After five successive Premier League wins comes as stern a test as you can get with the visit of Liverpool to North London this evening.
It’s hard not to think about this game through the prism of our New Years Day performance against Man City. Ultimately, and somewhat cruelly, the result went against us in the end, but there was still plenty to like about what we did and how we did it against one of the best teams in the world. I don’t know if we can do it again this evening, but we’re going to have to come pretty close to get anything from this one, and it should be the kind of blueprint we’re looking at.
I realise that the City performance was followed up by some disappointing cup games, and a 0-0 at home against Burnley, but I genuinely feel like the last few weeks have been more aligned with what we did that day than the fixtures that followed immediately. We had to contend with some AFCON absences, red cards and suspensions, using some players who weren’t really ready, and while not making excuses, they were certainly part of that unsuccessful run.
Now, we can look at a settled team that looks cohesive and confident, and perhaps allow ourselves to feel cautiously optimistic about this evening without taking anything for granted. You only need to look at our recent history against Liverpool to know how tough this is going to be, and while we’ve won five in a row, they’re coming into this one on an eight game winning streak, knowing that three points would put them just a point behind Man City, making that April 10th showdown between the two sides so important for the destination of the title this season.
You don’t need me to tell you where they’re strong, how they can hurt you, and what kind of a side they are. Unlike us, they have serious depth which has allowed them to rotate a bit of late, as well as having players to call on from the bench if things aren’t going as well as they should. We don’t really have that, although we do have a couple of decent options depending on who starts this evening.
I think Gabriel Martinelli will continue on the left, as I’m not sure Liverpool and Trent Alexander Arnold is the kind of job you give you an Emile Smith Rowe who has been feeling the effects of Covid in the last few weeks. The young Brazilian showed his defensive awareness against Leicester, and I’m sure part of the plan will be to try and get him and Bukayo Saka in behind the Liverpool full-backs as often as we can, but let’s not ignore the fact they’re going to have a lot of defensive work to do.
We know as well how important it’s going to be to defend well this evening, the spine of the team from keeper to centre-halves, from the midfield three who will have a lot to do, to Alexandre Lacazette up front, you don’t get anything against opposition like this without that kind of commitment. Then it’s about trying to maximise the opportunities we do create when we get into their final third.
Many will be looking at this game as a kind of marker, judging our progress against a top team as a way of seeing how far we’ve come. I do understand that, but I don’t necessarily think it’s that binary. A win won’t mean we’re title contenders all of a sudden, while defeat won’t undo everything that has come before this.
I think we are much closer than we were, and probably the closest that we have been in terms of what we are looking for. But I focus on that gap. And that gap is still big.
We have to make things quicker, sharper. We can be more adaptable, we can be much more unpredictable, we can have much more flexibility and we can be much more consistent throughout games to maintain that level.
However, the thing about having a small, streamlined squad is that you do venture slightly into the realms of predictability. We all think we know how we’re going to set up this evening, there aren’t going to be any surprises when it comes to team selection (unless there’s an injury or other enforced absence), so Liverpool will too. Then it’s about creating that unpredictability within the game itself. We have players who can do that, with Saka, Martinelli and in particular Martin Odegaard who gives us that bit of craft in the opposition half, so let’s hope they’re on their games this evening.
Without being overly negative, it’s hard to see us taking the maximum from this one, but if we can play as well as we have of late, and certainly if we match the performance from New Years Day, we have what it takes to get something. Fingers crossed.
There’s a preview podcast already waiting for you on Patreon, and we’ll be doing a post-game podcast early tomorrow morning in place of Friday’s Arsecast, so join us for that.
Catch you later.