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Arsenal must avoid psychological FA Cup blow to Liverpool that could derail title hopes

Jurgen Klopp (left) and Mikel Arteta (right)
This is the second of three meetings between Jurgen Klopp (left) and Mikel Arteta in six weeks - Getty Images/Andrew Powell

On Christmas Day, Arsenal sat at the top of the league table. By New Year’s Day, they were fourth. That is how quickly things can change at the highest level of English football and, with Liverpool arriving at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, Mikel Arteta’s side suddenly find themselves on the brink of their first mini-crisis of the season.

A run of one victory in six games in all competitions is evidently a source of concern for a team with ambitions of winning everything this year. And while there are no league points at stake on Sunday, there can be no pretending that this latest meeting with Liverpool – the second of three matches in six weeks – will not have some impact on the title race.

From an Arsenal perspective, the upbeat way of looking at this cup tie is to say there would be no better time to return to form. Victory over Jurgen Klopp’s side would wash away the angst that has built up following back-to-back losses to West Ham United and Fulham.

But what of defeat? Arsenal appear more vulnerable now than they have been for some time and a loss to a Liverpool team without Mohamed Salah (away on international duty) would represent a considerable psychological blow.

It was Salah, after all, who stopped Arsenal claiming three points at Anfield in December. In 27 matches this season, he has scored 18 goals and registered nine assists. If Arteta’s side cannot capitalise on his absence now, what would that say of their ability to overpower Liverpool in the second half of the league campaign?

The good news for Arsenal is that they should at least have space to attack against Liverpool. So many of their opponents this season have set up with deep-lying defences, and Arsenal have struggled at times to find a way through. Against Klopp’s team, there will be opportunities to play a more expansive game.

“After what we did last season and the beginning of this season, teams are analysing us and looking at what we’re doing in games,” said Martin Odegaard, the Arsenal captain. “They are trying to stop us from playing to our strengths. Are they dropping deeper? Yeah, I think so.

“When I first came here [in January 2021] and even at the start of last season, the games we played were more open because teams wanted to come here and attack us and press high.

“It is also about our quality – we make teams play deep because we have the ball a lot, but some teams are adapting as well. They know our strengths so a lot of teams are defending deep and trying to make it hard for us. I like that challenge. It’s a good sign, to feel like teams are coming here and showing that they respect you. That’s a good thing. We just have to find different spaces and to play well enough to deal with it.”

Martin Odegaard apologises to Arsenal fans after their Premier League defeat at Fulham
Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard believes team are playing more conservatively against them this season - Getty Images/Clive Rose

It is a measure of Arsenal’s progress that few teams are brave enough to come to the Emirates with intentions of attacking. This season, each of Arsenal’s Champions League opponents tried it, and each of them were punished. PSV, Lens and Sevilla were all thrashed, with Arsenal scoring 12 goals and conceding zero in those three home games.

The hope, then, is that the next two meetings with Liverpool (they play again on Feb 4) will be more akin to those Champions League ties. Football with the shackles off, as it was at Anfield shortly before Christmas, should suit Arteta’s team, who will be wearing an all-white kit on Sunday as part of the club’s ‘No More Red’ campaign against knife crime and youth violence.

Defeat is the worst-case scenario for both teams, as ever, but on this occasion a draw is not particularly desirable, either. No one wants a replay. “A rematch would really not be helpful,” said Klopp. “It just doesn’t fit in, and it would kill the winter break.”

Arsenal are hoping to use the winter break to travel to Dubai for a mid-season training camp. A replay would therefore be a significant annoyance. “We have plans for both scenarios,” said Arteta, who wants the Football Association to consider scrapping replays next year.

It is clear that the FA Cup is not the priority for either team but Arteta knows better than most how important it can be. Without the lingering glory of winning the competition in the summer of 2020, he might not have kept his job in the difficult months that followed.

In the wider picture, the FA Cup always matters to Arsenal. In the short-term, meanwhile, this is the chance for the players to show their recent form is nothing more than a blip. Expectations are high, externally and internally, and Arsenal intend to meet them.

“We have set high standards from what we’ve done in the last 18 months,” said Odegaard. “I want people to expect us to be at the top. That’s where we want to be, that’s what we expect of ourselves as well. Those are the standards we want.”

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