In recent seasons, I believe many Arsenal fans — myself included — have viewed Liverpool as a barometer for Arsenal’s project. A litmus test for our growth, ran alongside a road map for a successful project. No two projects in professional sports are truly the same, I mean how could they be, but understandably, Liverpool’s ascension felt feasible for a club like Arsenal to mimic.
They didn’t rise on the back of major owner injections and oil money, of course some owner spending. No, it required them to be savvy in how they acquired talent and sold it, an aspect Arsenal probably need improvement on still. They brought in a coach and dedicated themselves to believing in his vision, that his system could lead them to the promised land.
On the whole, it all felt replicable in a world where so many top club’s methods are not, or are suspiciously unsustainable. But the litmus tests in recent years have been less than stellar. Although perhaps there has been some belief signs of improvement.
Arsenal have not beaten Liverpool in their last 5 matchups, nor have Arsenal scored a goal against them since September 2020 — not counting penalty conversions during a cup match, but who would count that. Not a pretty stat line. Arteta will probably want to address that with the team if they are looking to win this time around.
But as I wrote just one week ago, these young guns are bringing back real confidence when it comes to big game performances. The last decade has come with less than stellar performances and results against ‘big six’ opposition, but this year has shown signs of considerable change. Arsenal looked great against Spurs and their performance against Manchester United, at Old Trafford, was one of the best we have seen at their ground in a while — sadly the result didn’t follow.
Arsenal have controlled matches this season. They’ve stuck to their gameplan, played their way, and even in the face of difficulties against the transition, they retained their identity. They felt hard done in the loss against Manchester, but the fearlessness of how they played on the front foot is surely a sign of what lies ahead. They’ll need that composure and control when Liverpool come to the Emirates, but here a few additional aspects I will be looking for:
Slow the game down
I just talked about composure and control, so it only feels fitting to start here. If Arsenal can retain their composure, stay switched on, and force themselves to slow the game down to a snails pace, it will favor them.
As a team, Arsenal have already shown an ability to knock the ball around, play keep away, control matches and stretch teams through possession, and dictate the pace of play. Preventing this game from opening up and turning into an open-spaced game of transitions with lanes of space to exploit and run into, will put the Gunners in a position to win.
It’s no mystery that Liverpool have the ability to run into space and be dangerous. With their outlet balls being fed to Salah, Diaz, Jota, or Carvalho they have a desire to press the matter and punish. The more Arsenal can frustrate Liverpool’s press, stretch their backline and midfield, and counter press to close down the quick outlet ball, the less likely they are to be punished for leaving open spaces or playing a high line.
People complain about the boring Manchester City matches — I’d be lying if there weren’t times those complaints came from me — but this is a game to take a page from their book. Liverpool want to ramp up the contest, make you sloppy, and create easy turnovers. Last year, Arsenal did themselves no favors at times when they rushed through their progressions and patterns. At times it felt like their internal clock that told them to get rid of the ball was causing them problems. They had time to settle on the ball and pick out the right pass, but feared getting caught holding onto it for too long and rushed things. Channeling their inner-Saliba, who seems as press resistant as a top class midfielder, to help slow this game down to a crawl will go a long way toward a winning formula.
Dominate and exploit the midfield
A lot of that first component will be dictated by Arsenal’s back four who are in charge of Arsenal’s build-up play, but the midfield will play a huge role. And if there is one weakness of Liverpool’s team that stands out like a sore thumb begging to be exploited — it’s their aging, and at times ineffective, midfield.
On the flip side, Arsenal’s midfield looks better than it has in years. Granit Xhaka is playing some of the best football of his career, when healthy Thomas Partey has shown the ability to be a perfect blend of defensive stability and technical ball-playing skills, and Martin Ødegaard is still offering that work-rate, pressing structure and command, with plenty of attacking quality on the ball. Before the season, I thought Ødegaard would be Arsenal’s breakout player of the year, and while I’m still waiting for that final bit to click into place and transition into the goal contributions I believe he is capable of, he’s still been an immensely key player in Arsenal’s control and dominance.
Additionally, this year has seen Arteta introduce inverted fullbacks into the midfield when Arsenal push up the field. With Ben White and Zinchenko or Kieran Tierney, it introduces extra bodies, a good level of skill on the ball, and an extra dimension of sustainability to their pressure. Arsenal have been able to pen teams into their own half for longer stretches of matches and sustain their rampant play, compressing down on the opposition and almost slow-advancing the ball until its in the net. It’s been like the scene from Saving Private Ryan when the soldier is grabbing his enemies arm trying to prevent himself from being stabbed and we slowly watch the knife get closer and closer until theres nothing he can do about it and he dies horribly. Except that’s one of the most difficult scenes to make yourself watch and I love every second of Arsenal’s sustain pressure so, you know, same thing.
Liverpool’s aging midfield is there to be dominated. It’s there to be run around and removed from the game. It’s there to be a source of Liverpool problems and there to offer few solutions. This season, Liverpool have already struggled in matches when their midfield are incapable of getting on the ball to relieve pressure and are unable to release the outlet ball to their front three. Arsenal have the midfield skills and setup to replicate that success, and if they can, they stand to play Liverpool off the park.
Win the left-side channel
Arsenal’s left side, Liverpool’s right, that is. It’s no mystery that so much of Liverpools attacking success and talent lives down their right side in Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. It’s also not unknown that Alexander-Arnold has always offered little defensive support. And this season, he looks almost worse than ever. At this stage, there are entire games in which Liverpool’s right side has looked like a one-way street — all attack, no drop and defend.
Arsenal fans have already seen a game in which Gabriel Martinelli has gotten the better of Alexander-Arnold and cause a lot of problems off the dribble. This year, Arsenal have become one of the most prolific dribbling teams in the league, thanks in no small part to their pair of attacking Gabriels.
It’s hard to look at this match and not zero in on that side of the field as a key area of the pitch to win on both sides of the ball. Zinchenko seems like a question-mark in terms of health which means it could be up to Tierney to facilitate Martinelli and defend against Salah, but he’s been so sharp in his recent performances that doesn’t feel like a major concern.
Additionally, Arsenal need to find ways to isolate Martinelli 1 v. 1 with Trent and give him the space to work a dangerous opportunity. If he can get the better of his man early, not only does it stand to provide serious attacking chances, but it could force Liverpool into over compensating to help out, thus opening other areas of the attack for more damage.
As I sat down the write this piece, I just kept thinking about the times we have seen Alexander-Arnold struggle so much. Just last week, Brighton looked to have Alexander-Arnold on strings and embarrassing himself at times in their own defensive third and it feels like such an opportunity, but there won’t be room to switch off on that side. We all know what both Trent and Salah are capable of with the ball at their feet.
Win the left side and it will shut down Liverpool, open up our own attack, and create opportunities on both sides as Liverpool shift extra help that way.
Earlier this year I wrote about Arsenal’s need to be leery of Manchester United’s transition, they weren’t, and it cost them. Even if they were aware — hard not to be — they couldn’t do anything about it and they were punished.
They need to find a way to continue to improve and stymieing opposition gameplans without losing your own in high-stakes matches is a major step for this project. These are three aspects that I have little doubt we will be talking about after this match. It will simply be up to Arsenal to decide whether we are highlighting them as success or areas of failure.