Rarely does a stadium change the complexion of a match quite like Anfield.
Arsenal, coming into Monday’s Premier League showdown with Liverpool, have beaten them on home soil and at Wembley in the previous two meetings. Quite unheard of results in the grand scheme of things.
Outwitted and outfought, Mikel Arteta has somehow got one over on his vastly more experienced counterpart in the last 180 minutes.
Anfield is a different kettle of fish, though. Without supporters it loses much of its appeal and fear factor, but matches there still tend to follow a well-trodden path: pure, unadulterated Liverpool domination.
Leeds came ever so close to bucking the trend when they visited Merseyside on the opening day, only for some weak marking from set pieces and careless defending in the box to be their undoing. It would be a cop out to follow Marcelo Bielsa’s blueprint and hope more focus at the back will do the trick, though.
Jürgen Klopp’s side are finding their groove now the season is fully underway, and under the Anfield lights they’ll be fully tuned in to a game plan that will seek to suffocate Arsenal deep in their own half, denying the supply line from Bernd Leno to the central quartet of Gabriel Magalhaes, David Luiz, Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos.
It makes sense. Building out from the back via these four has become a key strength of Arsenal’s. Their goal in the Community Shield win over Liverpool came from a move that started from deep, in a pattern of play they’ve utilised on more than once occasion.
They won’t be granted as much time to make those moves on Monday. The Reds will get in the faces of their visitors from the off, breathing down their necks. Ensuring that the Gunners can ease that strain and push up the field in quick motions, pace has to be favoured over progression.
Sure, it worked at Wembley, but there is only so many times that a particular system and well-drilled tactics can overcome objectively better quality players with threats from all angles. Persist with such measures throughout the 90 minutes and Arsenal will be undone.
That isn’t to say throw the rulebook out of the window – Arsenal have found their niche with the new approach from Arteta, but for the trip to the champions there needs to be more of an out ball. Given that Nicolas Pepe started in midweek against Leicester, it appears that Arteta will favour a progressive approach with Willian set to start.
Willian is someone who can turn up for the occasion and offers more diversity in attack, but for sheer pace off the ball alone it should be Pepe who gets the nod. The Ivorian can blow hot and very, very cold, but even flinging him up top alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not a grossly obscene option.
Unai Emery tried it on trips to Anfield but he left the full-backs far too exposed on those occasions. With Kieran Tierney and Ainsley Maitland-Niles both very disciplined at the back, they won’t gift such freedom to the Reds’ full-back pairing. In possession, they have the quality of pass to feed Pepe and Aubameyang down the lines.
A 5-3-2 system out of possession is where Arsenal can do most damage. Shore up midfield with Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos, with willing runners Alexandre Lacazette and Pepe keeping their distance up top to chase down the men on the ball. Aubameyang can slot into a makeshift left midfielder when out of possession.
How useful, or indeed successful that may be is another thing. Liverpool will get chances regardless and ensuring that Arsenal take the few they’ll get is how the game will be decided. In a nutshell.
Equally, nobody knows this Gunners side better than the man in the dugout, with the confidence the club have heading into Monday night greater than it has been for quite some time.
Arteta’s approach worked in all the Wembley clashes last year, and there is good reason for him to stick to his guns. However, sometimes quality shines through regardless.
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