Arsenal have been on an impressive run of results during these past few months – winning 11 consecutive fixtures and managing to maintain their unbeaten run despite a below par performance at Selhurst Park last Sunday. In many people’s eyes, this is the first real test Unai Emery has had to face since the early season defeats courtesy of Man City and Chelsea and this fixture should provide a clearer indication of how far the Gunners have progressed under the Spaniard’s leadership. Let’s begin by taking a look back at the recent head-to-head record between the two clubs. Having rummaged through the list of results, from an Arsenal point of view it doesn’t make great reading.
Head to Head
In the last 7 meetings between the two, the North London outfit has tasted victory just once, Liverpool has won 3 of those fixtures and the remainder have ended in a draw. To say Liverpool have had the upper hand of late seems perfectly fair. These are two sides who have never lacked potency in the final third, always scored goals freely, play scintillating, attacking football but have been held back by their defensive frailties.
Whilst the Arsenal defence continues to be breached with a concerning level of ease, Liverpool has been able to plug the holes and tighten up; a statement validated by the fact that they’ve only conceded 4 Premier League goals this season (9 less than Arsenal).
The acquisition of Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton has been Jurgen Klopp’s best piece of business since he took the hot seat back in October 2015. However, you’d be a little naive to think he’s the only reason they’ve improved defensively. Andrew Robertson has been outstanding at Left Back since he’s come into the side, defending effectively and offering quality deliveries into the penalty area with great regularity. Add to that the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, recently labelled as ‘world-class’ by his captain Jordan Henderson and the maturity shown by the 21-year-old Joe Gomez at Centre Back when called upon. All of a sudden, Jurgen Klopp has a number of viable defensive options, creating competition for places and subsequently raising the overall standard defending.
The German coach also seems to have finally discovered the right balance in the middle of the park, offering more protection to a back line that was often left helpless, exposed and susceptible to the counter attack (much like this weekend’s opponents).
You could argue that as a result of these subtle changes Liverpool has lost some of their spark and fluency in the final third. It’s unlikely that Mohamed Salah will reach the heights of last season, scoring 32 Premier League goals in 36 appearances. However it’s simple maths, isn’t it: if you don’t concede as many goals, you don’t need to score as many to win. At times last season, Liverpool seemed a little top heavy and whilst they’re not as great on the eye (still better than most, it must be said) the fact they’ve been able to find more of a balance has been a real positive.
Arsenal will have played 4 fixtures in 9 days by the time Saturday comes around and Unai Emery will have a list as long as his arm of difficult decisions to make. How best tactically to approach the challenges Jurgen Klopp’s slightly altered playing style will bring. Who to select in the Full Back positions given we remain unsure as to whether Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal or Sead Kolasinac will be passed fit. Should Aaron Ramsey be considered from the start given his high-energy style? Can Arsenal get away with Aubameyang starting from the left flank against top quality opposition? All of the aforementioned are things the Gunners boss will need to consider carefully ahead of Saturday’s evening fixture and I’ve barely even scratched the surface.
The Gunners have traditionally started slowly this season and fortunately for them their superior quality and fitness has seen them come strong late on and either turn games around or put them to bed during the second period. You can get away with that against the division’s mid-table sides, but going into a game like Saturday’s it is of great concern. Liverpool, renowned for their fast starts, particularly in the fixtures versus the so called ‘Big 6 ‘will be well aware of their opponent’s stuttering starts and look to inflict damage from the off.
With that in mind, Unai Emery’s toughest task will be to understand and identify why it is that his side continues to start games so slowly, come up with a solution and implement it in time for the weekend. If Arsenal can get through the opening half hour without gifting the likes of Salah, Mane and Firmino opportunities I fancy them to go on and win this game. The atmosphere will be great; there’s currently positivity and renewed confidence around the Emirates Stadium, the kind that going 12 unbeaten breeds.
I expect this fixture to be decided in the opening half hour – if Arsenal can keep things tight early on, Unai Emery’s superior game management shpuld see him guide the home side to victory. However, should Arsenal start slow, you’ve got to believe Liverpool have the quality to punish them and from then on Unai Emery’s side will have a mountain to climb.
Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool