They may only be four dropped points, but who Liverpool dropped those four points to raises questions about whether they can reel in Manchester City and win their first Premier League title. The Reds seek their third league win on the bounce Saturday against an Arsenal side eager to prove they are worthy of their current top-four status.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Liverpool (8-2-0) are tied with Manchester City atop the table on 26 points but trail the reigning champions on goal difference. With the Citizens imperious on both sides of the ball – they have scored a league-best 27 goals while conceding a league-low three – every Reds result is being dissected and scrutinised to the nth degree.
That is why no one is really overly excited with Liveprool seeing off Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City by 1-0 and 4-1 counts, respectively, around a Champions League rout of Red Star Belgrade. But the win over the Terriers brought back some of the Liverpool of last season, the team who would hunt for goals at every opportunity, and more often than not, cash in.
Sadio Mane had a second-half brace while Mohamed Salah showed a vintage form from last term with a goal and two assists. Xherdan Shaqiri came off the bench scored the victory-ealing goal, continuing a run that has seen him total two goals and two assists in his last four matches in all competitions.
Moving the Swiss international to the right side of the midfield as opposed to forward on the right wing has allowed Liverpool to better utilise the pace of their strikers and Shaqiri’s creativity. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp held him out of the lineup mainly to guard against fatigue after being extensively used by Switzerland during the international break, but that might not be happening again anytime soon.
“Shaq came in and was involved I think in two nice goals, that’s always good. That made it so hard to leave him out for that game, only you have to think a bit about it whether it’s really the right thing to do,” Klopp explained to Liverpool’s official website. “We don’t know Shaq long enough and good enough to know how he reacts. Not performance-wise, that’s not important, (but) sometimes you have to protect players until you know them a bit better.”
With Mane and Salah both firing and sharing the team lead with seven goals across all competitions, all that is left is for Roberto Firmino to join in the goal-scoring. The Brasil international has just one goal in eight matches in all competitions since bagging the winner in Liverpool’s Champions League opener versus Paris-Saint Germain on Sept. 18.
While Liverpool’s strike force is in fine form even with Mane and Salah dealing with hand injuries, the engine room is a concern. Midfielders Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita are unlikely to play due to hamstring injuries, though the long-awaited emergence of Fabinho has alleviated some of those concerns.
Klopp opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation against Cardiff in which the Brasil international teamed with Georginio Wijnaldum as holding midfielders. If he returns to his base 4-3-3, the midfield would likely feature James Milner in the middle of the park flanked by Fabinho and Wijnaldum.
The only other area where there is a selection issue is at left back, where Klopp gave Alberto Moreno his first league start last weekend while resting Andy Robertson. Given Arsenal’s issues at right back, it would seem likely the Scotland international will be restored to the starting XI.
The right back position is the most pressing concern of the moment for the Gunners (7-1-2) whose 11-match winning streak in all competitions came to an end with a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace last weekend. Hector Bellerin was forced off at halftime due to injury, with 35-year-old Stephen Lichtsteiner playing out of his position at right back while midfielder Granit Xhaka did likewise at left back.
Both goals Arsenal conceded came via penalties – Xhaka and centre back Shkodran Mustafi were guilty of the fouls – as they canceled out markers by Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The lack of depth on the back line is compounded because holding midfielder Matteo Guendouzi will miss this match after being sent off in Arsenal’s 2-1 Carabao Cup win over Blackpool for a pair of yellow cards.
Manager Unai Emery usually rotates Guendouzi, Xhaka and Lucas Torreira as his two holding midfielders in his 4-2-3-1 formation, and how the first-year manager copes with personnel selection for this match is anyone’s guess.
“That is football,” Emery told Arsenal’s official website. “When you are playing, when you are on the pitch, you can have things positive or negative. Like an injury, a red card or 90 minutes of hard work. With the red card, it’s like that. It’s football.
“We have a lot of players looking to play and to take this responsibility to show their performance, their quality for the team and I am going to prepare with other players and thinking that we can also have a performance for a big match on Saturday.”
One possibility is elevating central defender Sokratis into a partnership with Mustafi in the spine and moving Rob Holding out wide. Another is a possible return for Ashley Maitland-Niles, who has been sidelined the last two months with a leg fracture and before getting the start versus Blackpool last appeared for less than a half-hour in the season-opener versus Manchester City because the Citizens tried to play through him.
Offensively, the Gunners need Aubameyang to continue his purple patch of form. His goal versus Palace was his fifth in his last three league fixtures, though strike partner Alexander Lacazette has gone without a goal his last three matches overall.
It is also not 100 percent certain who will be between the sticks for this match. Petr Cech made his return after missing five contests with a hamstring injury, but it seems more likely Bernd Leno will be restored considering only one of the four goals he has allowed in the last four matches came in the run of play by an opponent.
