12 January 2016

Liverpool v Arsenal 01.13.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 08.24.15
1-4 Arsenal (a) 04.04.15
2-2 (h) 12.21.14
1-2 Arsenal (a; FA Cup) 02.16.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Exeter (a); 1-0 Stoke (a); 0-2 West Ham (a)
Arsenal: 3-1 Sunderland (h); 1-0 Newcastle (h); 2-0 Bournemouth (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho 5; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Arsenal: Giroud 10; Alexis 6; Koscielny, Özil, Ramsey, Walcott 3; Campbell 2; Gabriel, Gibbs 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Toure Sakho Moreno
Can Lucas
Lallana Firmino Milner

Okay, so who's fit? Sturridge, Coutinho, Origi, Skrtel, or Lovren? Nope. Sigh.

Henderson and Ibe? Maybe! Which is, wait, what? How? Needless to say, I find it hard to believe, but Klopp referenced good news in regards to both in Monday's press conference. I still think both are more likely to start against United on Sunday.

Any actual center-backs? Also maybe! Toure's available; like Henderson and Ibe, Sakho *should* be; Lucas can play there if needed; and Liverpool just signed Steven Caulker (???) on loan. That's four! Kind of. What a time to be alive.

Unsurprisingly, I remain skeptical of Liverpool's attack.

Benteke isn't necessarily who you want leading the line in a match like this, where Liverpool will see less possession and rely on pressing from the front and quick counter-attacks, but given all the attackers injured, Liverpool don't have many other options. If you wanted to start Firmino as the center forward, who joins him in attack: Lallana and who else? Is Ibe really fit enough to start? Milner? A youngster, such as Teixeira or Ojo?

If Henderson and Ibe truly are available, it's a different story. A front six of with three in midfield from Henderson, Can, Milner, and Lucas; and with Lallana, Firmino, and Ibe up front. That's a side that will press effectively and *could* be very good on the counter-attack. I'd like to see it. I don't know if we will.

It's still "only" January, but Arsenal might actually be for real this season. Top of the league at Christmas and New Year's, two points ahead of Leicester and three ahead of Manchester City. And they've shown no signs of slowing down, with eight wins, one draw, and one loss in last 10 matches. They're still prone to doing Arsenal things in defense and attack at times – infrequent but costly mistakes at the back, overplaying and sometimes wasteful in front of goal – but far fewer than in previous seasons.

It's not very Arsenal of them.

What's more Arsenal is the injury situation. It's certainly not Liverpool, and better than "usual" for this time of year, but Alexis, Cazorla, Coquelin, Wilshere, Welbeck, and Rosicky will be absent. At least three, if not four or even five, of those players would start if available.

So chances are that it'll be Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Flamini; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Walcott; Giroud. Maybe Joel Campbell instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain or Gibbs instead of Monreal. Oxlade-Chamberlain could also play in central midfield. Maybe Arteta is a thing that exists. But they're settled, they're strong, and they're the good features of recent Arsenal without most of the bad.

But Arsenal's lone loss since mid-November – a 0-4 defeat at Southampton – is the blueprint. That was one of the few bad Arsenal appearances. The opposition scores early (a wonder goal like Cuco Martina's certainly helps matters), keeps it tight at the back, exploits counter-attacks and set plays. Lots of pressing, both from the front and in midfield. Meanwhile, Arsenal sputters in attack, struggling to create chances and wasting the ones they do. Starring Benteke as Shane Long (the aerial ability, sure; the work-rate less likely) and Emre Can/Henderson/Milner as Victor Wanyama. Strength and discipline in midfield will be necessary in choking off Özil's supply and attempts to supply others. Clyne against Walcott, Moreno against Campbell or Oxlade-Chamberlain. Sakho's trained against Giroud with the French national team tons of times, right?

Is it likely? Probably not. Southampton were at their absolute best, Arsenal not far off their worst. Arsenal, terrifyingly, remain favorites to win the league this season. Liverpool have beaten Arsenal just once in the last nine meetings: that memorable 5-1 trucking at Anfield in 2013-14. Otherwise? Three draws – including a 0-0 at the Emirates in August – and five losses.

But is it possible? Sure. And not just because "anything's possible." Liverpool have been better defensively under Klopp, despite the injuries, and Liverpool have been better against the better sides under Klopp. Liverpool's first-choice XI has, for the first time in a long time, actually had a bit of rest and recovery time after playing the kids in the weekend FA Cup match, while Arsenal started at least six or seven players who'll start tomorrow.

But Liverpool will have to be at their best tomorrow to get any sort of result.