It scarcely ranks as the wisest choice of words thus far this season. “Maybe it is more easy,” Sokratis Papastathopoulos said, considering the prospect of defending against Liverpool’s slicker, quicker forward line, rather than halting Burnley’s more abrasive attack. Another adjective he deployed – “different” – felt rather more accurate and distinctly safer.
Arsenal’s Greek centre-back can display more enthusiasm than judgement. He should have been scarred by his last trip to Anfield, a personal display of hideous haplessness that represented a nadir in his Gunners career and which ended 5-1. Arsenal return to Merseyside on Saturday, with their past offering a cautionary tale. There is nothing easy about facing Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool; especially for Arsenal.
Consider the numbers: three, four, three, four, three, one and five. They are Liverpool’s goal returns in their seven games under the German against the Gunners. Roberto Firmino alone scored eight goals in those seven matches. Arsenal had conceded four times by half time on their last visit to Anfield, making theirs the first defence breached that many times in the opening 45 minutes of a Premier League game at Liverpool’s home since, well, Arsenal themselves in 2014.
Themes have recurred with disturbing regularity: a naivety against quick, incisive counter-attackers, an inability to cope with the press, a capacity to capitulate, a struggle to win away against elite opponents, a mismatch when either ageing or inexperienced defenders were confronted with pace and directness.
If Saturday offers an early opportunity to show Arsenal have changed, the omens may be inauspicious. Three of the probable back four – Papastathopoulos, David Luiz and Nacho Monreal – are in their thirties. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is a converted midfielder. He and Monreal may drop out of the team when Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are fit to be the first-choice full-backs. Luiz has played a solitary game in which to establish a relationship with Papastathopoulos.
There are suggestions Emery may look for a policy of safety in numbers by fielding three centre-backs and Luiz’s finest form for Chelsea came at the centre of a trio, flanked by better defenders. Yet going to three centre-backs backfired for Arsene Wenger in this fixture two years ago. Liverpool won 4-0. Arsenal were shambolic.
A familiar criticism is that they lack leadership, something that seemed compounded when Laurent Koscielny in effect abdicated as captain to pursue his exit. Arsenal’s transfer window had the feel of a failure that was transformed into a success, largely by the coup of landing Nicolas Pepe, but partly because Luiz arrived, weakening Chelsea, a potential upgrade on the older Koscielny and a net cost of just £3.4 million.
The Brazilian has been charged with adding leadership, a big personality for a big challenge. It is one his former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho suggested that might suit him. Mourinho, who sold Luiz during his second spell at Stamford Bridge, said this month: “Sometimes he makes mistakes, but he makes those mistakes when his concentration levels are low. And when you change to a new club and you have something to prove, I think it is a good move for him.”
Luiz possesses the footballing skills of a midfielder and can feel a magnetic presence. They are common denominators with Virgil van Dijk. A fundamental difference between men whose best is very good lies in consistency.
The comparisons are obvious but imperfect. But if Van Dijk was a transformative figure for Liverpool, Arsenal require Luiz to be another. The bare facts are that they have conceded 51 goals in each of the two most recent league seasons and, of the last 68 top-four finishers in England, only one was breached on a half-century of occasions: Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, who scored a century of goals.
They were an extraordinary outlier and, while Arsenal possess a potent front three in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Pepe, received wisdom suggests even a frontloaded team needs to be more frugal to progress.
The numbers are unflattering. Ten teams, Watford and Newcastle United included, conceded fewer shots last season. Bernd Leno made the sixth most saves, even though he did not start seven league matches. The figures show a need for resolve and resilience. Arsenal’s past, their Anfield eviscerations, has contributed to a negative stereotype. In three seasons when they have finished outside the top four, they have taken four points from a possible 45 on the road against the rest of the big six. More than most, Liverpool have been their undoing. For this season to be different, they need a more solid platform. There has to be a case for the defence.