Arsenal and Liverpool will do battle this weekend on Saturday in the first of the big clashes in this season’s Premier League. Last season these two teams fought out an exciting battle that culminated in two late penalties—the second of which came in the 98th minute, an equaliser from Dirk Kuyt after Robin van Persie scored a few minutes earlier—and a 1-1 draw.
Since then, both sides have had something of an eventful summer, for differing reasons.
While Liverpool have embarked on a spending spree to bring in the likes of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique; Arsenal have seen their captain, Cesc Fabregas, depart for Barcelona and playmaker Samir Nasri is likely to follow suit in exiting forManchester City, the landing point of Gael Clichy.
Forward Gervinho has been brought in, but will be suspended for the match on Saturday, as will midfielder Alex Song. Defenders Johan Djourou and Keiran Gibbs departed the mid-week fixture injured, leaving the Gunners with a real shortage at the back.
Liverpool, for their part, will be missing right-back Glen Johnson and long-term absentee Steven Gerrard, but everybody else has recovered from their knocks and Dalglish has an almost full squad to choose from.
Here we take a look at the five key battles on the pitch that will have a big say on the outcome of the game.
1: Andy Carroll vs. Laurent Koscielny
After a difficult start to his career where he was sent off on his Arsenal debut (against Liverpool, ironically), Laurent Koscielny proved to be a decent acquisition for the Gunners. He excelled in leading the defence to press high up the pitch, something which could not be said for fellow centre-back signing Squillaci.
However, he is not dominant aerially and is also prone to standing off physical players—something Andy Carroll took full advantage of when playing against the Frenchman for old club Newcastle.
Recovering from injury last season when the Reds took on Arsenal, he did not have the impact he would have liked. Expect something very different this time around as Liverpool will look to press the advantage of having the powerful threat of Carroll to hold the ball up.
With any set pieces, Carroll is likely to try to attach himself near to Koscielny in an attempt to beat him in the air.
2: Aaron Ramsey vs. Lucas Leiva
Following the departure of Cesc Fabregas, the suspension of Alex Song and the likely absence of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey is likely to be the focal central midfielder for the Gunners again.
Possessing a good range of passing and an energetic style of play, Ramsey is more than just a promising midfielder at this stage. He is far more likely than either Wilshere or Cesc to get involved in play inside the opposition penalty area and try to score as well as contribute to the link-up play for which the Gunners have become renowned.
For this reason above all others, Lucas Leiva will be a key player for Liverpool against Arsenal; he is the one player capable of tracking opponents’ runs through midfield, is a good tackler and is an expert at positioning himself well to pick up second-balls.
3: Arsenal Left-Back vs. Liverpool Right Midfield
Probably the one area for either team which could be filled by different people at this point; most of the starting eleven for Arsenal and Liverpool could probably be predicted but the left-back slot for the Gunners and the right side of Liverpool’s midfield/attack is very much up for grabs.
Following Clichy’s departure Keiran Gibbs stepped up last weekend to start the season at left-back but suffered an injury against Udinesein mid-week, leading to Thomas Vermaelen switching to that position from the centre. However after Djourou was almost immediately replaced after himself replacing Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson came on for his Arsenal debut after joining the club from Charlton in the summer. The youngster is a highly rated prospect but is untested in the Premier League until now and Arsene Wenger needs to decide if he is to be risked in such a big game. Of course, Liverpool faced a similar situation last season in this fixture and came up trumps after Jack Robinson replaced Fabio Aurelio to such good effect.
Armand Traore is the other left back on the Arsenal books at present.
For Liverpool, the right midfielder could be seen as a key player regardless of who is picked for Arsenal at left back; Jenkinson’s inexperience, Vermaelen being out of his primary position or Traore’s relative lack of game time for the Gunners recently could all mean that the Reds have an opportunity to exploit that area of the pitch.
