Expert predictions: Arsenal vs Liverpool

Premier League fans probably couldn’t ask for a greater gift to kick off what should be a phenomenal week of Christmas football in the English top flight than Arsenal vs Liverpool.

Meetings between these two sides always deliver a healthy dose of goals, with 141 scored from their 51 Premier League meetings to date, and just to add an extra sprinkling of importance and intensity, they’re currently separated just by one point in the Premier League table – either side of that all-important Champions League qualification line.

So will we see another goal-fest in Friday’s 7.45pm kickoff? This week’s experts, Snack-Media’s Josh Challies and Live4Liverpool editor George Dagless, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the clash at the Emirates Stadium…

The last time Arsenal faced Liverpool, they were hammered 4-0 at Anfield. While that performance went down as a counter-attacking masterclass from the home side’s perspective, it also proved how detrimental it can be to not have everybody pulling in the same direction against a Reds side who pride themselves on relentless energy.

Many individuals drew criticism for a lack of effort, but most particularly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who moved to Merseyside just a matter of days later. The big danger this time around, though, is Alexis Sanchez; he’s still easily Arsenal’s biggest threat on paper, but has been accused of a lack of commitment ahead of the January transfer window with his contract situation ongoing.

Would you start a half-committed Sanchez on Friday, or does someone else deserve the chance?

JC: “I would drop Sanchez. He needs to learn that he’s not bigger than the club and that his performances still matter, regardless of whether he’s staying or going. He’s been woeful in recent weeks and Danny Welbeck’s more direct approach against Liverpool could prove to be decisive. He’d be a better option in the attack and deserves for more opportunities.”

Perhaps Liverpool’s biggest selection dilemma, meanwhile, centres around their ‘fab four’ – Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Despite their undoubted quality, Jurgen Klopp has shown a reluctance to field all four at times this season, perhaps because of how they can leave Liverpool exposed at the other end.

Would you start all four against the Gunners, considering Arsenal have won eight of nine at home in the Premier League this season?

GD:“This is a tough away game, yes, but it’s probably the most open you can have of the other big sides in the league – so I’d start all of the ‘fab four.’ Klopp has rested some of his big stars in recent weeks, especially Mane, but I think the quartet will play in order to get at Arsenal from the off.

“The Gunners haven’t liked it when we’ve gone for them early on and so I think Mane, Salah and Firmino will be the leading three with Coutinho lying deeper in midfield. We will need some balance, though, and I’d expect Jordan Henderson to be joined by one of Emre Can or James Milner to keep things as tight as possible without restricting our attacking potency.

“Gini Wijnaldum could also have a chance of being the other midfielder but I think he might just be ousted as I felt he was quiet in the win over Bournemouth. Getting the midfield balance right will be key here.”

And in light of that impressive record at the Emirates Stadium this season, what game-plan should Klopp take into Friday night?

GD: “It must be all-out attack. Of course, many would argue the Reds only know one way of playing but in games like this it is probably the best option. Arsenal have hated it when we’ve flown at them in  from the off and shown no fear and so I can’t see why we should change our approach come kick-off.

“Yes, they have been very good at home this season but United showed that if you apply pressure on them at the right times you can get goals at the Emirates. Liverpool are a better pressing side than United, too, and so providing we don’t give the Gunners an early goal or something silly like that, we should hopefully get some joy.”

“I haven’t decided [the formation] yet, but the fact that we are adaptable now to both systems [means] it will be down to me to make the decision, do we play in a four, or in a three, or in a five? I have to analyse that well.”

Arsene Wenger has revealed he’s yet to decide whether his team will line up in a 3-4-3 or a 4-2-3-1 against Liverpool, having started the season with the former formation but reverted back to the latter in recent weeks amid the absence of Aaron Ramsey.

Which formation would work best against Liverpool?

JC: “I’m not a fan of either formation, in all honesty, but anything other than a four-man defence against Liverpool’s attack is the wrong set up. For that reason, 4-2-3-1 is the way to go. The balance is key though, particularly with the two deeper midfielders. They have to do their job and defend, otherwise Liverpool’s attack will tear us apart yet again.”

“I think the biggest improvement and potential for him is being involved in goalscoring situations. It is unbelievable but he was not asked for this too much in the past.

“Here we put it on more shoulders, much more shoulders. If he is on the pitch he needs to be involved in these situations. At the moment it’s all good but I also see there is space for improvement.”

Oxlade-Chamberlain has inevitably become one of the centre-pieces for this fixture ahead of his first meeting with Arsenal since leaving north London at the end of the summer transfer window. Klopp has been quick to talk up the England international’s abilities and question whether his talents were fully appreciated by his former employers.

But will the midfielder be a key factor against the Gunners?

GD: “I’ve been really impressed with him. He’s started to show the traits he has always said he has in central midfield. He harasses at the right time, gets into the box to take shots well and can still ghost past players with his pace.

I thought his best game was against Bournemouth last weekend, too, but I actually don’t think he will start. It does seem a little harsh but I don’t know if he is defensively disciplined enough yet to play in a game like this as well as the ‘fab four’ who I think will play.

He certainly has the potential to come on and be an impact from the bench, though, and he’ll be eager to prove a point to any Gunners fans who give him stick.”

With little to choose between the two teams and both desperate for a win over a big six rival, Friday’s encounter could well come down to which side dominates the key individual battles.

Which key battle will decide the game?

JC: “It’s not a direct battle but Salah and Alexandre Lacazette may decide the game. Salah has certainly been the best signing this season and Lacazette has also impressed. However, he’s often been overlooked for the big games and this is the chance for him to prove himself. It seems he’s still settling into the system though, so it could go either way.”

And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…

JC:“With both defences being poor, I certainly expect there to be plenty of goals. I’m going for a 2-2 draw and the Arsenal way would be to fall behind, before then securing a dramatic late equaliser. Giroud would usually be the choice for this impact but his injury means the super sub tag is there to be claimed.”

GD: “There’s goals written all over this. 3-4! (Again).”