This is arguably a tussle between the League’s two most unpredictable and inconsistent teams this season. Many scenarios are imaginable. It’ll depend on which Arsenal and which Liverpool shows up.
Many have talked about the Jekyll & Hyde nature of Arsenal’s performances. The Reds are not very different. The following table captures their record against teams in the top half and bottom half of the table (before Tuesday’s games were played).
Those numbers suggest the Gunners should have an edge in this fixture. But you could also say that the law of averages is going to catch up and Rodgers’ side are going to break their duck against the top half teams sooner rather than later after going 11 games without a win.
Given the way the teams have changed since the reverse fixture in September, it’s highly likely that the patterns of play in this game will be very different. Back then the Gunners were working hard on their defensive shape and it seemed that focusing on defending was the priority. The attack had suffered but they managed to score two good goals to win the game. Liverpool had had a tough start to the campaign and Brendan Rodgers’ ideas were still new to the players.
In this game, Arsenal could suffer from the tactical confusion that has been visible over the last few weeks. The team no longer focuses on defending as it did early in the season as the players search for greater attacking potency. But this had brought greater vulnerability at the back and the Gunners are often tentative at the start of games.
Liverpool like to press energetically in the early part of the game. If Arsenal are not on top of their game they could again find themselves a goal or two down. Defending deep without the right shape and focus against tricky attackers like Suarez and Sturridge will be risky. It’s imperative the defenders are not left one-v-one with the attackers and that their movement into pockets of space is tracked diligently.
Ideally, picking Vermaelen and Koscielny and playing a high line with proactive defending would be the approach to take. But I’m not sure Koscielny has the right form at the moment. The inclusion of Mertesacker will make a high line very difficult but the German’s relatively slower movement will be a handicap against strikers who can turn him or skip past him with quick feet and close control. It’s the kind of decision that can look very wise or rather dumb with the benefit of hindsight.
A clean sheet for the Gunners in this game will be a pleasant surprise. Szczesny will probably be busier than he’s been in most games.
Arsenal are likely to need more than one goal to win this game. Liverpool have not kept a clean sheet in a game against teams above them in the table but they do have 5 clean sheets in their last 9 games.
The visitors could be susceptible if the Gunners can get a chance to run at their back line, particularly the central defenders. Walcott’s pace could be Arsene’s biggest weapon and because of that the Frenchman will have to find a way to keep the winger higher up the pitch with fewer defensive responsibilities.
Set-pieces could be another area of vulnerability but Arsenal have been notoriously inconsistent with those.
Wenger also has a big call to make with his starting eleven. Does he go with four midfielders – one of them on the flank – or does he pick Walcott, Giroud, and Podolski as the attacking trio.
Theo and Giroud will give Arsenal more of a goal threat but it will be redundant if the Gunners can’t bring the ball forward effectively. Both these players have some technical deficiencies that can lead to persistent loss of possession, particularly in a tight game played at a high tempo. It’s another tough call.
I’d go with Cazorla on the right in the first half as Arsenal have been weaker in that period. The extra midfielder could help the defence and the possession game. Giroud could come on for the last half an hour or so if the team is chasing the game or just to vary the approach.
That said, it’s worth noting that Liverpool are the League’s fourth best team when only second half performances are considered. It won’t be wise to expect a repeat of the West Ham massacre.
I’d like to see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Ramsey, Wilshere, Diaby – Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski.
I have a feeling we’ll see Mertesacker and Giroud in the starting line-up and, to be frank, I don’t have a compelling argument against their inclusion. This is the kind of situation where it’s hard to say what the right decision is until we can see the result of the choices made.
As with any game, individual errors or moments of brilliance can always make a difference. But to me the bigger concern is that Arsenal could collectively switch off or we get to see the dreaded handbrake again. ‘Sharpness’ should not be a problem as the squad has had one extra day to recover but with the Gunners you never know.
As mentioned earlier, many results are conceivable, but I don’t have a good feeling about this game given the defensive weaknesses visible in the recent games. Massive improvements will be needed if Arsenal have to stay in touch with the top four. A draw won’t be a good result for either team.Follow @goonerdesi