Jordan Henderson started on the right against Sunderland on the opening day but was replaced around the hour mark by regular right-sider Dirk Kuyt. Henderson obviously offers good delivery and stamina on that side of the pitch but is certain to drift inside to a more central position too, while Kuyt will offer perhaps a little more width and better service in terms of getting into the Arsenal box to link up with the front men.
A third option—one which is perhaps likely to be seen at some point during the game even if not from the beginning—is to stick Stewart Downing out on the right flank and let him run at the Arsenal left-back as often as possible, cutting inside onto his favoured left foot.
4: Robin van Persie vs. Pepe Reina
As always, Arsenal’s main goal threat is highly likely to come in the form of newly-installed official skipper Robin van Persie.
Last season he beat Reina from the penalty spot while in the reverse fixture Reina spilled an apparently straight-forward catch into his own net.
On his day van Persie is a world-beater and his strike rate in the second half of last season was one of the few bright spots for the Gunners as their season collapsed around them. Regardless of who is paired at centre back for Liverpool—Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger should be again after the latter recovered from a knock—it is likely that the Dutchman will get at least one opportunity on goal and it is then that Pepe Reina will be called upon.
As consistent and excellent a performer as can be found between the sticks in the Premier League, Reina is hugely important for Liverpool and is adept in his shot-stopping as he is in his organisation of the defence.
Thwarting van Persie for ninety minutes will go a long way towards helping Liverpool to three big points.
5: Jose Enrique vs. Theo Walcott
Liverpool’s newest recruit, Spanish left-back Jose Enrique, started against Sunderland last week just hours after signing from Newcastle United and put in an encouraging performance on his debut.
On Saturday he is likely to start again and will come up against Theo Walcott who should come into the starting eleven in place of the suspended Gervinho.
Walcott will of course offer a whole load of pace and will look to get forward and into the area at every opportunity, something which Jose Enrique will have to try to turn on its head to have his best impact for the club.
If Liverpool can have possession and Jose Enrique can get forward himself Walcott will be forced backwards to cover and be kept away from goal, something which will benefit Liverpool immensely.
Another advantage that Jose Enrique should offer Liverpool is his great pace which should nullify that of even Walcott who will usually use that attribute above all others to gain an edge over his opponents.
Predicting the Outcome:
You have to go all the way back to 1999-2000 season and a Titi Camara winner for the last time Liverpool managed to beat Arsenal on their home ground in the league—Highbury, as it was then—but the Reds will surely feel they have a massive chance to put an end to that run this weekend.
Arsenal are weakened through suspension, injury and having sold or nearly sold two key players; some fans are far from giving their unconditional support to a manager they feel has failed to strengthen the team in key areas and the Gunners are really going to come under scrutiny this season—rightly or wrongly, its going to happen—every time they fail to win a game, mainly as they are seen as the ‘easiest’ team to knock out of the top four spots.
Liverpool on the other hand are by-and-large happy with their summer dealings and in full backing of their manager and will take a decent travelling support to the Emirates Stadium.
They also have one other wild-card who wasn’t mentioned in the key battles: Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan magician will look to move in and out of spaces between Arsenal’s midfield and defence and it is here that the absence of Alex Song will be felt most keenly for Arsenal.
Despite all their apparent weaknesses however, Arsenal are never an easy fixture and if they start well and get into their passing game without Liverpool pressing them quickly they have the pace, movement and fire-power in Rosicky, van Persie, Walcott and Arshavin to really test the Liverpool defence who will still be getting put together one piece at time; Kelly and Flanagan will likely battle it out for the right back spot and Glen Johnson has yet to return.
It is sure to be an eventful game and will throw up some fascinating tactical battles all over the pitch—but I am firmly backing Liverpool to end an eleven-and-a-half year winless streak and take all three points.
If you can’t watch the match this weekend you can follow my live text commentary and analysis of the Premier League game between Arsenal and Liverpool this weekend, along with every other Premiership fixture on that day, on Bleacher Report. Become my fan now to easily find the commentary on Saturday from 12:30pm UK / 7:30am ET.