Of all the things I’m expecting from Saturday’s match with Liverpool, a free-flowing, action-packed, humdinger of a clash isn’t one of them.
A lot of guys from both sides have been dragged half-way across the globe, in and out of various quarantine and time zones, sleeping in hotels and spending large amounts of time travelling over the last week, not to mention some would also have played three games in that time.
Some of these guys may not even have returned to their clubs by Thursday, leaving barely two days to recover, refocus and work on plans for Liverpool. In short, it has been far from ideal for either club. The only silver lining for Arsenal is that they won’t have to spend Saturday travelling down to London amidst the bank holiday traffic, as Liverpool will.
All of this likely means that we’ll be watching two travel-weary, ragged teams in action and two teams not exactly enjoying their best seasons in living memory either. A goalless draw wouldn’t be a bad shout at this juncture.
It’s a shame for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal in particular because, but for the international break, they would have been in a good position to go after Jurgen Klopp’s side. Liverpool are currently in freefall and lurching from one farce to another in the league. That’s not to say we are pulling up any trees ourselves but we have some measure of stability that is currently missing from the visitors.
That’s not to say we can’t still take advantage of their ongoing malaise but it feels as though this energy-sapping break may be something of a leveller for both sides.
A draw is seldom a disaster but, with points now precious in the pursuit of European football, a draw isn’t doing either of us much good. And, as if the fixture schedule wasn’t burdensome enough, we have the prospect of two more games to play in the following week – with Slavia Prague visiting on Thursday before a trip to Sheffield United on Sunday.
Liverpool meanwhile, face travelling to Spain for a Tuesday night Champions League tie with Real Madrid before hosting Aston Villa on Saturday.
The use of our more peripheral players, therefore, looks likely to be key.
My gut feeling is that the manager will go as near to full strength as he can muster for Liverpool tomorrow with a raft of changes for Prague and the Blades. The Europa League remains of paramount importance to our season, of course, but I would still hope to see the likes of Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey spared the hard yards unless and until absolutely necessary.
These next few weeks may offer a chance for the likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson, Mohamed Elneny, Callum Chambers and Dani Ceballos to get some minutes under their belts, with four of those five arguably playing for their short-term futures.
Although we’d all have preferred this season to be about building and developing our post-Wenger identity and culture, at times it has felt like a matter of simple survival. Manchester City aside, everybody else in the Premier League has just tried to make it from one week to the next without an injury or COVID crisis – some fixtures have sometimes felt like an inconvenience.
In all likelihood, I fear tomorrow’s fixture with Liverpool may be exactly that for both sides.