Make no mistake about it, Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Liverpool on Friday night is a key fixture in both clubs’ respective seasons. Currently either side of the all-important top four line, the Emirates Stadium clash could have a determining say in which side qualifies for the Champions League via domestic position come the end of the campaign.
What’s more, this fixture has a knack of delivering an impressive supply of goals – their 51 Premier League meetings to date have produced 141 – so it looks set to be another open and edgy encounter between the Gunners and the Reds this time around. Accordingly, the result could well boil down to which side dominates the key individual battles. Here, we look at four of the most important…
Mohamed Salah has unquestionably been one of the most formidable attacking threats in the Premier League this season, so it’s rather surprising Arsene Wenger appears to have lost his faith in first-choice left-back Sead Kolasinac ahead of such an important game.
The summer signing was left out against Newcastle last weekend yet played the full ninety minutes versus West Ham in midweek, suggesting he’ll be starting from the bench at best on Friday night.
While we could see Nacho Monreal return to his natural left-back role after most commonly featuring at centre-half this season, recent selections suggest Wenger will place his trust in youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles. More a midfielder by trade, Salah represents easily the biggest test of the 20-year-old’s career to date.
The Egyptian international already has 14 Premier League goals this season and completed the fourth-most dribbles of any player in the division.
Both managers like their full-backs to venture forward whenever possible and nowhere is that highlighted better than on a flank that will see Hector Bellerin and Andrew Robertson directly compete with each other for space on the overlap.
Although both defenders will have their own problems to deal with in the form of the opposing winger (most likely Philippe Coutinho and Alex Iwobi respectively), they’ll be desperate to contribute offensively – especially in Bellerin’s case if Arsenal revert back to the 3-4-3 setup they’ve used on the most-part this season.
In what looks set to be an open game between two attacking-minded teams, Bellerin and Robertson’s ability to provide deliveries into the box could well prove to be the difference – but so could the gaps they leave behind when pushing forward.
Rather than directly competing with an opposite number, the ultimate question lingering over Arsenal’s midfield is whether it can offer enough protection to stop the most potent weapon in Liverpool’s armoury – the counter-attack.
No side has come close to matching Liverpool’s five counter-attacking goals away from home this season and that was their biggest offensive success in the 4-0 win at Anfield as well, sucking up pressure before hitting the visitors on the break. While that’s as much about how the whole team is organised, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey’s lack of discipline in midfield was undoubtedly a pivotal factor in how poorly Arsenal defended those situations on Merseyside.
With Ramsey injured, Jack Wilshere looks set to take the Welshman’s place in the engine room but the ultimate question is whether Xhaka and Wilshere have the athleticism and the awareness to push wide and snuff out those counter-attacks when required.
While he may continue to divide opinion, Mesut Ozil is still one of Arsenal’s most important players – especially at home where he’s provided two goals and four assists in eight Premier League appearances so far this season.
If the German international brings his best form, he’ll almost certainly unlock what has been a shaky Liverpool defence at times this term, particularly on the road. The task of stopping him primarily falls to Reds captain Jordan Henderson, who will be at the base of the engine room.
Steadily transitioned into a defensive midfielder by Klopp, the England international has a knack of dividing opinion amongst his fans as well, but if Liverpool are to escape the Emirates Stadium with a clean sheet, he’ll inevitably play a huge part.