Monday 23 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Anfield visit is the litmus test of Arsenal's attempts to pen a new chapter'

Unai Emery takes his side back to Anfield on Saturday (Nick Potts/PA)
Unai Emery takes his side back to Anfield on Saturday (Nick Potts/PA)
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Anfield in August tends to end badly for Arsenal. The lessons of history should temper any travelling optimism heading into Saturday evening’s showdown.

Fixture computers are evidently programmed to send the Londoners to Liverpool in the early weeks of a campaign.

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It's 25 years ago this month that Robbie Fowler scored an iconic five-minute hat-trick to down the Gunners when he was arguably at the peak of his powers. On a good day, he was better than any of his contemporaries.

Five years later, Fowler was again to the fore as a much stronger Arsenal team was sent packing following a deserved defeat.

Their head-to-head record improved in the years that followed as the Wenger years reached their peak but Anfield has once again become a venue where Arsenal teams go to die.

Two years ago this week, they were picked apart at the beginning of the Frenchman’s final season in charge.

David Luiz during the Premier League win over Burnley. Photo: Michael Regan
David Luiz during the Premier League win over Burnley. Photo: Michael Regan

This was the birth of another era; the triple whammy was delivered by goals from Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, in that order.

Sub Daniel Sturridge added a fourth but this was a match which highlighted what an exciting front three Jurgen Klopp had on his hands.

"We were beaten everywhere physically and in the end we made it easier for them," sighed Wenger.

If that performance had become to represent a stereotype of Arsenal in the dying embers of his regime, the hope for Unai Emery is that this test can function as a reference point in their evolution.

His first jaunt to Anfield last December culminated in a humiliating 5-1 thrashing. Add another 3-0 loss under Wenger to the aforementioned 4-1 reverse and the aggregate score of Arsenal’s last three visits to Liverpool territory is 12-2.

Survivors from all of those trips have a dozen scores to settle. Yet there appears to be a semblance of belief that this time will be different.

Like Liverpool, Arsenal have a 100 per cent record, a contrast from this time 12 months ago when they had no points on the board.

Granted, they have only managed to defeat Newcastle and Burnley by the narrowest margin, so it would be premature to declare this a revolution.

Robbie Fowler enjoyed plenty of success for Liverpool against Arsenal in his playing days
Robbie Fowler enjoyed plenty of success for Liverpool against Arsenal in his playing days

But there is a feeling they might just be better equipped to pose Liverpool problems.

That belief is largely driven by the attributes of their own front three, a counter-attacking force that might just be able to expose a high Liverpool defensive line.

Alexandre Lacazette and Patrick Aubameyang have made their presence felt in the Newcastle and Burnley victories. Arsenal’s big summer signing was Nicolas Pepe, a €80m purchase from Lille, and he joined the other pair for a portion of the Burnley encounter to give Arsenal followers a glimpse of Emery’s vision.

The manager has eased the winger into his new environment with a pair of sub appearances and has strongly hinted that the Ivorian will be picked from the outset for this match.

Arsenal believe he might be the missing piece of the jigsaw in an attacking context.

They have other problems to address, though. Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos impressed against Burnley, adding drive to the midfield area.

David Luiz’s recruitment as a defensive option will polarise opinion, but Emery had to recruit in that department after deeming some existing squad members as surplus to requirements.

Meanwhile, the promotion of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock has served as a reminder that the club does still have a production line.

Liverpool's firepower will test the strength of those foundations. But Arsenal do have individuals that can pose challenging questions of their own.

There are perhaps valid excuses that can be offered for their recent Anfield ordeals; the decay of a fallen empire, the task of rebuilding it and the simple problem posed by having inferior players.

This is the litmus test of their attempts to pen a new story.

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