The Gunners take on hosts Liverpool in Saturday’s early kickoff in a game that will pitch two sides on a high; Arsenal on the back of that remarkable comeback against Tottenham and Liverpool bubbling from their Carling Cup triumph.
In recent years these two sides have produced some fascinating battles but Arsenal fans will be worried about their side’s tendency to throw away leads late in the game. Whether it was the epic 4-4 draw at Anfield in April 2009, the Champions League game best remembered for that Walcott run, or the draw at the Emirates last season; Arsenal surrendered the advantage soon after scoring what appeared to be a game-winning or decisive goal. It is quite possible that the Gunners will produce some memorable moments in the game but will not return with the three points they need for ensuring their grip on the fourth place.
Liverpool are unbeaten at home but, Unlike City who have an enviable perfect record at their ground, the Reds have only managed 4 wins from 12 games. Their strength has been the almost impenetrable defence that has given them the League’s second best defensive record. Dalglish has based the foundations of his side on a solid structural framework at the back which is very well-disciplined and impeccably organized.
It will be tough for Arsenal to break them down. The Gunners have scored 12 goals in their last two home League games but this fixture will be more like their visit to Milan than the North London Derby as far as the quality of the opposition’s defending is concerned. Liverpool though, might not be able to match the attacking prowess that Milan exhibited at the San Siro. In all it could make for a tight and dull-looking encounter that is a midfield battle. An early goal, especially for the Gunners, could change all that though as the game will open up.
The team selection by both managers will obviously have a big impact on the way the game pans out. It will depend largely on the choices they have. Liverpool will miss Agger and Gerrard if both are unfit. In the same vein Arsenal could miss Vermaelen, Rosicky and even Van Persie as they’re all carrying niggles. Wenger has also said he has no news on Song, which would have been strange but this is Arsenal we are talking about.
Without Agger the hosts will probably have to play Carragher in the centre of the defence. The old warhorse is still a good player, especially when the defence is sitting back, but Van Persie – if fit – will fancy his chances against the Englishman more than he’d do against the Dane. More than Agger though, Liverpool are likely to miss the drive and energy that Gerrard brings to the midfield. I won’t be surprised if the manager picks his talisman even if half fit.
It will be interesting to see the other choices that Dalglish makes. I doubt he will start both Suarez and Carroll but if he’s seen the way two striker combinations, Zlatan-Robinho or Adebayor-Saha, have troubled Arsenal recently, he could pick both. Such a selection will give the hosts a greater chance of scoring goals but will also give Arsenal more space in midfield. It will definitely make the game more enjoyable for the viewers.
On a more predictable note, Dalglish might go with Carroll to win the aerial battle against the Gunners and pick a quick runner like Bellamy on the flanks to get in behind. This would be more likely if King Kenny expects his side to be pushed back. Again Gerrard’s fitness will play a part. Without him, it would be unwise to leave a wily player like Suarez out.
In short, Dalglish will have to find the right balance between his attacking options and the need to keep things tight at the back. Wenger’s job isn’t that different but his choices could be limited.
In the worst case scenario, Arsenal could be without RvP, Rosicky, Vermaelen, and Song. In that case I honestly don’t see them getting anything out of this one. But we can be fairly certain Arsene will risk his key players unless they are in an unplayable condition.
In the North London Derby the Gunners reverted to a tactical approach that was used in the early part of last season when Chamakh was in good form. The striker moved out of the box regularly to create space that was taken up by the wide player on the Right (Theo and Nasri in the early part of last season). The Left sided attacker (Arshavin) tended to drift in and between the lines. In that period we saw a number of goals for the Right winger while Arshavin was picking up the assists.
Walcott can, without a doubt, regain his scoring form if he gets to make a number of runs in the central area and the inside channels. Van Persie will provide more of a threat than Chamakh did in that system in that he will not only create space but also has the ability to thread a ball through or score from the edge of the box. Benayoun might not have the creativity or vision that the Russian had but he can probably offer more in terms of work rate and balance.
I am of the opinion that this system is much better than the one with two direct wingers as the midfield gets better support and can create more combinations against deep-lying defences. That said, it must be acknowledged that Arsenal’s current squad – based on fitness concerns – is not ideal for using this as it would mean leaving two out of Theo, Gervinho, and AOC out while putting greater burden on the limited midfield resources.
That reminds me, Wenger has said Diaby is back. Hopefully, he will be introduced in a controlled manner and will be able to avoid any serious setbacks. The lanky Frenchman could play a vital part in the final 15-20 minutes of this game but anything more will be a direct challenge to Lady Luck.
Apart from the system of play, Arsenal will also have to master the spaces as well as they did against Spurs. That means individuals will have to press with a high degree of intensity and cohesion while ensuring the back four isn’t left exposed with large gaps between them and the midfield.
Ideally I’d prefer the same starting line-up that we saw against Spurs.
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Benayoun.
If Song is unfit Arsenal will have to rein in the full-backs to provide better support to the central defenders. In that case it might be worth giving Gervinho a run on the flanks with Benayoun in the middle. With such a line-up Arsenal will struggle to dominate possession and we might see the defensive frailties exposed unless the players are prepared to stay deeper.
Liverpool have the ability to press in a synchronized manner and they can pin the Gunners back if the technical battle is lost.
As you can see, this game can have different patterns of play depending on the choices of each manager and the events of the game, especially early on. Safe money is probably on a tight encounter and a low-scoring draw with late drama. I’m hoping for a more open game with an early goal for the visitors.
Before ending I want to link to this interesting stat-based preview of the game done by a Liverpool supporter in a fair tone. Also, if like me, you too have a tendency to hide under a rock for large periods to avoid a lot of the mind-numbing noises on the internet, just make sure you’ve read this typically detailed and informative piece by the Swiss Rambler on Arsenal’s recently announced interim financials.Follow @goonerdesi