01 September 2012

Liverpool v Arsenal 09.02.12

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11
1-1 (a) 04.17.11
1-1 (h) 08.15.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h); 2-2 City (h); 1-0 Hearts (a)
Arsenal: 0-0 Stoke (a); 0-0 Sunderland (h)

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Allen Şahin
Borini Gerrard Sterling

As long as Şahin's ready, and I can't see why he wouldn't be, the line-up seems to write itself. We all know Liverpool's strongest XI, after all. It's when forced to contemplate squad depth that everyone rightfully gets all shouty.

The same front six as against City except for Şahin replacing Lucas/Shelvey. The same back five as against City but with Agger returning from suspension, and maybe Enrique if he's somehow fully fit.

Enrique sounded doubtful about his availability in today's interview on the official site. Downing did adequately against Hearts, but defending against Arsenal is a different test, especially when he'd be facing Walcott, Gervinho, or Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool play far, far better when Johnson's on the right, but still defend adequately when he's on the left, especially since Kelly's improved in the last three matches compared to his performance against West Brom.

With Sterling left out of the starting lineup against Hearts, it seems likely he'll start again tomorrow. Liverpool would probably best be served by Sterling on the left and Borini on the right, as against City, in contrast to how the two played as substitutes on Thursday. Both have struggled on the right, both right-footed and fairly reliant on cutting inside from the flanks, but Borini seems more likely to be able to alter his game, while Sterling's pace against 20-year-old right back Carl Jenkinson is an enticing prospect.

Arsenal have had a strange but not strange start to the season. Two 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke certainly weren't the expected results – the only Premiership side to have failed to score – but both were thoroughly explainable. Both opponents set up for the draw, compact and packed in their own halves. Arsenal were obviously going to struggle for goals after losing van Persie, and played into Sunderland's hands in the opening match by starting a front three of Podolski, Gervinho, and Walcott – three quick forwards, none an out-and-out striker, who all thrive on quick, intricate movement and finding space. Despite starting Giroud, Arsenal were even blunter at Stoke, but more than a few sides have traveled to the Britannia and come away with nothing. Arsenal took a combined 40 shots against Sunderland and Stoke. Just five were on target. This will sound vaguely familiar to Liverpool fans.

Arsenal should find a bit more space tomorrow, especially with the match at Anfield. Unlike in the last two fixtures, Arsenal should be able quickly counter – something they thrive on – when winning the ball off of Liverpool, who will look to control possession as always under Rodgers. There will be space to run into behind Liverpool's high back line if Liverpool aren't careful, if the offside trap fails, if Liverpool make the kind of mistakes we've seen against City and West Brom. Imagine a quicker, more technically competent version of West Brom's first penalty decision on the opening day. That's what's Arsenal are perpetually capable of if given the chance. Much will depend on how well Liverpool's midfield controls the game, especially contingent on Gerrard's discipline, as his giveaways have led to opposition opportunities in both of Liverpool's league matches. Both Cazorla and Arteta are intelligent, patient midfielders, and Arsenal is typically excellent at the style of play Rodgers wants to encourage: keeping possession with quick passes and hunting in packs to close down options. Cazorla will be the playmaker, the conductor, and Joe Allen will have to be at the peak of his powers to keep him under wraps.

Szczesny will be a late decision, missing the last match with a rib injury, while Koscielny should make his first start of the season after a calf strain. Rosicky, Sagna, Frimpong, and Wilshere are all medium-to-long-term absentees; for approximately the 38th season in a row, Arsenal cannot catch a break from injuries. I expect their XI will be very similar to last week's, but with Szczesny and Koscielny in defense, and possibly Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain instead of Gervinho. Something close to Szczesny; Jenkinson Koscielny Vermaelen Gibbs; Arteta Diaby; Walcott Cazorla Podolski; Giroud.

Liverpool's starting XI in this fixture last season was Reina; Kelly Carragher Skrtel Enrique; Adam Spearing; Henderson Kuyt Downing; Suarez. And the only reason Arsenal won 2-1 rather than losing 0-1 was van Persie, beating Carragher twice, thumping two outstanding goals. The above guessed XI is far, far better than the one Liverpool deployed last March, while Arsenal's will be missing that goalscoring talisman.

While Liverpool have become known for raising its game against better opposition, Liverpool also haven't beaten Arsenal at Anfield since 2008, the 4-2 Champions League quarterfinal. It's been since 2007 in the league, Crouch's perfect hat-trick guiding Liverpool to a 4-1 win. Since then, four matches: two draws and two losses.

Yes, this is only the third game of the campaign, but both sides will be desperate not to fall further behind the league's best. Both sides' biggest issue is goal-scoring, both sides are coming to terms with a new playing style: Liverpool because of the new manager, Arsenal because of the summer's personnel overhaul. Arsenal have strength in depth but no superstar, Liverpool have a very good first XI but no depth.

No matter how early it is in the season, this match will tell us an awful lot about both sides, as well as their future for the next few months.


Anonymous said...

Agger had a RED card last match. He cannot play.

nate said...

No. Agger got a red card two matches ago, at West Brom, and was suspended for one match.

Anonymous said...

I hate you Nate. You are always right and smug. Damn you. McKayla Marooney is not impressed.

nate said...

"Actually, her last name is Maroney," he says smugly...

Sorry, couldn't help it, you set me up perfectly there.

Anonymous said...