Arsenal vs Liverpool: Gunners face crucial test of their new resilience in the biggest matches

Arsenal have a good recent home record against Liverpool

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The Independent Football

As Arsenal look to finish as high as second in the Premier League for the first time in 10 years, they must also end what has been one of the most oddly consistent trends of that decade: a resilient pattern of form that ensures they always stay around the same level.

Every time they seem on the brink of plunging into a genuine crisis, they bring themselves back up with the right result. Every time they have the chance to lift themselves to challenge at the very top, they tend to slip.

The latter has often been down to that infamous Arsenal capacity for defeat in the big games, the 6-3 mauling at the feet of Manchester City in December 2013 being the perfect example. Just at the point when Arsène Wenger’s side were top of the league and could have shown that this was an Arsenal season with a difference, they succumbed to the same old failings.

They do have a good recent home record against Liverpool, winning both league and cup games at the Emirates last season, but today’s meeting is a fixture with a difference. It is not only about facing Liverpool; it is about what it could represent. It is a big game for reasons beyond the opposition or even the potential position.

Should Arsenal win, they will not just secure a top-four place, opening a nine-point gap with seven games left and effectively killing off Liverpool’s challenge. They would also further propel their own push for Manchester City’s second place, while illustrating that they can do so when it gets most pressurised.

 

It would break the pattern of self-correcting regression. It would be setting themselves up for progress.

And it would extend a sequence of much better performances in big games.

Since Arsenal’s form transformed in the new year – they actually have the best points return since 1 January of all 20 Premier League teams – they have also enjoyed a transformation in the higher-profile matches.

They have played three of them in domestic football in 2015, and won two, both the victories coming away to the Manchester clubs. The late derby defeat to Tottenham Hotspur was the only reverse in a run of nine wins from their last 10 Premier League games; and it does not feel as significant as the way Wenger’s side approached the 2-0 win over Manchester City in the league, or the 2-1 win at United in the FA Cup.

There was a new canniness and patience, which had often been thought of as beyond Wenger at this point in his career. Sir Alex Ferguson said in his most recent biography that the Arsenal manager “had a template of how he sees the way they play”, which meant sides could work out a winning template in response. That sit-back-and-break approach has meant both Chelsea and United have managed a disproportionately high number of victories over Arsenal in the last decade, but it would not have worked in either of those games.

Arsenal did not take the same risks, and they complemented that approach with a new combativeness. As Per Mertesacker says on these pages today, they learned to be more secure in such matches.

Many around the club also point to the introduction of Francis Coquelin in defensive midfield as particularly important. “He is a sitting player who can win the ball,” Wenger declared.

That more careful approach could be especially important today because of the swift way Liverpool can start games, as was illustrated by their 5-1 win over Arsenal at Anfield last season.

It could be the difference between Arsenal winning this game and not, between breaking an old trend or not. It could well make it three wins out of four in the big games, rather than a mere 50 per cent record which would suggest slipping back to the norm.

Anything other than a victory would ensure that the same questions remain. Arsenal would have had the chance to kill off a challenge and secure themselves impressively early, but instead let live a number of old accusations.

That is why this is about more than beating Liverpool.It’s about keeping on climbing to a new height.

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