Another one of our talented new writers; “Tom” provides an in depth analysis of tonight’s game against Liverpool.
In 1995, under the Christmas tree I unwrapped a present from my uncle, an Arsenal video, “a football and music spectacular” entitled ‘The Pain and the Glory’. The title however, was misleading, as the video was dedicated almost entirely to the Glory. But in football there is so much pain, and as an Arsenal fan, the barren trophy cabinet of recent years has caused pain that the beauty of our football fails to conceal. But the fans don’t want to dwell on the pain, so we glorify the triumphs of our past. This of course, is easier for some clubs than others. Watch as Tottenham fans 50 years from now tell their grandchildren the tale of their glorious Carling Cup win of 2008.Since our fateful draw with Birmingham, the glory of our magnificent start to the season has been erased by the pain of seeing our hopes and dreams repeatedly crushed. Last season, the overwhelming feeling was one of frustration. But this year, with so much to play for, every late goal, incorrect refereeing decision or injury seems like a body blow that could make the crucial difference between victory and defeat. That’s why a season in contention that bares no glory is of more pain than one of mediocrity. When the glory was so close you could taste it, once it is taken away the pain becomes unbearable.
Tonight, coupled with next weekend’s showdown with the Mancs, will define whether our season is remembered as one of pain or glory. We face the Champions League’s outstanding competitors over the last three seasons for the third time in a week, and its make or break time for both teams.
Liverpool have fought back well from their opening three games of the tournament, winning their final three group games to qualify for the knockout round. But they have ridden their luck at times. Their victory over Inter was much celebrated, but for well over an hour they couldn’t break down Inter’s ten men, after the lovable Marco Matterazi was red carded for receiving two of the softest yellows I have ever witnessed. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, which is why so little fuss was made after ‘The Matrix’ was sent off. Still, they couldn’t score past a resolute Inter defence, until their other starting centre back, Ivan Cordoba, was taken off injured. They had almost gone through to the next round before the second leg even started, but still they were granted another soft red to help them on their way.
Liverpool are the top scorers in this years tournament, with 22 goals. Eight came against Besiktas, when they beat the record we had set against Slavia Prague, where no less than six of their goals were scored from either deflections or second chance shots from the keeper’s mistake. Arsenal have scored 17 times, but have conceded one less than Liverpool, 6 to the Red’s 5.
Although Eduardo, Bacary Sagna and inevitably, Tomas Rosicky, are all out injured, Arsene Wenger has numerous selection choices to decide. If he elects to start Gallas and Toure in the middle, he has the perfect combination to deal with the speed of Torres. If Eboue and Clichy are to join them in the backline, Arsenal will start with the quickest backline in Europe. The other main danger man, although he is unlikely to start, has to be the lovable beanpole that is Peter Crouch. And if Crouch enters the fray, Arsenal could be in big trouble. Crouch terrorised the Gallas/Toure partnership at Anfield last season, and caused similar problems at Ashburton Grove last weekend. Wenger may elect to start with Senderos and Gallas, and shift Toure to right back. It seems unlikely Justin Hoyte is in for a start, particularly following his rather inept performance on Saturday. Senderos provides a more balanced feel to the defence, adding a physical presence and aerial ability that Toure and Gallas lack, but it runs the risk of Torres running him ragged, and if Big Phil doesn’t time his tackles perfectly, don’t be surprised to see El Nino taking a few tumbles in and around the penalty box.
I was at the game last Wednesday, and after seeing the teamsheet before kick off, thought the two close friends from the Ivory Coast might link well down the right hand side. How wrong I was. Eboue was woeful; Toure looked lost, and has been consistently shaky since returning from the African Cup of Nations. The next position that we are unsure of, then is right mid. This position depends largely on who takes up the right back slot. If Wenger persists with Kolo Toure, as in the first leg, the options are Alex Hleb, Emmanuel Eboue, or Theo Walcott. Eboue is a liability wherever he plays, but Wenger has shown great faith in his abilities in the Champions League. Presumably, the idea would be that he is more accomplished defensively than the alternatives, and can provide superior cover to his right back, and perhaps Wenger sees his ball retention as superior to Theo’s. It seems likely Theo will retain his role as a super-sub, and be brought on to rip apart a tiring Liverpool defence should we need a goal late on. The final option is to play Alexander Hleb on the right hand side, which would mean putting Abou Diaby out left, and giving our midfield a more compact, physical feel. If either Eboue or Walcott is chosen on the right hand side, expect to see Hleb move to the left flank.
In away games in Europe in recent seasons, Wenger has favoured a 4-5-1 formation. His ability to adopt this formation may depend on the fitness of Robin van Persie, and whether he has enough in the tank to start. I have a sneaking suspicion Wenger will risk him, allowing him to drift between the left wing and a more central area, with Eboue taking up a spot at right midfield, and Hleb given a more free role behind Adebayor, who Wenger has confirmed will start. Fabregas and Flamini are pretty much guaranteed to maintain their effective partnership the centre of the park. This would leave a likely backline of Toure, Senderos, Gallas and Clichy, with Almunia between the sticks.
Liverpool’s team sheet is more predictable, albeit with a couple of potential variations. Benitez will undoubtedly stick to the 4-5-1 that has served him well in recent weeks, with two holding midfielders, Mascherano and Alonso, Babel and Kuyt as unnatural wingers who will cut inside and help out on defence, and Gerrard in a free role behind the enigmatic Torres. The backline features a couple of possible variations; two out of Skrtel, Carragher and Hyppia at centre-back, either Finnan, Carragher and Arbeloa at right back and at left back it’s between Aurelio, Riise and Arbeloa. I imagine Benitez will stick to the formation he used against Arsenal, with Hyppia and Skrtel taking the centre-back slots, and Carragher and Aurelio and right and left back respectively.
The key has to be containing the Gerrard/Torres axis, while forcing Babel and Kuyt to help out in defence and remove their threat in attack. Fabregas will have to escape the relentless grips of Javier Mascherano if he is to play a role. Liverpool’s zonal marking at dead balls led to both Arsenal’s two goals from crosses in the recent encounters, and with Adebayor as a target man, this is a potential weakness for Arsenal to exploit. A difficult balance between going for that essential goal and avoiding Liverpool’s counter attacks must be achieved, which will be increasingly difficult if we are forced to chase the game.
Anyone who is attending the game, look closely at Jamie Carragher. Having seen him in the flesh, I have come to the opinion that he is the master of the black arts of defending. His physical approach to the game relies on subtle tugs and kicks at his opposite number, in an incredibly professional style of fouling that I both detest and admire.
The most memorable moment of “The Pain and the Glory” was our 2-0 victory against the odds over Liverpool, at Anfield, in 1989. We’ve had enough Pain recently, and if Arsenal’s 2008 vintage can channel the spirit of Michael Thomas, we can go one step closer to achieving the Glory that so much of our play this season has deserved. ‘The Pain and the Glory’ is due for a reissue, and it’s time we added another memory to the video vault.