Having had their Premier League title chances derailed by Liverpool, Arsenal now face the same opponents just a week later looking to avoid their prospects of ending their long trophy drought taking a further hit. A 5-1 defeat at Anfield stunned the then Premier League leaders, a blow which they’ll have to put aside in their FA Cup fifth round tie at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The scars from that loss were all too apparent when Arsenal returned to action on Wednesday. Against a Manchester United side who were there for the taking after their far greater and more prolonged struggles, Arsenal lacked the assurance to make their advantage count. Such pondering is unlikely to be treated so charitably by a rampant Liverpool side.
Arsene Wenger has a big job on his hands in the coming days to make his squad see the bigger picture of their season. Just a point off the Premier League summit and still in both the Champions League and FA Cup, it is a position they doubtless would have taken at the start of the campaign.
Ultimately, though, he will also have to address some of his side’s technical deficiencies. Going forward, Arsenal have lacked the same penetration of late. Olivier Giroud has many virtues, but he is not a prolific goal-getter. It means that Arsenal need to have a large number of players contributing on that front. For much of the season they did so. Aaron Ramsey had an extraordinary run in the first half of this season, before Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere stepped up and most recently Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain bagged a brace against Crystal Palace.
But with Ramsey still out and Wilshere looking half fit, Arsenal now lack that crucial player running beyond Giroud from deep. Also missing the pace and width of Theo Walcott, Arsenal have become all-too predictable. With the ability of the likes of Mesut Ozil, who looked more threatening than of late against United, they can still make it work, but it requires the passing and movement to be near-perfect for them to do so.
Of course, Arsenal’s most obvious failings at Anfield were on the defensive side. Mikel Arteta’s lack of instinct for a defensive midfield role was shown up and in turn exposed Arsenal’s center-backs who had previously covered perfectly for each other’s weaknesses. Given the situation against a Liverpool side with a tendency to begin quickly, Wenger’s unwillingness to mediate his desire to always have the game played on his own side’s terms came across as particularly inflexible.
Arsenal have an easy fix to that problem on Saturday, with Mathieu Flamini returning from suspension. The natural anchorman has been sorely missed, both for his tenacity without the ball and his leadership ability that inspires others to work with similar intensity. Flamini’s presence should certainly prevent Philippe Coutinho from regularly supplying cutting through balls and being as influential as he has been in recent weeks
It was the ferocious energy of Coutinho and Liverpool that simply blew Arsenal away inside 20 minutes at Anfield. The key question for Brendan Rodgers’ side, in terms of their prospects for being a serious title contender and getting past Arsenal in the FA Cup, is whether they can replicate that on the road. Against Fulham on Wednesday, Liverpool were again too flat for large spells, as they had been in their previous away match against West Brom.
With that passivity, opponents are allowed to stick around and put pressure on a defense that always appears to have an error in them. Kolo Toure was again the culprit against Fulham, which explains why it was such a fillip for Rodgers and the club’s fans to see Daniel Agger make his return from injury late on off the bench. There is a likelihood that the Dane could now start against Arsenal. And with Glen Johnson potentially also returning to replace the vulnerable Aly Cissokho, Liverpool’s defense should have a decidedly more solid feel.
Indeed, with both defenses set to be stronger and both teams likely to be more conservative in their approaches, a stalemate, which would ultimately suit Liverpool the better, looks a strong possibility.
Prediction: Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool