Have Arsenal turned a corner or another false dawn? Liverpool test could reveal the truth

Mikel Arteta's side have been the kings of autumn and their revival will face its sternest challenge yet at Anfield on Saturday

When August ended, Arsenal were pointless and goalless, keeping Norwich off the foot of the table. When the third international break arrived, they were fifth, seemingly on a quest to go from bottom to top.

Since August, Arsenal are the Premier League’s only undefeated side and have amassed an unrivalled 20 points. They arrive at Anfield on Saturday as the kings of autumn, but with the possibility this will rank as the latest of the false dawns that have pockmarked Arsenal’s recent past.

Their other two meetings with the title favourites were chastening affairs, albeit in their awful August. They were bullied and schooled by Romelu Lukaku as Chelsea won 2-0. They were reduced to 10 men, eviscerated and embarrassed as Manchester City ran riot in a 5-0 win.

Yet each came with patched-up, second-string defences. Mikel Arteta’s new-look rearguard are unbeaten as a unit. Indeed, Aaron Ramsdale and Takehiro Tomiyasu have never tasted defeat as Gunners. Ben White had a shaky debut at Brentford but since being united with Gabriel Magalhaes, he has been imperious.

Now the Arteta Invincibles – unbeaten in eight, rather than the full 38 Arsene Wenger’s side managed – face trial by Mohamed Salah. Liverpool against Arsenal is a fixture with a certain significance, and not merely for those with memories of 1989. The Gunners’ first loss last season came on Merseyside; thereafter Arteta abandoned the 3-4-3 that was a revelation as they won the FA Cup and, indeed, beat a Liverpool side already crowned champions in the summer of 2020.

Once again, Arsenal face the question if a system is sustainable. Again, it is an attempt to crowbar Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into a line-up that may leave them short-staffed in the centre of midfield. Arteta’s recent reversion to 4-4-2, and uncharacteristic experiment with a genuine strike partnership, was aided by Aston Villa and Leicester playing 3-5-2 against them.

The victory over Villa ranked as one of two outstanding performances in Arsenal’s golden run, along with the North London demolition of Tottenham. The triumph at Leicester was arguably their best result, facilitated by a fantastic first half but secured by some stunning saves from Ramsdale.

The goalkeeper can be the personification of the Arsenal revival: youthful – Arteta has named the youngest teams in the division this season – and a signing by the Spaniard who was initially greeted with scepticism as many wondered what Arsenal had to show for their status as the summer’s biggest spenders. Parachuting Ramsdale into the team ahead of Bernd Leno was the gamble that has proved a masterstroke. Now there is the sense that long-term planning has provided a glimpse of a bright future.

The sight of three Arsenal players starting for England, for the first time since 2014, felt doubly symbolic when the others were the homegrown Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, who both scored in the 10-0 thrashing of San Marino. They are the faces of the new Arsenal, the endearing entertainers.

And yet the nature of Arteta’s Arsenal is that, while his overall record is undistinguished, the highs have been sufficiently high to suggest they are on the route back to glory and the lows often deeply depressing.

Arteta’s intelligence and training-ground prowess are apparent as he oversees impressive wins after finding a formula and formation, only for someone to unlock it. But perhaps sometimes he stumbles on a short-term solution, and this could rank as another.

Without Granit Xhaka and potentially Thomas Partey, he may name understudies in midfield. Anfield, where Arsenal have conceded 28 goals in their last eight games, is a place where failings have been exposed and plans abandoned in the past. Arsenal must hope history does not repeat itself.

Updated: November 18th 2021, 3:04 AM
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