07 February 2014

Liverpool v Arsenal 02.08.14

7:45am ET, live in the US on USA Network and NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Arsenal (a) 11.02.13
2-2 (a) 01.30.13
0-2 Arsenal (h) 09.02.12
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 West Brom (a); 4-0 Everton (h); 2-0 Bournemouth (a)
Arsenal: 2-0 Palace (h); 2-2 Southampton (a); 4-0 Coventry (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Sturridge 14; Gerrard 6; Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Arsenal: Giroud 10; Ramsey 8; Walcott 5; Cazorla, Özil 4; Podolski, WIlshere 3; Bendtner, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain 2; Arteta, Flamini, Gnabry, Sagna 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Henderson Allen
Sterling Suarez Sturridge

This match comes about a week too early.

Agger and Johnson will be back soon, maybe even by Fulham on Wednesday, but not soon enough for this fixture.

Which means there's only one potential change from the side that's started the last three league matches. Allen for Coutinho, to further solidify the midfield against one of the league's most difficult opponents.

In each of the three previous meetings between Rodgers' Liverpool and Arsenal, Arsenal have utterly dominated the center of the pitch. Bossed, controlled, commanded, dictated. Dominated. Since Rodgers became manager, two opposition players have completed more than 100 passes in a single match: Arteta in the reverse fixture this season, and Aaron Ramsey at the Emirates last season. Arteta, completing 87 of 92 in last season's Anfield meeting, is fourth-highest on the list of most opposition passes by a single player against Rodgers' Liverpool. And that's been the key factor in two 2-0 Arsenal victories, and one 2-2 draw at the Emirates, where Liverpool were at least potent enough to score twice on the counter (and were helped by a couple of Arsenal mistakes).

I expect Liverpool's plan will be very much like that which led to the 4-0 victory over Everton 10 days ago. The draws against Villa and West Brom with the same XI saw Liverpool stuck between two worlds: not defensive enough (or clever enough in defense) to prevent the opposition from nicking at least one, not attacking enough to put the game out of reach regardless of defensive solidity. However, Everton, sandwiched in between those draws, got the most out of the XI because Liverpool had a discernible strategy: defend, defend, defend, then destroy on the break through Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling. Swamp the midfield and force the opposition to attack from out wide, where Everton weren't comfortable and Arsenal aren't quite as comfortable, let Skrtel and Toure do what they're good at: defending the six-yard box, heading away crosses and blocking long-range shots. That seems the ideal strategy tomorrow.

Maybe Coutinho will still be preferred to Allen; his work rate was brilliant in the Merseyside Derby, coupled with the eye for the killer pass so evident in Liverpool's second goal. But I suspect that Allen will get the nod, for further midfield protection, and to keep Coutinho in reserve if Liverpool need a game-changing substitution. Which, I doubt I need to remind, is something that Liverpool has lacked all season.

So much for Arsenal falling back to earth over the course of the season. They've eight wins and two draws in their last ten matches, unbeaten since December 14. But this isn't the Arsenal we've become accustomed to, having married their typical team-wide attacking nous – 14 different players have scored in the league, the most in the division – to a remarkably parsimonious defense. Only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals, 20 to Arsenal's 21, while Arsenal have more clean sheets than any other side.

Arteta and Wilshere are questionable, but most likely available; Vermaelen's doubtful, but unlikely to start even if fit; Walcott, Ramsey, and Källström are all out injured, while Flamini's suspended.

So Arsenal's most likely XI is Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Oxlade-Chambelain, Arteta; Cazorla, Özil, Podolski; Giroud. Gibbs is back from injury, but Monreal's played well in the last two matches, and seems better equipped to deal with Sterling's threat. Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably keep his place ahead of the returning Wilshere or move into the attacking line of three in place of Podolski, on the right with Cazorla switching to the left. If Oxlade-Chamberlain stays in midfield, Wenger might also go with Rosicky, adding another clever midfielder rather than the more out-and-out forward in Podolski. Podolski provides more diversity in attack, but Flanagan's game matches up well against the German's, as the young Scouser will sit deep and mark tightly, with Arsenal's fullback less likely to overlap on that side. Liverpool remain much more vulnerable on the opposite flank, where Cissokho and Toure could come up against Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Cazorla, Sagna, and Giroud if he drifts in that direction. Either Sturridge or Suarez will have to do a lot of tracking back, which will further isolate the other who stays forward. And whoever the midfield help is on that side, whether Henderson or Allen, is in for a long, difficult match.

Regardless of who starts in Arsenal's attacking line of three, all three will switch positions frequently, especially Cazorla and Özil, which is something Liverpool will have to watch carefully, especially since Giroud's natural game is to drop deep to receive the ball, further congesting and confusing that section of the pitch.

There's no underestimating the importance of this fixture, for either side. Arsenal are deservedly first, eight points ahead of Liverpool in fourth, about to start a hell month of fixtures that'll see them face Liverpool twice, United, and Bayern Munich over 11 days. This is the second of Liverpool's five matches against the other top six sides over the second half of the campaign, all at Anfield, a venue where Liverpool have won 10, drawn once, and lost once this season. The first, you may remember was the 4-0 destruction of the derby rivals. Only City and Chelsea have a better home record this season, but no side has a better away record than Arsenal.

And Liverpool haven't beaten Arsenal since August 2011, haven't beaten Arsenal at Anfield since a 4-2 Champions League win in April 2008. The last league win against Arsenal at Anfield? March 2007, one month shy of seven years ago, when Crouch scored a perfect hat-trick to lead Liverpool to a 4-1 victory, crucial in pipping Arsenal to 3rd place on goal difference that season.

Whoever wins this fixture – and Arsenal have to be favorites, no matter Liverpool's home record this season – will go a long way in cementing their current league position. If either of these sides actually win this fixture. Liverpool and Arsenal have drawn eight of the 16 matches played in all competitions over the last seven seasons, which is more draws than any other fixture over than span.

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