Arsenals away form against the other five leading clubs has been inadequate, with three wins in five seasons, and they travel to a fretful Anfield in search of a long-term spark
When Arsne Wenger took Arsenal to Liverpool in September 2012, he watched two of his summer signings, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, score the goals in a 2-0 win. It got the club up and running for the season after a couple of disappointing draws and it felt like a spark.
Liverpool had a new manager in Brendan Rodgers and he was struggling at the time with various problems. The result meant Rodgers had presided over the clubs worst start since 1962-63 and his team would finish in seventh one place and two points below Everton. Nevertheless, it went down as a notable away victory for Arsenal.
The reason for bringing it up, as Wenger prepares to take his team back to Anfield for a fixture laced with significance in the fight for Champions League qualification, is its rarity value. Since that day, Arsenal have played 22 away games in the Premier League against the clubs that are considered to make up the Big Six with them Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. They have won two of them.
For the record, they were the Tomas Rosicky-inspired 1-0 victory at Spurs in March 2014 and the 2-0 triumph against City in January 2015, when Cazorla, from the penalty spot, and Olivier Giroud got the goals.
The City result was held up as a breakthrough; the evidence that Wengers team could tough out a major win in the backyard of a title contender. The statement has gone on to lose its sheen. Over the past five seasons, including this one, Arsenal have secured some honourable draws on their league travels to the Big Six but have taken some bad beatings most recently the morale-shattering 3-1 loss against Chelsea on 4 February.
The numbers are on Wengers mind. They are on everybodys minds. If Liverpool are experiencing the first pronounced downturn of the Jrgen Klopp era, with all of the soul-searching that entails, then Arsenals angst has an all-too-familiar feel. The 5-1 loss at Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 on 15 February merely deepened the negative preconceptions about Wengers team.
The manager has delved into the psyche of his players in an attempt to inspire a boost and his buzzwords during the week have been freedom and belief. In short, they have been lacking from many of the important away days in recent seasons. Wenger has to see them return at Anfield.
We lost at Everton and City [in December] after being 1-0 up and it was because we were not proactive after we went ahead we were too passive, Wenger said. After that, we lost at Chelsea under special circumstances a little bit [Wenger disputed Chelseas opener] but I agree that we didnt look like we played with enough freedom or the belief that we would just turn up and do it.
That is what we want to add to our game. What is most important for me now is the attitude to just go for it to go and take. What is linked many times with belief is a passive mode and not enough proactivity. You have to make things happen. It is always a mindset. How do I bring it out in the players? By making them conscious of it.
Wenger is mindful that his team have not played since the FA Cup win at Sutton United on the Monday of last week and he said he had put the emphasis on high-intensity work in training so that they would be ready to start strongly.
Although Wenger is not a manager to park the bus, he did stress the need for defensive solidity and it has surely not been lost on him that each of the three away wins over Big Six rivals since 201213 have featured clean sheets. The one at City was marked by an unusually defensive approach.
Above all, though, Wenger wants his players to have the courage to express themselves and it was in this context that the discussion turned to his artist-in-residence, Mesut zil, who has been off-colour in recent weeks. I think confidence plays a part, Wenger said. If you want to park the bus, then you lose zil. He is a guy who needs possession. With possession, he is a marvellous player.
So, too, is Cazorla and the midfielder has been sorely missed since his heel injury in October, which is set to rule him out for the season. zil has suffered a lot from the loss of Cazorla, Wenger said. Cazorla can get out of pressure in deep midfield; he gets the ball played through to a player who is higher up and then zil, with the ball at the right moment, can always do damage. But I dont want to make this a debate about one player. Its not zil alone who will win us the game.
Arsenals home and away league record against the Big Six since 2012-13 reads: P46 W10 D18 L18. It is not good enough. They need a spark and one that will stand the test of time.