Just one week after a flat Arsenal performance finished in a stalemate at Crystal Palace which ended their eleven-match winning streak, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool travels to the Emirates looking to cease their unbeaten run altogether. Arsenal had shown uncharacteristic consistency under their new manager in the opening months of the season, yet performances still appear unconvincing when compared to the steadiness of their Merseyside opponents.
Previous encounters between these sides have been filled with incidents with the last five meetings producing 27 goals. However, this season Liverpool have uncovered a reliable defensive formula, and there is a more pragmatic manager in the home dugout, so perhaps we will see a more calculated affair.
A muscle strain that led to Hector Bellerin’s early withdrawal against Palace added to Emery’s squad selection troubles ahead of this weekend. With natural picks Monreal and Kolasinac missing through injury, Xhaka filled in at left-back last weekend. It is possible that the former may be fit enough for a return to face Liverpool, which would allow Xhaka to retake his place in the midfield after a mid-week red card ruled Guendouzi out.
Arsenal were often criticised under Wenger for failing to adapt their style when facing a high-level opponent which contributed to an under-whelming record against fellow top-six sides. Emery is far more adaptive as a coach than his French predecessor and is likely to instruct his team to play with a deeper defensive line and to stay narrow. A more compact system should minimise spaces between the midfield line and lowers Arsenal’s risk of conceding clear-cut chances if they are dispossessed by one of the most effective pressing systems in the league.
Emery appears to have settled on his preferred shape having fielded a 4-2-2-2 in the past three matches. Torreira’s introduction to a deep-lying midfield pivot with Granit Xhaka should improve Arsenal’s chances of keeping the midfield area tight. The Uruguayan’s mobility and aggression neutralise Xhaka’s slow recovery speed and lazy tackling, allowing his midfield partner to concentrate his energy towards feeding passes to the likes of Ozil ahead of him.
Aubameyang partnered Lacazette in the Arsenal forward line last weekend which led to captain Ozil occupying an inside-right attacking midfield position rather than a central position close to Lacazette and was ultimately withdrawn after struggling to apply the same influence that bested Leicester. Given the threat of Liverpool’s attack and, in particular, their advancing full-backs, Emery would expect whoever is fielded in the attacking midfield slots to contribute to both the attacking and defensive phase. The German fails to provide the same level of defensive diligence as Iwobi, who appears to have cemented a starting place in the team and is flourishing under Emery, which could trigger the Ozil’s omission from the starting XI. Alternatively, Emery could forego a striking option to deploy Ozil close to Lacazette.
With Bellerin also a doubt and the squad stretched, the Arsenal manager would be desperate to field left-back Nacho Monreal from the off against Liverpool. The Spaniard is an underrated member of the squad and is unfortunate that generally his contribution only becomes clear in his absence. His tireless running to offer an overlap and knack for finding space in the opposition box are a bonus to Emery, though it’s Monreal’s defensive assurance that Arsenal would benefit from fielding alongside a hap-hazard Mustafi and classy, but inexperienced Holding this weekend.
Predicted line-up: Leno, Monreal, Holding, Mustafi, Lichtsteiner, Xhaka, Torreira, Iwobi, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Lacazette
Klopp confirmed on Friday that midfield pair Henderson and Keita would remain unavailable, though the squad is otherwise in good shape. Robertson and Gomez were rotated out of the Liverpool defence last weekend, but both are likely to be reinstated for their visit to the Emirates.
Over the past few games, the Liverpool manager has experimented with his usual attacking trident and would have been impressed with its output. Mo Salah led the Red’s attack against Cardiff with Adam Lallana handed a start and usual central striker Firmino playing a deeper, central role. Salah appeared just as effective in central areas, scoring once and assisting twice. This adjustment was, perhaps, a ploy to field an extra attacker against an opponent who were expected to defend from deep for long periods, but did demonstrate the flexibility in the Liverpool attack.
The arrival of Emery should reduce the Red’s chances of exploiting a historically high Arsenal defensive line, but Liverpool’s aggressive pressing style should create issues for an Arsenal team who have made more individual errors leading to an opposition chance than any other side in the Premier League. Salah and Mane would be well placed to profit from sloppy Arsenal possession as neither are given much defensive responsibility, leaving them upfield to exploit the space vacated if Arsenal’s full-backs find themselves caught ahead of the play. The Red’s midfield press may target Granit Xhaka who takes the most risks in possession of the two deep-lying Arsenal midfielders.
The potential absence of Bellerin means that the creative focus of Arsenal’s build-up phase could favour Liverpool’s right-hand side and as a result, Trent Alexander-Arnold may be sacrificed in place of the more robust Joe Gomez. Much of Arsenal’s build-up play is centred around targeting the space behind their opponent’s full-backs and working the ball to the by-line before supplying cut-backs for onrushing attackers. Fabinho and Milner would also be tasked with covering the full-back area, as the Liverpool full-backs, whose attacking forays have become such an effective weapon for Klopp, are unlikely to be restricted from their usual freedom to stretch the play and drill crosses into the box.
Predicted line-up: Alisson, Gomez, Lovren, van Dijk, Robertson, Fabinho, Milner, Wijnaldum, Mane, Firmino, Salah
Watch out for: The low-key work of Roberto Firmino, who drops deep to draw defenders out of their defensive line, creating gaps for Salah and Mane to exploit.
Prediction: Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool
Arsenal are still a work-in-progress under Emery and would have to work hard to resist the Liverpool press. There are talented attackers in the Arsenal side and the Gunner’s should ensure that their play has an intensity to beat the Liverpool press and maximise the involvement of Ozil and Lacazette. However, the Red’s are the best team in the division at punishing mistakes in possession, and it is difficult to foresee Salah and Mane being kept quiet for a full ninety minutes.