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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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Newly-confident Arsenal have what it takes to end their awful Anfield record

The Gunners have been suffering hammerings on Merseyside for years, but Liverpool’s early-season vulnerabilities give them reason for optimism.

ARSENAL “NEVER WANT to play Liverpool”, said Unai Emery ahead of Saturday’s trip to Anfield.

He was probably joking but if he wasn’t, he is one of the few senior figures at Arsenal feeling bashful at the moment, for the rest of the club has been visited by this strange, rarified presence others call…confidence.

Arsenal v Burnley - Premier League - Emirates Stadium David Luiz. Source: EMPICS Sport

It’s only five weeks since thousands of Arsenal fans signed a petition reading ‘We Care Do You?’, aimed at owner Stan Kroenke, a man derided as ‘Silent Stan’ owing to his aversion to press interviews. Amid the vacuum, noisy portents of lousy ambition took hold.

It was widely assumed that Arsenal had only £45 million to spend on transfers, which was nowhere near enough to mend a side so ailing they have become used to finishing behind Spurs. 

Then Arsenal broke their transfer record to sign Nicolas Pepe from Lille, and found value with the canny additions of Kieran Tierney, David Luiz, and Dani Ceballos, the latter on loan from Real Madrid.  Luiz will add some backbone to a hitherto invertebrate defence, and while Tierney and Pepe have yet to make an impact, Ceballos was impressive in last weekend’s win against Burnley.

Such are the good vibes pulsing from the Emirates, the Kroenkes have even found their voice.

Okay Stan didn’t, but his son and Arsenal director Josh this week sat down for a lengthy chat with the BBC’s David Ornstein. Arsenal’s website has published the full transcript.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets Josh Kroenke meets Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green ahead of an NBA game with the Denver Nuggets last year. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

He struck some of the right notes – “I met with some of the fan groups last season, I didn’t ask them for their trust but I told them that trust is earned over time” – and even found space for a classic trope used to accentuate an English club’s exceptionalism: the superfluous use of ‘Football Club.’

I encouraged our football operations department to be aggressive and when Arsenal Football Club knocks on a player’s door it’s a different knock. This summer, even though we weren’t in a position of strength coming out of [the Europa League final in] Baku, I think there were a few people caught off guard that Arsenal Football Club still has the aura that it does.

Kroenke was at pains to stress the new multi-layered structure at the club, the kind of Operational Camelot that has earned Man City and Liverpool so much success and praise.

“It’s just a different structure”, said Kroenke. I’ve been a part of meetings that were with Arsene Wenger and I’ve been a part of meetings now that include our head of football, our managing director, our head coach, our new technical director. It’s a different approach.” 

He was unwilling to be drawn into exactly how the club structured the summer’s deals so as to be able to afford them, instead saying that the club’s recruitment team were “more aggressive” in chasing targets.

Given this is a club that has had virtually every Ballon D’Or contender of the last 20 years scouted or on trial at some point, it’s a necessary virtue. Opening games with Newcastle and Burnley are born easily to confidence, mind, so tomorrow’s trip to Anfield is their first genuine test.

Liverpool haven’t lost at home since April 2017, and haven’t dropped any points at Anfield since January. That’s without factoring in Arsenal’s recent record at Anfield, which has become a graveyard for their pretensions. In February 2014 they went there as league leaders…and were 4-0 down in 20 minutes.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Liverpool v Arsenal - Anfield Raheem Sterling celebrates Liverpool's fifth goal in the 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal in 2014. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

In January 2016 they drew 3-3 with a Liverpool side that featured Steven Caulker up front, lost 4-0 at Anfield at the start of the following season, and last year took the lead before losing 5-1. Arsenal haven’t won a league game there since 2012. 

Emery’s comment is understandable in the context of a record like that, but tomorrow may be a good time to play Liverpool.

They have been greatly weakened by the loss of Alisson, but are currently spluttering slightly amid a wider, systemic problem and are coughing up far more chances than they did last season.

Southampton’s Expected Goals tally of 1.97 last weekend is higher than any of Liverpool’s league opponents reached last season, while Norwich registered 0.9 at on the opening night of the season. Only Everton, Arsenal and Spurs bettered that figure at Anfield last season. 

Presumably encouraged by the laser-focus of VAR, Liverpool have started the season defending with a Kroenkesque aggression in trying to catch opponents offside.  They’ve been relatively successful at it, but as Kevin De Bruyne and Man City showed in the Community Shield, they remain vulnerable to runs from deep.

With Arsenal boasting the pace and quality of Aubameyang and Pepe on either wing they may make hay in these areas, particularly behind either Alexander-Arnold or Joe Gomez at right-back.

It may be that the issue for Liverpool is a slackening of pressure on the ball ahead of the defence, and if so, a full week of preparation will help them iron out such problems. Plus, Salah, Firmino, and Mane share enough brilliance to relegate notions of an improving Arsenal defence to conjecture.

Still, Liverpool have showed slight vulnerabilities so far this season, and that gives Arsenal enough reason to believe that their confidence can survive a visit to Anfield for the first time in years.

Premier League fixtures (kick off 3pm unless stated) 

Friday Aston Villa v Everton (8pm)  Saturday  Norwich v Chelsea (12.30pm)  Brighton v Southampton  Manchester United v Crystal Palace  Watford v West Ham  Sheffield United v Leicester City  Liverpool v Arsenal (5.30pm)  Sunday  Bournemouth v Manchester City (2pm)  Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United (4.30pm)  Wolves v Burnley (4.30pm)   

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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