There are big matches, and then there are BIG matches. So far this season, Arsenal’s big matches in the Premier League have lived up to their billing, as the Gunners have grown to embrace the spotlight, proof of success of Mikel Arteta’s once heavily-memed process.
But so far, few matches have felt as BIG as this Sunday’s impending match against Liverpool at the Emirates. For a February match, this one has the weight of a late-May title decider. Liverpool sit atop the PL table and are in red-hot form, only amplified by the new emotional narrative at the club. Arsenal sit in 3rd, not quite out of the race, but at risk of being 8 points off the top if they lose on Sunday, a nearly-insurmountable gap considering the form of Liverpool and Manchester City.
The race at the top is still up for grabs, and this is a huge potential six pointer of a match which could have a massive domino effect on the title race. But these are also the matches you live for - going toe to toe with the best of them.
Here are five talking points ahead of Sunday:
End of an Era
The Premier League season took a drastic turn last week when Jürgen Klopp shocked the footballing world, announcing that he would be ending his tenure as Liverpool’s manager at the conclusion of this season after 9 years managing the historic club. It was a bolt from the blue that immediately changed the season’s narrative, which will undoubtedly continue to dominate the larger conversation until it is all wrapped up in May.
Sports give us timeless storylines to build seasons around, and now there is a new one that the masses expect to be written - a galvanized Liverpool, playing for their beloved manager, looking to end his celebrated tenure with one more title (and a few more trophies, to boot). Arsenal are no longer playing against a club on Sunday; they are playing against a narrative. Blocking out the noise has been a recurring theme for Arsenal since their ascent back to prominence last year. Now they have to do it set against an entirely unique emotional backdrop.
Pick Your Poison
Timing is everything. Magnified by the Klopp narrative, Liverpool are hitting their stride as the season hits the back nine. They have won four consecutive matches in dominant fashion, scoring 4 goals in the last three matches. This is all despite missing talismanic winger Mo Salah, whose absence due to Egypt playing in AFCON was further extended by injury.
No matter. In his stead, Diogo Jota has picked up the slack, scoring 4 in the last 4. Striker Darwin Nuñez and winger Luis Diaz have also been chipping in. And that doesn’t also take into account the various goal scorers who have been contributing across the pitch. It’s the equivalent of Whack-a-Mole: one player dips in form, another rises up and starts scoring.
Arsenal have finally started finding the back of the net after a goal drought in January, but now they will face potentially the hottest attack in the league. Despite doubts over Darwin Nuñez’ availability after Wednesday’s match against Chelsea, can the defense put in another showing like they did in December when they drew Liverpool 1-1 at Anfield?
Speaking of the defense, Arsenal’s has been a bit of a paradox - they have given up the 2nd least amount of goals in the league, but have given up some truly frustrating and ill-timed ones. Much of that has centered around the play of Olexander Zinchenko, who, while not renowned for his defensive ability, has been a point of attack for other teams due to his tendency to make errors.
But it’s not just a Zinchenko issue. The defense, on the whole, has been prone to lapses in focus which have led to avoidable goals. Tuesday’s recent match was a perfect encapsulation of that, as the Gunners went from comfortably cruising to a win to holding on for dear life after the defense gave away a late Forest goal that saw the hosts galvanized for the final 10 minutes. Against a side like Liverpool, such errors will almost certainly lead to chances for the visitors that won’t be wasted.
The Battle of Midfield
Arsenal’s midfield has done a tremendous job of asserting themselves and Arteta’s possession-based approach to this season - and not just against low-block teams that are willing to concede possession. Arsenal have been successful already against teams like Manchester City and Liverpool, a major sign of their growth under Arteta into one of the more formidable sides in the league.
Arsenal have made this shift without Thomas Partey, who was a major contributor last season. In his absence, the Gunners have not looked quite as incisive in the build up, but the inclusion of Declan Rice has seen them look far less defensively shaky. Hopes that Partey would return this month were hobbled when Arteta mentioned this week that he had suffered a setback in training. Because of course.
If Arsenal want to be successful against Liverpool, they will want to control the middle of the pitch. Liverpool want chaos. It’s what they thrive on. Arsenal’s ability to minimize the chaos factor will be a deciding factor, and hopefully one that they can maximize at home in front of a raucous crowd.
Arsenal’s February is not as crammed as December was, but the next few matches will be massive in the grand scheme. Arsenal have three away games in a row after Sunday - away to a surprisingly tough West Ham, at a desperate Burnley side, and then a Champions League tie at Porto that will add some immense pressure, all before the Gunners host a frustratingly physical Newcastle side to the Emirates to end the month.
The Gunners surely will be focused on this match, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that they are acutely aware of what is coming down the pipeline. Nothing will set them up for success quite like a win, but a loss…well, that could very well be the wrong kind of domino to fall. Arteta’s sides have had a tendency to let one loss become two really quickly. If that happens, the league is all but a wash. With only the PL and CL left in play, they cannot afford to let either get away from them.
There haven’t been any true “must wins” this season, and this one is not entirely one of them, but it is definitely a “don’t lose.” Arsenal have played Liverpool tight this season, closing the gap after years of being in their shadow. Last season’s victory over Klopp and co at the Emirates became one of the major catalysts for Arsenal’s title hunt. A similar result on Sunday could very well have a similar effect this season.
In Arteta’s (potentially) final showdown against Klopp, it’s time for Arsenal to show up, show out, and write their own narrative.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Liverpool
WHEN: Sunday, February 4th, 11:30am EST/8:30am PST/4:30pm GMT
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming on Peacock
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