As we reach the halfway point of the season, Arsene Wenger will be more than aware Friday night’s clash with Liverpool could have a huge say in whether his Arsenal side return to the Premier League’s top four come the end of the campaign.
The Gunners and the Reds are separated by just one point in the Premier League table and while a win at the Emirates Stadium will see them take the visitors’ place in the top six, a defeat or draw would allow them to be leapfrogged by bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur. To ensure his side come out with an all-important victory, Wenger must find the right answers to these three crucial questions…
Liverpool’s 4-0 defeat at Anfield back in August showed how important it is to have everybody pulling in the same direction against Jurgen Klopp’s side, who pride themselves on the high-pressing energy they inject into games. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was perhaps the biggest culprit that afternoon, the match coming a mere matter of days before he joined Liverpool, but the danger for Friday night is undoubtedly Alexis Sanchez.
He’s still the Gunners’ most potent attacking threat on paper but the Chile international just hasn’t performed to the same levels this season and his form has particularly waned ahead of the January transfer window – something which, when coupled with his contract situation, suggests Sanchez is hoping for a mid-season move. It’s human nature for him to be a little off the boil under such circumstances and Wenger must consider whether a half-committed Sanchez is worth more than a fully committed alternative.
Danny Welbeck took advantage of his first start since October on Wednesday night to find a winner against West Ham and if there’s one thing the England man can never be criticised for in comparison to Sanchez, it’s the industriousness and commitment of his performances. Bearing in mind Liverpool’s high-octane style, that could well make him the better option on the left flank.
The 4-0 defeat was an incredibly humbling experience and one Arsenal must learn from. While they may boast home advantage this time around, the dynamics of the match itself won’t be all that different; Klopp’s game-plan for beating Arsenal centred around soaking up pressure before hitting them with pace out wide on the counter-attack and considering how effective it was back in August, Liverpool are likely to set up in a similar manner at the Emirates Stadium this Friday night.
Arsenal can’t simply approach the game in the same way and expect a different outcome – lessons must be taken on board and the team’s tactics must be tweaked accordingly.
That may well require changing personnel to have a more defensive presence in midfield, such as Francis Coquelin or Mohamed El Neny, who have the natural athleticism to stop those counter-attacks before they advance, or potentially even reverting back to Arsenal’s more traditional 4-2-3-1 which would give the Gunners a good chance of cancelling out Klopp’s usual 4-3-3. 3-4-3 certainly didn’t work on Merseyside.
While nobody can doubt Liverpool’s sheer potency going forward, Klopp’s side certainly isn’t without its weaknesses. Their defence perhaps isn’t as bad as often made out in the media – only five Premier League sides have conceded less than them this season – but defending at set pieces remains a key flaw away from home.
Only Leicester and Brighton have let in more goals from those scenarios on the road and Arsenal can likely take advantage of that without making too many changes to their usual set up; in contrast, they’ve scored the joint-most home goals from set pieces of any team in the division.
On top of that, Liverpool have struggled in terms of discipline away from Anfield this season.
They’ve incurred 16 yellow cards and one red card in nine away games and while Sadio Mane’s sending off against Manchester City certainly divided opinion, it also highlighted what a disadvantage ten men can be against one of the Premier League’s top clubs – especially on the road.
If Arsenal can force Liverpool into bookings and potentially even a sending off, they’ll inevitably put Klopp’s side on the back foot.