As we enter March and the 2016/17 season begins to come to an end, there is increased significance on each fixture, particularly those involving teams either at the top or the bottom of the table.
This weekend sees Arsenal travel north to face Liverpool at Anfield, with the Gunners sitting fourth in the table and their opponents sitting in fifth; only one point separates the two. The first fixture between these two sides at the start of the season finished 4-3 to Liverpool as both sides struggled initially to find their feet.
Predicting the outcome of this fixture is made all the more difficult by the inconsistent form that we have seen from both sides in the last couple of months.
Liverpool in particular are coming off the back of a 3-1 defeat to champions Leicester City. Normally a reverse against the champions may not have been a disastrous result but, when you consider that Leicester are in serious relegation trouble, this was a poor result for Liverpool.
Arsenal have been drifting through a period of uncertainty following their Champions League capitulation away to Bayern Munich. That result has brought added pressure to the tenure of Arsene Wenger and has brought in to question the structure of the club.
As always, though, there are key tactical decisions that either club can make in order to win the game…
Earlier on in the season Liverpool appeared to be an irresistible attacking force, with movement across the final third of the field that pulled the opposition completely out of position and left the goal exposed.
This attacking fluidity has been missing over the last two months, following a difficult December which saw key attacker Roberto Firmino charged with drink driving, his Brazilian compatriot Coutinho ruled out through injury and Sadio Mane leaving to represent Senegal at the African Cup of Nations.
Now, though, all three players have returned to the starting lineup and Liverpool have the opportunity to restart their ascent to a top four finish.
That early season form was based around the use of the space between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines. All three attacking player were given the freedom to come from their traditional positions and find space in the central area. These distinct movements would, on occasion, all happen at once, with the fullbacks providing width to stretch the defensive structure of the opposition. This in effect created a central overload through which Liverpool could attack.
Against Arsenal we should look to see Liverpool get back to that central focus to test the weakness of this Arsenal side – the lack of a genuine controlling midfielder. This lack of balance in the Arsenal defensive unit can be exposed by teams flooding the central advanced areas and playing quick, vertical passes behind the Arsenal press. This is something that Liverpool excels at.
Over the last few matches, the Liverpool fullbacks have come under increasing scrutiny as their defensive performances have dipped.
Their fullbacks are important pieces of the attacking strategy given the proclivity of the attackers to flood the central areas. The fullbacks are responsible for stretching the width of the field and preventing the opposition from dropping in to a compact defensive block.
While Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner have been reasonably productive in attack recently, they have been exposed in the defensive phase, especially by quick and direct players.
I expect to see Arsenal utilise their traditional 4-2-3-1 in this match, although Wenger has shown a willingness to move to 4-3-3 at times this season. Expect Wenger to start Theo Walcott on the right, where his pace on the right hand side will threaten James Milner. On the opposite side it may be prudent for Wenger to shift Alexis Sanchez from his striker role out to the left hand side.
This would allow Oliver Giroud to come on in to the central area where his movement can pin down the two Liverpool central defenders, allowing Sanchez to isolate and attack Clyne either on the inside or on the outside.
By playing with players of genuine pace on the outside of the attack, Arsenal will also force the Liverpool fullbacks to play in slightly deeper positions on the field. They will be less willing to attack in advanced areas with the threat of Walcott and Sanchez on the break behind them.
If Arsenal can take the attacking threat from the Liverpool fullbacks out of the game then they will force Liverpool in to one dimensional attacking patterns, which will play to the strength of Arsenal.
Who will come out on top then? The form of each side makes it all but impossible to choose a winner using anything approaching empirical data. Instead we are left to judge the match as best we can by projecting the tactical battle.