It’s time to find out if Unai Emery’s new-look Arsenal is the real deal.
Since losing its opening two games of the season to Manchester City and then Chelsea, Arsenal has taken advantage of a relatively benign schedule to win 12 of its next 13 matches — and draw the other — in all competitions.
A strong platform has been laid: The team is in fourth place in the league, is through to the quarterfinals of the English League Cup , and is virtually assured of advancing to the knockout stage of the Europa League.
There’s a sense that Arsenal still has something to prove, however, ahead of the visit of unbeaten Liverpool on Saturday in the Premier League.
Who is the first-choice goalkeeper: Offseason signing Bernd Leno or Petr Cech, who started the season in goal and has just returned from injury?
Is the defense sturdy enough? It has kept only two clean sheets in 10 league games, and there are doubts about the flimsiness and lack of pace at center back.
Is Mesut Ozil really back to his best? The languid playmaker followed up his best performance of the season — in a 3-1 win over Leicester — with a frustratingly lackluster display in the 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace on Sunday that led to him being substituted in the 68th minute. That draw at Palace ended Arsenal’s 11-game winning run.
And does Emery truly know how best to set out his strikeforce? He has switched between playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette as the sole striker, with Aubameyang having to settle for a substitute’s role or a place on the left wing.
It’s no surprise there are still some teething problems in the Arsenal side. After all, Emery is attempting to stamp his own mark on the team after replacing Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s coach of nearly 22 years. That includes a stronger emphasis on playing the ball out from the back and adopting a more intense pressing game in midfield.
Expectations no doubt have been exceeded in the first three months of the season, with Emery receiving a period of grace from Arsenal supporters. But Liverpool, and revitalized forward Mohamed Salah, could give Arsenal a reality check at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Salah, who has scored in each of his last three club games, and Sadio Mane, who struck twice against Cardiff last weekend, look in the kind of form to prey on Arsenal’s defensive frailties — as Liverpool has done as a team in scoring 17 goals in its last five matches against Arsenal in the Premier League.
In its last two visits to the Emirates, Liverpool has scored seven goals and the games have been end-to-end classics that always suit Juergen Klopp’s side.
Emery has brought a measure of control to Arsenal — Lucas Torreira, the offseason signing from Sampdoria, has brought a much-needed assuredness in midfield, for example — and got its forward line clicking. Arsenal has scored at least two goals in every league game since losing 2-0 at home to City on the opening weekend.
Liverpool, though, has conceded only four goals in 10 league games, with its stingy defense proving to be as much of an asset as its prolific forward line that carried the team to the Champions League final last season.
Something has to give on Saturday.
Source: The Associated Press