Additionally, Liverpool have been a bogey team for Cech dating back to his days with Chelsea — the former Czech Republic international has just two wins in his last 13 starts (2-5-6) against them in all competitions and is 0-3-3 against them since joining Arsenal in 2015.
The teams played to a chaotic 3-3 draw in last season’s corresponding fixture as Liverpool took a 2-0 lead on goals by Salah and Philippe Coutinho before the Gunners struck back through Xkaha, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in a blistering five-minute stretch immediately after Salah’s marker. Firmino, though, gave Liverpool a share of the points with a goal on 71 minutes.
Liverpool routed Arsenal 4-0 in the other contest as their Salah, Firmino, Mane, and Daniel Sturridge beat Cech while the Gunners failed to register a shot on frame.
In the Premier League era across all competitions, Liverpool have 20 wins to Arsenal’s 17, while the teams have shared the spoils on 19 occasions.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are decisive favourites to leave London with three points with 10/11 odds to win this match. There are 13/5 odds for Arsenal to stake a claim to legitimacy with a victory, while there are 11/4 odds for the teams to share the points.
In a rare dip into the #GetAPrice Starman offerings, Salah at 11/2 odds to have both a goal and an assist in this contest feels like something that should be aggressively played.
Liverpool have 8/5 odds to get a victory with more than 2.5 goals scored, while the Gunners have 4/1 odds for a similar haul in their favour. The odds of a 0-0 or 1-1 draw are 9/2, edging out a 0-1 or 0-2 victory for the Reds. An Arsenal win by a 1-0 or 2-0 count is a 9/1 longshot, even behind a 2-2 draw or higher stalemate (8/1).
The Egypt internationa leads the choices for first goal-scorers at 7/2, followed by Sturridge at 5/1. Arsenal’s strike pair of Aubameyang and Lacazette are paired together at 11/2, with Liverpool’s other forwards Mane and Firmino also a tandem at 6/1. Gunners supersub Denny Welbeck is also an intriguing option at 13/2.
Salah is even money to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Sturridge getting 6/4 odds. Despite having the better form of late, Aubameyang is behind Lacazette for any-time goal-scorers, with the France international 13/8 and Aubameyang 17/10. Firmino and Mane were again lumped together, this time with 9/5 odds to put one past Leno or Cech.
First off, while there is justifiable concern Arsenal’s woes at the back line can be exploited by Liverpool, let’s not go all crazy thinking the potential replacements Emery has are some pub leaguers being called up to Emirates as if they won a lottery ticket. The Gunners do have options — granted, some of them are not great options — but Holding and Sokratis have Premier League playing time under their belt, and Julio Pleguezuelo was given 90 minutes in the Carabao Cup in the event he makes the bench for this match.
Having said that…
The rightful concern Arsenal have is there is no real place to “hide” Lichtsteiner and his lack of pace. If Emery is going to commit to having Xhaka on the left as his least comfortable playing out of position spot, that means either Mane or Firmino will be on Lichtsteiner’s side on the right. That does not even factor in Robertson probably getting the green light to bomb down the wing as long as he is cognizant of Mkhitaryan linking up with Ozil in that side.
This is a match where Torreira must put in a full shift, and to his credit, the Uruguay international has done that most of the season after Emery slowly worked him into the full-time starter’s role. How he works in tandem with Ramsey will be vital because Milner is very crafty in the middle of the park and highly judicious in his pressing to create the turnovers that led to Liverpool’s quality scoring chances.
One key advantage Klopp has is a personnel and tactical flexibility, which is remarkable considering both Henderso and Keita are not likely to feature in this contest. He can revert to the 4-2-3-1 set-up that worked so well last weekend versus Cardiff City or he can keep the 4-3-3 he has used most of the season. The decision to use Gomez at left back over the youngster Alexander-Arnold is a simple one similar to the match against Manchester City and also out of respect for Aubameyang’s form.
It is somewhat difficult not to label this a “must-win” for Liverpool given City’s form at the top of the table with them. The Reds made up two goals of difference last weekend between the two sides’ victories, which leaves them eight back in difference and seven in goals scored. In some ways, it is similar to Liverpool’s late chase of City in 2013-14, the only difference is this will happen over the next 28 matches and Klopp still has time to be judicious about when to unleash the hounds.
This is a good meausring stick for Arsenal to see the ground they have covered in raising their play since opening the season with losses to City and Chelsea. This is their first match against a “Big Six” side since those two defeats, and while the thinned-out defence corps will make judging that overall quality more challenging, it will at least be interesting to see how Emery responds to that dilemma in both personnel and tactics while being a decided home underdog.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 1, Liverpool 3.
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