Liverpool return to action with a trip to Arsenal this weekend, so we’ve got in touch with the Reds’ rivals to get the lowdown on their season.
The hope is that Liverpool will be refreshed both physically and mentally, as they look to enjoy a barnstorming final two months of the season.
With kickoff in north London fast approaching, we spoke to writer Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) to hear about the Gunners’ campaign, why Liverpool have fallen short and much more.
How would you assess Arsenal’s season to date?
A season of two halves, really.
Up until Boxing Day, it was genuinely very poor. We were in relegation form and even the underlying metrics suggested that was not an unfair position for Arsenal.
The win over Chelsea on Boxing Day and, more significantly, Emile Smith Rowe’s arrival into the team, changed things. It led to a change in formation and we knew we were really missing that player to link midfield and attack.
Since then, we have added Martin Odegaard, too, and suddenly Arsenal are actually able to create chances again.
Things are much better now, but there is still some development to happen – between the boxes the Gunners are genuinely a really good team now, we just need to sort out what happens in both 18-yard areas!
Is Arteta the man to take the Gunners forward?
I really wanted Arteta, but I wavered badly around November and December.
The improvement since then means I am back on board and if you are going to hire a rookie coach, you have to accept that they are going to learn along the way and education is laced with errors.
Arteta has shone in terms of communication, which Arsenal fans sorely needed. We went from a gifted orator like Arsene Wenger to Unai Emery who, even in his native tongue, speaks in riddles.
I also really support what he is trying to do, in terms of addressing the lax culture at Arsenal with improved discipline.
But they have become a cup team because they turn it off and on like a tap and that really needs to stop – they need to be more consistent and they badly need that cultural reboot.
Who have been Arsenal’s three best players so far?
Bukayo Saka. The boy is a revelation and has been in several positions. He is beginning to demonstrate end product now, too.
He’s become a cult hero because of his relatable qualities, but he is a seriously good footballer and Arsenal‘s attack is not the same without him.
Smith Rowe changed Arsenal‘s season. That is, partly, because Arsenal had absolutely nobody linking midfield and attack so anyone that could do the job semi-competently would have represented an improvement.
But he is just a really smart player. He isn’t the type of No. 10 that just stands there and waits to make through-balls, he links everything together.
He is just everywhere – wherever there is space to be exploited on or off the ball he will see it and either run or pass into it. He is a very clever player, given his age.
Any who have been poor?
Dani Ceballos hasn’t kicked on like we all hoped when he re-signed for Arsenal this season. He is a talented player but a bit of an individual, he just likes too many touches and often drops too deep in games.
The Spaniard is technically very sound, but Arsenal struggle to dominate games when he is there.
Willian has improved recently but the bar was very low. Given that he is 32, on huge wages and has a three-year deal, he might turn out to be Arsenal‘s worst-ever signing.
He isn’t a bad player – he has shown that during his career – but Arsenal has been a miserable fit for him.
Switching our attention to Liverpool, why do you think they have struggled this season?
Injuries, pretty much plain and simple.
I know everyone likes to make the comparison with Jurgen Klopp‘s last season at Borussia Dortmund, but I really don’t think that’s it.
The thing is, Liverpool coped without Virgil van Dijk at first, but then the defensive injuries kept stacking up and hey presto, the form got worse.
Liverpool are going to have to do a rebuild soon, considering the number of players who are now close to 30, and I think Gini Wijnaldum will be a tough player to replace.
But honestly, I think the Reds will challenge for the title next season.
Why do you think they will be title contenders again?
I do think the rebuild might be more problematic because it’s difficult to see where Liverpool’s next Philippe Coutinho or Luis Suarez is to fund it, now that Real Madrid and Barcelona are broke.
I still think Liverpool are a better team than Man United, though, and that would bear out with a fully fit squad and in a more ‘normal’ season.
Looking ahead to Saturday, who do you fear most?
I’m most fearful of Arsenal‘s love of self-destruction against that Liverpool press.
The Gunners still only really play in spells and we will have at least 15 minutes where they can’t get their heads together, and I fear what Liverpool can do with a good 15 minutes.
That said, I do think Arsenal tend to switch on a little more for these games.
Where do you see the key battles taking place?
Midfield is where the game will be won and lost for me. With Thomas Partey, Arsenal actually have a midfield for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s Achilles’ tendon went to heaven.
That Partey and Odegaard linkup means that Arsenal don’t have to play like underdogs in these games anymore.
The former’s fitness has been patchy this season, however, and Odegaard rolled his ankle playing for Norway in the week.
Then again, the custard pie is never far from their face, even if they play well, and the capacity to just chuck goals away is always high.
Finally, hit us with your prediction…
I’m going for an entertaining 1-1 draw here.