Arsenal vs Liverpool rarely disappoints in terms of entertainment. Their 51 Premier League meetings to date have produced an impressive 141 goals, and we’ve seen just five scoreless draws during that time. With Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp at the respective helms too, their meeting at the Emirates Stadium on Friday night looks set to continue that tradition as both managers prioritise offensive flair over defensive organisation.
But if there’s one lingering concern, it’s how the match may not be decided by a moment of quality befitting of such an iconic fixture – rather, refereeing decisions. In some instances, that’s largely inevitable; the margins are so fine in the Premier League and the officials are often forced into making calls that inevitably have a significant impact on the scoreline. The real frustration comes though, when a referee is simply being too proactive in laying down the letter of the law.
Aged 46, Martin Atkinson is amongst the most experienced referees in the Premier League, now amid his 13th season in the top flight, and clearly knows when the whistle is needed and when he should allow the game to flow. Tellingly, he ranks lowly for both yellow cards and penalties per match so far this season – hinting he won’t make one huge decision that decides Friday’s contest.
But there’s one refereeing return from this term that particularly stands out – he’s issued the seventh-most fouls per match of the 18 referees to work in the English top flight throughout 2017/18. The statistics suggest that benefits Liverpool far more than it does Arsenal; despite their reputation of being a bit of a soft touch, the north Londoners have actually committed the joint-fifth most fouls of any Premier League side this season, whereas Klopp’s boys rank a lowly 15th and even average 0.4 fouls per match less away from home.
Accordingly, while Arsenal may find themselves suffering Atkinson’s whistle-happy wrath, Liverpool’s cleaner game could give them a distinct advantage. And the danger to Arsenal only becomes more obvious when considering the potency Liverpool boast from dead ball situations through Philippe Coutinho, unquestionably one of the best free kick takers in the business at the moment. If Arsenal give away too many fouls in dangerous areas, the Brazilian will eventually punish them.
On top of that, in another bad omen for Arsenal fans, 50% of the matches Atkinson has officiated this season have ended in away wins.