With a trip to Anfield looming on Saturday evening, Arsenal fans will go into the game with a cautious optimism that hasn’t been present before recent visits to Merseyside. Arsenal defeated Burnley last weekend to win their first two games of a Premier League season for the first time in ten years. Six points were essential before heading into the Liverpool clash this weekend, a fixture which has proved a very difficult one for the Gunners in recent years, having not won at Anfield since 2012.
This weekend is an opportunity to potentially put that run to an end with Liverpool not looking as convincing as last season in their opening two games despite taking maximum points. Liverpool struggled for large portions of their 2-1 win away at Southampton last weekend with Southampton being punished for their wastefulness in front of goal by Saido Mane and Roberto Firmino. Unai Emery’s toughest selection decision for Arsenal’s first all top-six clash of the season will be in his midfield three.
With Dani Ceballos, Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi looking impressive against Burnley, will Emery stick with this combination or opt for the more experienced, defensive options of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Toreirra? Let’s take a look at the possible combinations Emery could go with to try and end Arsenal’s drought at Anfield.
Firstly, Dani Ceballos must play. This is the one certainty in Arsenal’s midfield. He could be used as one of the deep-lying midfield players or be utilised as a number 10 to support Arsenal’s attackers. His full debut against Burnley was almost flawless, taking the ball under pressure and creating space for himself when it seemed impossible, gliding past players dribbling with both feet and seamlessly interchanging with Joe Willock throughout the game.
The most surprising aspect of Ceballos’ debut was his work rate, covering more ground than anybody else on the pitch. He really stole the show and made himself virtually undroppable for this weekend. His performance was reminiscent of Santi Cazorla in his Arsenal career, so much so that Santi Cazorla was trending on Twitter during the match. The only negative from Ceballos’ performance was having to remind ourselves that he’s only been signed on loan for this season. All the attributes displayed in his debut will be required for Arsenal to have success at Anfield this weekend.
His ability to take the ball and keep possession against a high press will be essential for Arsenal against Liverpool and Klopp’s pressing game. Particularly early in the game, Arsenal will need to stem the tide of Liverpool’s pressure. Pushed on by the raucous atmosphere, Klopp’s side always come out of the blocks flying in big games at home. These opening minutes is where Arsenal will need to be at their most vigilant, trying to keep possession and take the sting out of the game while remaining solid defensively.
This is where Ceballos will be a crucial player for Arsenal. Getting caught in possession in dangerous areas, particularly early in the game has been Arsenal’s undoing at Anfield in recent years. Ceballos will need to perform in a similar fashion this weekend, taking charge of the game and getting Arsenal playing. If they can beat the initial press it will be sure to lead to chances for Arsenal and give Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette opportunities to run at Liverpool’s back four.
Granit Xhaka missed the Burnley game after picking up a knock in Arsenal’s opening weekend win at Newcastle. The presumptive Arsenal captain is expected to return at Anfield and I expect Emery to put him straight back into the starting XI. Emery has great faith in Xhaka and he will need a disciplined performance from the Swiss midfielder on Saturday evening. In last season’s very disappointing 5-1 defeat, Xhaka severely underperformed. He didn’t provide any significant protection to the back four and was caught in possession on a number of occasions leading to Liverpool chances.
Arsenal cannot afford to be dispossessed in their own half with Liverpool’s electric front-three sniffing around for chances. Arsenal will not be able to completely deny Liverpool from creating chances but they must not be the architects of their own downfall like in previous visits to Merseyside. I expect Xhaka to play but he will have to give a mature display and play up to the armband for Arsenal to get a result.
The toughest choice, in my opinion, is whether to start with Guendouzi or Toreirra alongside Xhaka in front of the back three or four, whichever system Emery decides to go with. Matteo Guendouzi has been very impressive since his arrival from Lorient in 2018. He has unwavering confidence to take the ball in any position and never shies away from the big occasion. His confidence to take the ball under pressure, while being a massive strength, against this opponent particularly, could be his undoing.
If Guendouzi does feature at Anfield, like Xhaka, he cannot afford to lose possession in dangerous areas. His discipline could also be called into question when playing as a holding midfield player as he is so eager to be involved in the game that he, at times, vacates his position in front of the defence which could leave Arsenal exposed if moves do breakdown. This is why I think Emery may opt for the combative Lucas Toreirra over Guendouzi for the Liverpool clash. Toreirra is a more traditional holding midfield player.
He has typical South American grit despite his diminutive frame. It’s safe to assume Arsenal will be under pressure for long periods of the game and Toreirra’s tough-tackling approach could be vital, providing cover for Arsenal’s full-backs to help combat the threat of Sadio Mané and Mo Salah. The two wide men of Liverpool are almost impossible for any defender to deal with alone so the Uruguayan’s defensive instincts will be important to help Emery’s team to nullify their threat. Emery may go for Guendouzi to reward him for his good performances to start the season but I think a more defensive-minded approach would be wise for this particular fixture.
Academy graduate Joe Willock has taken the step up to the first team this season in his stride. He has looked mature beyond his years in Arsenal’s opening two fixtures. Unfortunately for Willock, I think Emery will go for experience in the midfield this weekend which will see Willock drop to the bench. He can definitely consider himself unlucky not to start and if he does drop out it would definitely be a tactical decision rather than a decision based on his performances. Willock will play a big role for Arsenal this season but I don’t expect him to play from the start at Anfield.
Mesut Ozil comes back into consideration for this weekend but I would be very surprised to see him start the match. Ozil has missed Arsenal’s opening two games, not featuring at Newcastle due to security concerns and missing out against Burnley due to illness. Unai Emery confirmed that the German midfield player is 100% available for the game at Anfield but these are not the type of fixtures where we have seen the best of Ozil.
He prospers when Arsenal dominate possession with his incredible passing ability by being able to open up opposing defences with his movement and passing. While I don’t expect Ozil to start, that’s not to say he won’t have any part to play. He’s a fantastic option for Arsenal to have off the bench should they be forced to go in search of a goal to rescue a result.
I expect Emery to go with a midfield three of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Toreirra and Dani Ceballos. I believe this three will provide a nice balance of defensive stability and creativity to both cause Liverpool problems and make it hard for them to create chances. The midfield battle is sure to be key to the game.
This is where Arsenal can win this game or lose it. If they can avoid any silly errors in this area it will give them a nice base to get a foothold in the match. One thing Arsenal fans will expect from the team on Saturday is that they don’t lose the game for themselves. Make Liverpool beat them with their quality rather than gifting the Reds chances like in previous years and Arsenal should give a much better account of themselves which will make for a fantastic game of football.