The focus now turns back to the serious business of the Premier League, starting with the visit of the Mugsmashers on Saturday. Their start to the season has been really very good, surprisingly so, especially as they’ve got two individualist strikers who seem to have formed a very effective partnership.
I think it’s fair to say that this will be the most difficult test for our back four, and the team, so far this season. And what the manager has to work on before this game is the team’s defensive set-up. It was interesting to watch Mathieu Flamini – who is likely to miss the game with his groin problem – talk on TV last weekend about his role in the team as the defensive midfielder.
Obvious, I know, but he also made the point that he sees the striker as ‘the first defender’. It might sound a bit Jack Charlton’s Ireland, but it’s a fair point, and it’s something we’ve used since we took stock of where we were after the cup exits and the Bayern defeat at home.
The improvement in Giroud’s hold up play and all round game may have been a feature of our good form this season, but since he first arrived he’s been a very willing ‘first defender’. I think he’s contributed to the fact that we’re more solid from set-pieces, winning plenty of headers in our box, and it helps set the tone for the way we defend.
And when you look at how Liverpool play, and where their strengths lie, you have to think that Saturday’s game is one which will require a lot of work from our forwards and midfielders. Denying service to Suarez and Sturridge is the most effective way of shutting them down. We can be confident that we have a back four and a keeper in excellent form, but as yet I don’t think we’ve faced players as unpredictable and capable of the special things these two are.
You just have to look at the goals they’re scoring, and how they’re scoring them, to realise they provide a very serious threat from anywhere around, or inside, the box. Not to mention our penchant for the lunging tackle in the box (I’m looking at you Verscielny!) which is something one of them in particular would be able to take advantage of.
So I think this is a game which will be decided as much by how we play without the ball than with it. You look at what we’ve got as an attacking force, with Giroud, Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey, and think there’s plenty there to hurt a Liverpool defence which is the weakest part of their side, but those players are going to have to contribute in a big way when we don’t have possession.
And we’re very much in one game at a time territory too. With the upcoming fixtures there’s almost a need for this team to prove itself against top-level opposition. ‘But we beat Sp*rs!’, you say, and once again I stress the words ‘top-level’.
While not discounting the Chelsea game entirely it was a cup game and like it or not it’s not as important as a league fixture. But we shot ourselves in the foot against Dortmund, and over the next few weeks we need to ensure that we pick up the necessary points from the games ahead. A series of draws might well be underwhelming in some respects, but given the quality of the opposition it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
We got turned over like a baby turtle at Old Trafford last season, legs waving helplessly in the air as they pretty dominated us from start to finish. I think it will be a much closer game this time around, but following a midweek trip to Dortmund, coming over this weekend’s game against the ‘smashers, we are going to have to dig really, really deep.
It’s a period which will give us a far better indication of where we stand in relation to our rivals than the opening weeks of the season. It does seem as if what we’ve done so far has to be qualified in some way. Winning 12 games in a row is fantastic, no doubt about it, but until we get a couple of good results against the big teams under our belt, there’s always that nagging doubt in the back of your mind.
I certainly believe we’re capable of it. Some of the football we’ve played this season has been excellent, but the last few weeks have seen us struggle a little bit. Fatigue, a small slump in form, uncharacteristic individual errors – something we’d more or less cut out of our game – have contributed to the two defeats, but it’s also worth pointing out that the victory against Crystal Palace came on the back of one of those less than stellar performances.
Not to mention we played with 10 men for half an hour and still had the character to seal the game with a second goal. The reaction to the sending off, and the way we bounced back from the opening day defeat to Villa to go on that unbeaten run, tells me that this is a team with character. It’s not perfect by any means, but they’ve got some stones.
And they’re going to need them in the weeks ahead.