Arsenal Seek to Reclaim High Standards with Creative Statement against Liverpool
Martin Ødegaard wants Arsenal to reclaim their high standards after slipping to defeats against West Ham and Fulham.
A Chance to Make a Statement
When Liverpool visited the Emirates in October 2022, Arsenal needed to prove a point. The home side had won seven of their first eight games but, beyond the successful negotiation of a derby with Spurs, all of those victories conformed to expectation. They required a real inflection point to underline what everyone sensed: that this was a side capable of taking the next step and mounting a genuine challenge at the top. It was duly delivered during an absorbing, stylish five-goal thriller in which Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli ran riot.
How Arsenal could do with making a similar statement now. Liverpool return to north London on Sunday and while the FA Cup may not be top of Arteta’s priorities it provides an opportunity to breathe life into a tottering season. It is also a chance to land a blow before, in a month’s time, this meeting of title contenders is reprised in a Premier League context.
Tweaked Approaches and Defensive Strategies
There is a sense opponents have tweaked their approach against Arsenal in recent months. For all bar their fellow frontrunners, the idea that going after them can expose a soft underbelly has gone out of fashion. Instead teams have been happier to stay behind the ball and pose new questions: can you break us down and, if not, can you avoid being exposed to a sucker punch?
They had no reply to either conundrum in barren displays against Fulham and, in a game they dominated without offering any cutting edge, West Ham.
"After what we did last season and the beginning of this season, teams are analysing us," Martin Ødegaard says. "They’re trying to stop us playing to our strengths. Are they dropping deeper? Yeah, I think so. In my first season and even at the start of last season the games we played were more open because teams wanted to come here, attack us and press high."
Seeking More Daring Alternatives
It is incumbent on Ødegaard and his creative colleagues to be lockpickers. Arsenal have generally looked more stable since the arrival of Declan Rice but they have not matched the buccaneering wonder of this time last year. Sometimes, like in the last-gasp away wins at Brentford and Luton, they have rescued mediocre performances through quality and sheer force of persistence. On other occasions, as at Craven Cottage, an over-reliance on a tired Saka and an out-of-form Martinelli has been obvious. Maybe they need to seek more daring alternatives when their explosive wide men are being nullified.
"We just have to find different spaces and play well enough to deal with it," Ødegaard says of more conservative opposition strategies. "I like when I have to think about my game, think about the other team and what they’re doing. How will they defend me? How can I find spaces? It’s a good challenge and something I enjoy. You have to analyse the game and find places you can hurt them and still be dangerous."
Aiming to Reclaim High Standards
When Arsenal are struggling, Ødegaard can be forced too deep and their domination of the ball tends towards the sterile. On Friday, Mikel Arteta was asked about the importance of added variety when their favoured patterns are not bearing fruit. "It is [important] because you become more unpredictable," he said. "That makes it easier for us and more difficult for the opponent because they have to spend a lot of time preparing things."
Early in his tenure there were times when Arsenal received criticism for being more methodical than maverick. Arteta is a stickler for control and the danger is that, in taking steps to mitigate the risk of chaos, the dial moves too far backwards again. He was not shy to point out that the serious early-season injury to Jurriën Timber, sustained on his league debut against Nottingham Forest, knocked a dent in his formulations for the year. The same went for the persistent problems faced by Thomas Partey, who is still weeks away from being fit. "A huge blow," Arteta said. "We had other plans as well to become very versatile and unpredictable in our way of playing. We have not had them and that is difficult."
Those backing them on Sunday will hope to see evidence, against a Liverpool side shorn of Mohamed Salah and facing a League Cup semi-final first leg against Fulham on Wednesday, that those expectations can still be met.