Amid ongoing uncertainty, Arsenal cannot afford to lose at Liverpool
There was always a danger that Arsenal's decision to sanction a new two-year contract for Arsene Wenger at the end of last season would do little more than paper over the fault lines running through the club.
Although it was ultimately the worst-kept secret in football when Wenger finally signed at the end of May, it was nonetheless announced after the season had ended, which meant the many Arsenal fans against his retention were unable to register their disapproval before, during or after a game for almost three months.
The Community Shield passed off without much of a murmur against Wenger, a reality no doubt helped by Arsenal's Wembley victory over Chelsea, while the Emirates was a happy place after the 4-3 opening weekend win against Leicester City.
Yet crisis is never far away at Arsenal and the storm clouds, which hovered above Wenger and the club for the majority of the second half of last season, are threatening to return, two weeks into the new campaign.
Friday's Europa League draw, which paired the Champions League regulars with BATE Borisov, Cologne and Red Star Belgrade, was another signpost towards the problems that lie ahead for Wenger and his players, though the group could have been worse.
As Arsenal prepare to head to Anfield to face Liverpool on Sunday, however, the issues which proved so destabilising last season -- with the exception of Wenger's future -- remain unresolved.
Alexis Sanchez still wants to leave, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not sign a new contract and Mesut Ozil combines indifference on the pitch -- the German midfielder was anonymous in last Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Stoke -- with a similar lack of conviction when it comes to addressing his own long-term future at the Emirates.
Defensively, Arsenal remain weak and vulnerable, having conceded four goals in two league games so far, and the deficiencies within the squad have hardly been rectified by the arrivals of just two new signings: Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac.
Once again, cash-rich Arsenal have passed up the opportunity to spend heavily in order to compete with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, so it is no surprise that the likes of Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil are contemplating a future elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the great unfulfilled talents of Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere remain at the club and face another year of drift, so it already feels like another case of the same old story with Arsenal. Sunday's game has, therefore, become a crucial fixture for Wenger and his players.
With a two-week international break to come after the game, defeat against a top-six rival would ensure that the visit of Bournemouth on Sept. 9 will be another one of those uncomfortable occasions at the Emirates, with the "Wenger Out" camp likely to be mobilised by a dismal start to the campaign.
By contrast, a win at Liverpool would change the landscape and give Wenger and his supporters the ability to point to progress made. The positive effect of a victory against Jurgen Klopp's team cannot be overstated, but are Arsenal capable of getting that victory.
The Gunners have not beaten Liverpool in any competition for over two years and their winless run at Anfield stretches back to September 2012; their most recent visit, in March, ended in a 3-1 reverse.
Sanchez is expected to be in the squad but is unlikely to be fit enough to start, yet the Chilean forward's return to contention is good news for Wenger. His work rate would help Arsenal from a defensive perspective, with his willingness to chase down opposing defenders giving his own back line welcome respite, whether Wenger goes with back four or back three.
But whether Sanchez still has the appetite is another of those questions which remain from the final weeks of last season. The 28-year-old has made it clear that he wants to leave and City may yet launch a late bid for the former Barcelona player, but Wenger has repeatedly said that he will stay, despite the risk of him leaving as a free agent next summer.
With Sanchez due to fly to Chile on Sunday evening for international duty, his return to South America might safeguard Arsenal from the prospect of him making a deadline day departure, but it is by no means certain.
But then nothing is certain at Arsenal and that is the main problem: There remain too many issues to be addressed after a long summer and, by leaving the loose ends untied until this late stage of the transfer window, there is the risk of a bad decision being made as the hours tick down to Thursday's deadline.
Wenger can say all the right things but Arsenal need actions to speak louder than words and nothing will boost morale and belief more than a win at Liverpool. Win or lose, it could be the most important result of the entire season.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_