are we. The game is going to be won on who can dominate and we need to dominate every match we play. I think it is going to be a tight game and [because] every game is so tight it is hard to predict the results because it is so up and down. There are not many teams who can beat us. Liverpool is a great club and their fans and stadium are great. It is going to be a hard game – they have a new manager who has come in and improved their team. He is quite young and a modern-day manager and has given Liverpool a lift this season. But we are on a run of some big results and the team is really confident at the moment. Hopefully we can show that.

Although Gibbs is quite right in saying we like to keep the ball, it’s also accurate to suggest we’re not so good at dominating possession with Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park, compared to when we field Cazorla and Coquelin.

Yet against Jurgen Klopp’s high-intensity, perma-pressing style, perhaps having the superior stamina of Ramsey and Flamini, as opposed to the greater control and quality of distribution of Cazorla and Coquelin, will actually suit us.

Although Sanchez is a huge miss, we’ve shown we still have goals in us, whereas I think Liverpool without the firepower of Sturridge and the creativity of Coutinho, look a lot less potent and that’s one big reason I’m more confident of our chances of winning tonight than I would be normally ahead of a game at Anfield.

The other major advantage, on paper at least, is that we’ll be at full strength in terms of our back four, whereas Liverpool will be without their standout defender in Skrtel, who of course grabbed a last-minute equaliser for them in a 2-2 draw the last time the two sides met at Anfield, back in December 2014.

On that occasion, Coutinho gave them the lead just before half-time but Mathieu Debuchy scored with a header seconds later. Olivier Giroud then put us ahead mid-way through the second-half before Skrtel’s leveler, which, having just checked, came in the seventh minute of stoppage time at the end of the game.

We also managed one of our lowest percentages of possession (if not the lowest) of the Premier League era with just 36.5%. Our central midfield that day was comprised of Cazorla, Flamini and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, if any conclusions can be drawn about their balance as a midfield trio. Hopefully with Ramsey, Flamini and Ozil in the engine room tonight, we’ll see more of the ball and take home more points than on our last visit to Anfield.

Back tomorrow.

COYG!

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