As this eerie, fan-less addendum to the Premier League enters its final few weeks, the start of this unique campaign has all but been swept away in the fog of time.
Almost 11 months ago – yet, still the 2019/20 season – Liverpool served up a routine 3-1 win at home to Arsenal. So much has changed for both sides since that hazy Saturday afternoon, but there are some things which almost a year has done little to alter.
A glaring individual error and conceding from a corner sound rather too familiar for Arsenal fans still reeling from Sunday’s north London derby defeat. Liverpool prospered with the same formula back in August.
Joël Matip opened the scoring from a devilish Trent Alexander-Arnold set piece on the cusp of half-time, before David Luiz grabbed a fistful of Mohamed Salah’s shirt to give away a penalty four minutes after the restart.
This same duo then tangled again for Liverpool’s third, or rather, Luiz did his best not to tangle with Salah, almost jumping out of the winger’s way to avoid a second yellow card as Liverpool’s number 11 netted an eye-catching solo goal.
Unlike Arsenal’s manager that day Unai Emery (yes, Emery was still at Arsenal this season) Luiz will almost certainly be involved in the reverse fixture.
The Brazilian was able to top this shambolic showing in Arsenal’s first game following the restart against Manchester City. However, Luiz has since earned a contract extension and begun the latest reassemble of his reputation at the centre of Arsenal’s back-three. Mikel Arteta’s change in system has given Luiz an extra layer of security with two centre-backs beside him and seems to have steadied the 33-year-old (so far).
The blunder which allowed Tottenham to level the score on the weekend did involve Luiz, but was hardly his fault as Sead Kolašinac carelessly set Son Heung-min through on goal with a sloppy pass. Back in August, the fact that Arsenal played out from the back also garnered much post-match attention.
Liverpool threatened to steal possession each and every time Arsenal’s players ponderously knocked the ball between one another, with little idea of how they were going to get through the press.
Despite Kolašinac’s error, Arteta has improved Arsenal’s distribution from the back overall. Instead of mindlessly pinging the ball between the centre-backs, Arsenal ensure that they wait to play a pass that will bypass an opponent, therefore actually providing some merit to the practice.
Of course, after only six months – interrupted by a global pandemic – of coaching under Arteta, this is far from perfect and it will be interesting to see if the Spaniard sticks with this approach given Liverpool’s pressing prowess.
One approach that Arteta surely won’t persist with is the narrow 4-4-2 diamond Emery deployed in the third game of the season. Arsenal’s glaring lack of width with this system gave Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson large swathes of green grass to deliver a flurry of penetrating crosses. Arteta’s recent use of 3-4-3 should clog this space on the flanks if Arsenal’s wingbacks push onto Liverpool’s playmaking fullbacks.
One corner of that contentious diamond was the equally controversial Mattéo Guendouzi. The combustible Frenchman was a favourite of Emery and the Arsenal fanbase after an encouraging debut campaign.
However, 11 months on and Guendouzi’s time at the club looks to be coming to an end after repeated fallouts with Arteta and his recent banishment from Arsenal’s training ground. Stan Collymore may think Guendouzi would ‘thrive’ on Merseyside but he won’t be near either side’s starting XI in midweek.
While Liverpool’s win was ultimately comfortable, Arsenal posed some threat on the counter attack with the jet-heeled duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé up front. Yet, deploying Aubameyang through the middle is nothing more than a last port of call for Arteta these days, as the 38-year-old has exclusively stationed his star man on the left wing since his appointment.
On the surface, being shunted out wide has done little to dampen Aubameyang’s goalscoring threat. Since Arteta’s first game in charge, only Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and his upcoming opponent Salah have scored more Premier League goals than the Gabonese forward.
Yet, the fact that Aubameyang has as many as nine strikes in this period is thanks to a spate of clinical finishing given that his expected goals tally suggests he ‘should’ have netted closer to six or seven. Aubameyang’s sharp shooting will be desperately needed if Arsenal are to foster any faint hopes of being the latest to take points off the newly-crowned champions.
Before the sides met back in August, Jürgen Klopp hailed Arsenal as ‘one of Europe’s best teams’. Incidentally, the German is a better manager than mystic as his side goes into Wednesday’s contest 43 points ahead of their opponents.
This chasm – which is the same tally 13th-placed Newcastle have mustered after 35 games – demonstrates that Arsenal are operating in a different realm to Liverpool. Arteta has made some gradual improvements to the side but they remain so far off the upper echelons of the league – let alone the continent – it’s incredible to think that this was a genuine belief this season.