01 November 2013

Liverpool at Arsenal 11.02.13

1:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (a) 01.30.13
0-2 Arsenal (h) 09.02.12
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 West Brom (h); 2-2 Newcastle (a); 3-1 Palace (h)
Arsenal: 0-2 Chelsea (h); 2-0 Palace (a); 1-2 Dortmund (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge 8; Suarez 6; Gerrard 2; Moses 1
Arsenal: Giroud, Ramsey 5; Özil, Podolski, Wilshere 2; Arteta, Gnabry, Mertesacker, Sagna 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Johnson Gerrard Henderson Cissokho
Sturridge Suarez

With Coutinho returning to fitness, we'll soon have a renewed debate over Liverpool's best XI and the appropriate formation. Sure, he's certain to come back into the side, but should it be at the expense of Henderson or one of the three center-backs? Is 3-1-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 the way forward?

But that debate's not happening this week. Or, probably more accurately, shouldn't happen this week. Coutinho won't be, can't be 100% fit. An away match at the league leaders is not the time nor place to toss him into the deep end. It's the time to dance with the one who brung you.

Enrique is still absent, so Cissokho will start for the third consecutive match. And I still think Agger should be starting, but I'll stop predicting it in the above guess at a lineup until Rodgers seems remotely likely to put him in. Skrtel's aerial ability is probably better against Giroud anyway. And, again, this hardly seems a match to fiddle with a structure that's worked reasonably well.

Gerrard, and Henderson to a lesser extent, will necessarily play deeper at Arsenal than against West Brom, but inverting the midfield triangle was crucial to Liverpool's improved play. There will be less emphasis on pressing and much more emphasis on the counter-attack, but it's still very important to see both Gerrard and Henderson ahead of Lucas, linking Liverpool's midfield and attack and putting bodies between Arsenal's lines, cutting off the supply line from Arteta and WIlshere to Özil, Ramsey, and Cazorla. Arsenal passed around and through Liverpool with ease in both meetings last season, with Liverpool playing 4-2-3-1 in both (a 4-2-3-1 that settled into a 4-5-1 when under the inevitable pressure), first with a midfield of Arteta-Diaby-Cazorla, then with Ramsey-Wilshere-Cazorla. Wilshere, in particular, utterly dominated the last meeting at the Emirates. Liverpool will need Gerrard and Henderson to press the two deeper midfielders, and Lucas to keep very close watch over the incredibly dangerous Mesut Özil.

With the form they're in, Arsenal deserve to be the league leaders, with seven wins and one draw in the last eight league matches, unbeaten in the league since opening day. Giroud and Ramsey have been the standouts in front of goal, but Arsenal have been far less reliant on one or two for goals, especially compared to Liverpool's reliance on Sturridge and Suarez. Nine different Arsenal players have found the net this season, and only Manchester City has scored more goals this season, with 21 to Arsenal's 20.

Arsenal's midweek loss in the League Cup saw seven changes from their usual XI. Nearly a decade without a trophy be damned, it's fairly clear where Wenger's priorities lie this season. Only Koscielny, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Cazorla should keep their place from Tuesday's side. Flamini, Walcott, Podolski, Gnabry, Diaby, Sanogo, and Oxlade-Chamberlain are injured. Arteta will return after serving a one-match suspension against Chelsea.

Which means Arsenal's XI will most likely be: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Wilshere; Ramsey, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud. The attacking line of three will switch constantly, as Özil roams the width and breadth of Liverpool's half while Cazorla and Ramsey cut inside. While permanently dangerous, requiring Liverpool to always be aware of each's rapidly changing position, it often makes Arsenal rely on the fullbacks for width, giving Liverpool the chance to snuff out Arsenal's attacks by overloading the middle of the pitch then counter-attacking at pace through Johnson and Cissokho, as well as Suarez and Sturridge's ability to work the channels. This, from Zonal Marking, highlights how the Suarez/Sturridge partnership could trouble Mertesacker and Koscielny, although both have done better than expected against Suarez in the last couple of seasons; Liverpool's first goal at the Emirates last January has been the exception rather than the rule.

Liverpool actually have a better record at the Emirates in recent years compared to the league meetings at Anfield. They've won one, drawn three, and lost one – back in 2009/10 – in the last five matches there. At home during the same span, Liverpool have drawn three and lost two. And all three of Arsenal's losses this season have come at home: the first match against Villa and in the last two matches against Dortmund and Chelsea, albeit both in cup competition and fielding a much weaker lineup in Tuesday's defeat.

One swallow rarely makes a summer and all, but tomorrow's match will be an excellent barometer for how far each team has truly come this season, and how far each still has to go.


McrRed said...

Great write-up.
Cheers Nate.

Vercingetora said...

Excellent write up as always.

With typically more central players Ramsey and Cazorla playing wider positions instead of the injured Walcott and Podolski, Arsenal's central midfield tends to get even more overloaded. That leaves lots of room for our wingbacks.

With such space out wide, I wish Enrique was available! I'd love to see his patented long balls to Suarez on the left side where Mertesacker sets up. That seems to be the mismatch we could exploit.