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Arsenal at Liverpool preview: Back in the saddle

After a lengthy international break, can the Gunners keep their forward momentum at an unforgiving Anfield?

Arsenal v Watford - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

It’s good to be back, folks. After what felt like the longest two weeks ever, another international break has wrapped up with Arsenal ready to pick up on the unbeaten run that saw them land in 5th place before the brief hiatus. Arsenal return to action in the midst of a 10 match unbeaten run and in near-perfect health. Unfortunately, Arsenal head north to face the hottest in-form team in the league as the Gunners face Liverpool for what is assuredly the match of the weekend.

The unavoidable yearly away trip to Anfield has been downright atrocious for Arsenal in recent years. Ever since Jurgen Klopp took over as Liverpool manager in 2015, Arsenal’s away performances have been downright dire - in six trips to Anfield since Klopp’s hiring, Arsenal have drawn once and lost five, with an aggregate score of 21-7 in favor of the wily German’s side. I’m no statistician, but that’s not great!

In fact, to find the Gunners’ last away victory in the Premier League over Liverpool, you’d have to go all the way back to September of 2012, with Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski finding the net, Luis Suarez starring for Liverpool, and Mikel Arteta in the midfield for the Gunners. Arsenal finished 4th that season, as it was written, and Liverpool finished 7th. Arsene Wenger was still six years away from the end of his tenure, and Liverpool had just entered the ill-fated Brendan Rogers era.

Fast forward nearly a decade and the two teams find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum. Credit certainly has to be given - Klopp is arguably the best manager in the world and has turned Liverpool into a juggernaut that presses relentlessly and scores in droves with a cut-throat attack featuring world class players. Arsenal, meanwhile, have spent the better part of the two seasons digging out of a deep pit of piss poor transfers, awful contract management, and roster bloat that plagued the club for half a decade. Arteta has finally begun to find sustainable success under Mikel Arteta after the former player has managed to craft a decently-running machine from the burnt out chassis of a Studebaker he inherited.

If Arsenal are ever going to get over the Anfield hump, this match might be the one to do it - but not in the way most would prefer. As luck (read: bad) would have it, Liverpool are facing an absurd list of players missing from action due to injury. Roberto Firminho, Sadio Mane, James Milner, Jordan, Henderson, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Joe Gomez, and Andy Robertson have all found themselves in the physio room in recent weeks. While many are minor knocks, that still creates a headache for Klopp, who is trying to assess the fitness of players ahead of an important match for both sides.

But, lest we forget, this is still Klopp’s Liverpool. With no shortage of well-coached talent eager to smash Arsenal across the jaw, depth is not an issue. Mo Salah, a bonafide Ballon d’Or candidate, is healthy and has already hit double digits in scoring this season. Diogo Jota is quickly becoming the kind of player where scoring against Arsenal is more a matter of “when,” not “if” for him. Trent Alexander Arnold remains a menace on the flank and on a set piece. There is no true weakness, no Achilles’ Heel to take advantage of. Alison has been more mortal than usual, but with Virgil Van Dijk in front of him, finding shots will be a tall order.

But this iteration of Arsenal is, as the kids would say, built different. Aaron Ramsdale ripped the starting keeper spot out of Bernd Leno’s hands and hasn’t looked back. The new-look back four has been nothing short of assertive, vindicating Arteta’s highly-criticized decision to spend big on Ben White and bring in unheralded signings Takehiro Tomiyasu and Nuno Tavares. The midfield has hummed with Thomas Partey leading from the back, and Emile Smith Rowe has done his best imitation of Saka’s majestic ascension from last season.

Arsenal are not without their issues, though. Speaking of Partey, he once again finds himself in the precarious position of being a late fitness call for Arteta, with a nagging groin injury giving the gaffer pause as Saturday approaches. And the center back depth is still painfully shallow - the drop off from Gabriel and Ben White to the rest is a steep, tall cliff into a murky abyss of mediocrity. And the Manchester City match has shown once so far this season that a well-coached, high-press team can unglue the Gunners rather quickly.

This is far from a “must win” for Arsenal - honestly, it feels more like a “will probably lose” to most - but a win would be a huge shot in the arm for an Arsenal team that has gone from relegation fodder to top four candidates in two months’ time. Worse iterations of Arsenal have enjoyed longer unbeaten runs - it was not long ago that Unai Emery’s 2018 team went 22 matches unbeaten, relying heavily on lucky results to paper over major flaws. We know how that ended, but this team is a much different team - built by the manager to play and win as a unit.

A win is ideal, but even a hard-fought draw or even a close loss would suffice as proof of progress. Another out-and-out battering would be a reality check that Arsenal cannot afford to cash right now. Liverpool, though, are far from unbeatable. Brighton’s fightback for a draw and West Ham’s patient victory in recent matches are proof that the match can be there for the taking. Arsenal just have to be ready to take it.

Arteta has lived in the shadow of two giants his entire managerial career - Arsene Wenger, the man he played for, and Pep Guardiola, the man who mentored him. A win tomorrow will help him and this Arsenal team step into the spotlight to start casting a shadow of their own.

WHAT: Arsenal vs Liverpool
WHERE: Anfield
WHEN: Saturday, November 20th 12:30pm est/9:30am pst/5:30pm BST
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast on NBC Sports and streaming on Peacock Premium.

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