The last thing Liverpool need is a bogey team. Arsenal go to Anfield tomorrow after winning their previous two games against the champions. Jurgen Klopp is desperate not to allow Mikel Arteta’s team to extend their run to three.
There are mitigating circumstances. The most recent meeting was the Community Shield last month when Arsenal prevailed on penalties. Eyebrows were raised on Merseyside at the Gunners’ celebrations after the presentation at Wembley. Liverpool approached the match like the glorified friendly it is. Arsenal acted as if it meant something. They may have had a point. Beating the Premier League title-holders is always significant, even if it is on spot-kicks.
In July, Klopp’s team lost 2-1 at the Emirates. Liverpool dominated the game but gruesome, uncharacteristic errors by Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker gifted two goals to the home side, who created little themselves. It barely mattered. The title was already won. The only thing at stake was the Premier League points record. Still, there is a feeling around Anfield that it is payback time.
With Jordan Henderson ruled out with a thigh injury and Fabinho likely to be pressed into service as a centre half, Thiago Alcantara may start for the home side - although the Spaniard himself faces late fitness tests. This is an enticing prospect. The 29-year-old’s passing ability and intelligence provide Liverpool with a new dimension going forward. Thiago showed the full range of his skills during the Champions League mini-tournament in Portugal last month. The midfielder produced a series of masterclasses while leading Bayern Munich to the trophy. He was arguably man of the match in the 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the final. Thiago should improve his new club in numerous ways.
The question is whether he will change the dynamic of the team. Last season the central players were less concerned with the creative aspects of the game. Analysing the performances of Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Henderson – Klopp’s go-to trio for the past two campaigns – in terms of a traditional midfield misses the point. To judge them on assists, goals and thrusting runs goalward is to misunderstand their impact. They brought balance to the side, allowed the full backs to charge forward and protected the defence.
The logic for bringing in Thiago is correct. Opponents overload the flanks to try and pin back Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. The success of the past two seasons has been generated out wide. Arsenal have started the league season using a 3-4-3 system that requires the wing backs to surge upfield and take the initiative in the wide areas. Arteta may well have designed it with Liverpool in mind. Thiago allows Klopp to shift the point of attack to the middle of the park.
This may affect the level of protection provided for the defence. The champions conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League and that statistic underlined the effectiveness of the midfield. Even though Liverpool piled forward at pace, they were a difficult team to counter-attack. Thiago’s use of space, tactical acumen and vision may mean the protective screen for the defence is as strong as ever but if there is any dropoff, Arsenal are capable of exploiting it.
Arteta’s side is built around Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the striker – supported by Ainsley Maitland-Niles - will aim to put Alexander-Arnold under pressure. On the other side of the pitch Hector Bellerin and Willian are forging an impressive understanding. Robertson could have his hands full. Both Liverpool full backs are likely to need reinforcement from their team-mates on occasion. Arsenal are one of the teams who could test the defensive credentials of Klopp’s reshaped midfield if Arteta continues with his bold strategy.
Things are moving in the right direction at the Emirates but the London club are still some way behind Liverpool. A defence that includes David Luiz and Rob Holding does not inspire confidence on a visit to Anfield. Gabriel Magalhaes has potential to improve the back line but the 22-year-old Brazilian will find Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah a much different prospect to the Fulham and West Ham United forwards that he has faced so far.
Thiago’s role in the side does throw up questions but Liverpool are more than capable of answering Arsenal’s threat. The prospect of a hoodoo should be put to bed at Anfield tomorrow.