Five key battles that will decide Arsenal vs Liverpool

In the pick of the weekend’s Premier League action, Arsenal play hosts to Liverpool at the Emirates for Saturday afternoon’s lunchtime kick-off.

The Gunners find themselves amid a real purple patch – barring their 3-2 aggregate defeat to Monaco in the Champions League – winning 14 of their last 19 in the Premier League, whilst Liverpool enter tomorrow’s affair on the back of a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at Anfield, their first league loss since the reverse fixture all the way back in December.

With the result on Saturday likely to have a huge impact on both clubs’ league standings come the end of May however, it’s a fixture that seemingly beckons unforeseen drama – especially with Raheem Sterling’s contract dispute thrown into the mix as well.

So with that in mind, who enters tomorrow’s contest as the favourites?

Perhaps a look at the individual battles and speculating who might come out on top can shed some light on the issue.

RAHEEM STERLING VS THE WORLD

Liverpool v Blackburn Rovers - FA Cup Quarter Final
Before a ball is kicked at the Emirates tomorrow afternoon, all of the focus will be on Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling.

In a rollercoaster week we’ve heard rumours that the England star would reject a £180k per-week contract to stay at Anfield, followed by an incredibly revealing interview with the BBC where he claimed the allure of silverware, not financial gain, was causing the indecisiveness over his Reds future.

Liverpool fans have reacted rather militantly on social media over the last few days and it remains to be seen just what kind of reception Sterling will get on Saturday – and more importantly, whether he’s got the temperament to handle it.

Arsenal’s rumoured interest in the 2014 Golden Boy award-winner only adds further drama to an already controversial transfer saga and full-throttle match-up. More than any opponent, ensuring this week’s off-field revelations don’t affect his game is the biggest challenge Sterling faces against the Gunners.

OLIVIER GIROUD VS EMRE CAN

Giroud
Two weekends ago, Manchester United exploited a Liverpool weakness the rest of the Premier League have failed to capitalise on since the turn of 2015 – their lack of height and dominance in the air.

Take a look at Maroaune Fellaini and Emre Can’s heat maps for example:

Can vs Fellaini heatmap

As you can see, the United midfielder constantly tested the Germany U21 down that left-central channel.

This had two predominant effects; firstly, pinning Can back and therefore stopping him building attacks from Liverpool’s backline, resulting in him making ten less passes than the 59 in Liverpool’s Premier League fixture prior against Swansea; and secondly, isolating him in the air. He won five aerial dues against the Red Devils – but Fellaini bagged 11.

Statistically, there hasn’t been much difference between Fellaini and Giroud in terms of their aerial dominance this season, the former boasting 4.1 successful aerial duels per match and the latter not far behind with 3.9.

Although Arsenal are unlikely to attempt the same amount of long balls as United, who currently average the third-most per-match in the Premier League, there’s certainly a template for the Gunners’ front-man to follow.

If he can push onto Can in a similar manner, Arsenal will find luck down their left-hand side.

FRANCIS COQUELIN VS ADAM LALLANA AND PHILIPPE COUTINHO

Coutinho3
Arsene Wenger will likely call upon Francis Coquelin to provide the defensive dynamic in Arsenal’s midfield on Saturday.

The young Frenchman has already excelled against some noteworthy opposition this season, particularly Manchester City in January. But now facing the Reds and their quirky 3-4-2-1 formation, he faces a different kind of test altogether.

Liverpool’s unique system contains two wide-central attacking midfielders – in recent weeks, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, although Raheem Sterling could be fielded there against the Gunners – and as you can see from the heat-map below, they often like to overlap, allowing them to create a triangle of nomadic, versatile and rotating confusion with Liverpool’s centre-forward:

lallana and coutinho overlapping

As a consequence, Coquelin is left facing two distinct challenges; firstly, possessing the awareness and work-rate to track essentially two No.10s at the same time; and secondly, knowing when to shield in front of the Reds’ striker and when to push higher up.

Lallana’s recent injury problems saw him miss out on England duty during the international break but he’s expected to return tomorrow, whilst Coutinho will be keen to find an improved performance after going three Premier League fixtures without an assist or goal.

Their blend of attacking flair and positional versatility has been at the heart of many Liverpool wins over the last few months, so it’s imperative Coquelin finds a way of nullifying their threat as quickly as possible.

AARON RAMSEY VS JORDAN HENDERSON

Henderson
Two box-to-box midfielders of rather different styles, yet both the driving forces of their respective sides.

Whilst Aaron Ramsey offers elegance, vision and technical quality, Jordan Henderson is more of a highly-charged battering ram, using his power and pace to protect the Liverpool backline and punch holes in the final third.

They’re both midfield dynamos desperate to be involved in every aspect of play however – including goals – and will likely spend much of the match going toe-to-toe. Unsurprisingly, the England international has averaged the most passes per match of any Liverpool player this term, 58.3, whilst the Welshman is third for Arsenal with 54.4.

As a consequence, who keeps up with the other the best could prove to be the biggest factor on Saturday – but exploiting the space their opposite number leaves behind when venturing forward could have a direct impact on the scoreline.

ALEXIS SANCHEZ VS LIVERPOOL’S wing-backs

Manchester City v Arsenal - Barclays Premier League
I refuse to speculate on which wing Alexis Sanchez will don tomorrow afternoon – his 26 Premier League appearances have been split almost equally between the left flank, the right flank and central attacking midfield this season.

But either way, Liverpool’s wing-backs will be up against arguably their toughest test yet when facing the Gunners on Saturday afternoon. The Chilean’s influence may have diminished in recent weeks, scoring just once in his last seven Premier League appearances, but he’s easily one of the most formidable goalscoring threats in the division.

Although Alberto Moreno, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Ibe and Lazar Markovic have done an excellent job of balancing defence and attack when deployed as wing-backs this term, allowing Sanchez even a yard too much room could quickly result in an Arsenal goal.

Therefore, despite the Reds needing the win more, Liverpool’s wide-men will probably have to play a little more cautiously against Arsenal. Although that’ll be no great issue for left-back Alberto Moreno, the likes of Sterling and Markovic – unequivocally more attacking players – may struggle.