Arsenal supporters could be forgiven if they feel like they’ve been here before.
Arsene Wenger’s side entertain Liverpool at the Emirates this evening facing a huge test of their title credentials in the wake of two successive home defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea, with a nagging sense that the wheels could be about to fall off spectacularly after their blistering start to the season.
No silverware since beating Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final is bound to have that kind of effect on a club’s psyche and Arsenal’s trophy drought has only heightened the sense of anxiety ahead of this sort of occasion among the red and white half of north London.
Back in early 2011, a trio od defeats against Birmingham City in the League Cup final, Barcelona in the Champions League and Manchester United in the Premier League effectively ended their chances of breaking the drought.
This time, the moment of truth has arrived in the first week of November — a month that is statistically Wenger’s worst since taking over in 1996.
With the return fixture against Dortmund on Tuesday and a trip to face champions United at Old Trafford to follow next Sunday, the French manager was at pains to play down the significance of the meeting with Brendan Rodgers’ revitalised Liverpool.
However, he acknowledged a third straight defeat could be very damaging to morale following the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night.
“Every competition is different,” Wenger said.
“Liverpool is a big game for us in a completely different competition and of course we want to respond well. It was a disappointment on Tuesday night, I don’t deny that. But we want to respond in a very strong way in a different competition where we are in a very strong position.”
Asked whether his players were beginning to question their ability to win the Premier League, Wenger added: “It’s too early. What we want first is to convince everybody we can play at the top. Hopefully in April we’ll have to ask ourselves have we enough resources to cross the line? But after nine games it’s too early.”
Shorn of their defensive midfield shield Mathieu Flamini this afternoon and for the Dortmund game due to a groin injury, Arsenal will also have to find a way to deal with the twin threat of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez if they are to maintain their two-point lead at the top over Chelsea and Liverpool. Had things turned out differently, of course, Suarez could well have been lining up for the home team today. Instead, the Uruguayan will be tough to handle for a defence that has kept only two clean sheets so far in the league.
Wenger will be thankful to have Mikel Arteta back from suspension to anchor his midfield but with no date set for the return of Abou Diaby, he recognised it is an area of weakness in his current squad.
“It is not our biggest strength. Why? Because we want players who can go forward. One of the targets against Liverpool is to get all these offensive players to defend well,” he said, before denying that their home form is also a cause for concern.
“I don’t think we are vulnerable. Against Dortmund, Sczcesny had zero saves to make and against Villa if you look at the game again it was a little bit special. The other night (against Chelsea) we gave an early goal chance and basically we gave the game away. We have to be calm and play like we do when we’re away.”
The return of Olivier Giroud as the fulcrum of the attack will be crucial to their prospects of achieving that. Nicklas Bendtner was a lacklustre replacement for him in the defeat against Chelsea, although Wenger refused to confirm he will be seeking to reinforce his squad with a new striker in January.
He will surely have to though if Arsenal are serious about challenging for the title this time. After signing Mesut Ozil for a club record £42m, they are certainly a stronger proposition than this time last year but having only met Tottenham of their potential rivals, Wenger realises the acid tests lie ahead.
“Of course in games like this, you always find out a lot about your squad. But I don’t need to find out too much about my squad because we are a very stable team who since the January 1, 2013 has taken more points than anybody else. I have the complete confidence we will deal well with that period and I take that as an opportunity to show our strengths. I learnt a lot about my team through the spring when we had our backs to the wall and had to win every game. I know how strong these guys are.”
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