Form dictates that one or both of Arsenal and Liverpool will miss out on the top four. With the two Manchester clubs going from strength to strength and Spurs now free from the stresses of midweek European football, Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp are in a fight to make it into the Champions League next season. They have both fallen dramatically off the pace having been Chelsea’s nearest challengers at the turn of the year.
It is a similar issue that plagues the two teams. Their managers, whether because of limitations in the squad or tactical stubbornness, are unwilling to adapt to their opponent. Arsenal and Liverpool have been sucker-punched too frequently when they have pushed high up the pitch and left acres of space for the opposition. Liverpool cannot break teams down who sit deep in their own third, while Arsenal look all at sea without Laurent Koscielny.
The marked difference between the two, though, is who they have struggled against. Liverpool are unbeaten against the top half of the table this season, with their defeats coming against the sides in the lower half. Arsenal have continued to their stage fright reputation, four of their five league defeats coming against other teams in the top seven. Wenger has a dismal record away from home against his rivals, but Klopp boasts as astonishingly impressive return against fellow top six clubs.
Their respective failings have changed the tone of their seasons. Their Anfield encounter is billed as a top four shootout, when, if we had eyed up the calendar a mere couple of months ago, this was set to be a definitive moment in the title race. But should Manchester United win their game in hand – which is not set to be played for a few weeks – Wenger and Klopp will be left outside the top four.
These two sides met on the opening day, treating us to a Premier League classic. It finished 4-3 to Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium, which laid down a marker for Liverpool’s season; goal crazy, defensively lax, and never dull. Arsenal built a good run of form from then on, until their inevitable dip midway through the season.
Every meeting between the top six this season has been intense and will be for the rest of the season. The current circumstances of the top six could make this match the most intense yet. Defeat for either could all but spell the end for their chances of the top four, in fact. That additional pressure only makes Liverpool more likely to succeed given their excellent big-game record and Arsenal’s continued difficulty when it matters most.
Wenger will not adapt to limit the threat that Liverpool possess and his German counterpart will play the same way he has all season. Two exciting attacks will have space to play with so much on the line. No side other than Chelsea has scored as many as these two teams this season, and neither manager will be on the back foot for a match they must win: goals and entertainment are guaranteed.
Liverpool are strong favourites, while another limp big-game performance from Arsenal would be further proof that Wenger’s time at the helm is coming to an end. Klopp’s side are suffering from a bizarre weakness, but that quirk becomes something altogether more serious if their form against their top six rivals declines. The Gunners, on the other hand, would have to change a long-running habit to deliver in a crucial away match.