Liverpool: 5 Things the Reds Must Do to Beat Arsenal in Race for EPL Top 4 Match
Liverpool host Arsenal at Anfield this weekend in the first club fixture for both sides following a weekend when both teams were celebrating in a big way—Arsenal first of all dispatched of their local rivals Tottenham Hotspur by five goals to two, having been 2-0 down, while Liverpool captured the first trophy of the season with a Wembley win over Cardiff City in the Carling Cup final.
With both teams flying high on confidence following their respective results, it should be an entertaining, if tense, match at Anfield as both sides know that three big points are up for grabs in the race for a Champions League spot next season.
At present, Arsenal hold fourth place in the Premier League with a seven-point advantage over seventh-placed Liverpool—though the Reds have a game in hand, the re-arranged Merseyside derby against Everton.
A win for the home team this weekend would see them gain valuable ground on the Gunners, while a defeat could quite possibly put an early end to their ambitions of qualifying for next season's premiere European competition.
Here are five things Liverpool will have to do to ensure they overcome Arsenal and put themselves back in the running to finish the season in the top four.
Stop Robin Van Persie... Easier Said Than Done
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The first subject matter is the most obvious, and probably the most difficult.
Robin van Persie has 29 goals this season in all competitions for Arsenal, 23 of which have come in the Premier League.
The next highest scorer for Arsenal in Theo Walcott, who has eight.
It is quite clear: Job No. 1 for Liverpool's defence at Anfield will be to stop the Dutchman van Persie from scoring.
Fortunately, the Reds have a defender who should be well up for the task, with Martin Skrtel being absolutely in the form of his life.
I have no words to describe or praise Skrtel highly enough this season; a player who was good-to-very-good at best, and a horrible liability at worst, during previous seasons has this year matured into arguably one of the top two defenders in the Premier League.
His form over the past three or four months has been absolutely imperious, and few players deserved a cup final goal and winners medal as much as Skrtel did this past weekend.
In Robin van Persie, he will face one of his toughest opponents of the season.
One likely downside for Liverpool is that Skrtel will be without his regular partner Daniel Agger for the Arsenal match, having suffered a broken rib in the final.
With Jamie Carragher his likely replacement, it is not as though the Reds will be left with a patched up defence or anything, but Skrtel will certainly be required to step up to the mark in a big way to compensate for the possible lack of match sharpness of his new central defensive partner.
Play Stewart Downing on the Left Side of Midfield
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For perhaps the first time since August of this season, Stewart Downing is a "must have" in the Liverpool team-sheet.
Downing is not yet at his electrifying best, and has not yet turned around his form so that he is guaranteed of a starting spot, but he has improved markedly over the last two weeks or so, and brings a turn of pace and ability on the ball to the Liverpool attack which only Craig Bellamy can usually match.
Downing's best two performances so far have come against Championship sides Brighton and Cardiff, but they have come back-to-back, and Liverpool will need him to continue in that vein of form to really trouble Arsenal's defence.
Bacary Sagna will, in all probability, play right-back for Arsenal following his return from injury and since he loves to rampage forward into space, Downing will be required to track back and cover—but will also have space and opportunity to get forward as often as possible when the Reds have the ball.
Downing needs to keep up his recent better form and continue to provide the kind of crosses he produced in the first half at Wembley in the Carling Cup final.
To do that, he needs to play on the left side for the Reds, regardless of Kenny Dalglish continuing with a 4-4-2 type system or switching it to a more 4-3-3 formation.
Attack, Attack, Attack Attack Attack!
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Arsenal showed last week against Spurs that, despite not performing up to their usual standards at all times throughout this season, they are still a potent force in the final third when they get going.
The Gunners put five past Spurs in the North London derby—but as usual, they do still look shaky at the opposite end.
Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen are still a work in progress as a centre-back partnership, while whichever full-backs take to the field will still be in the early stages of recovery from injury, with Arsenal having been unable to field two natural wide defenders in the Premier League since October.
Liverpool will have chances to get at the Gunners and pull their back line about if the forward movement from the home side is as good as usual—and the best way for the Reds to take three points is to keep the Gunners pinned back in their own half for as long as possible.
They won't go gung-ho for a four- or five-goal winning margin, but a quick turnover of possession in midfield, accurate passing and excellent movement will be key for Liverpool in trying to win this game.
On a side-note to this, if Steven Gerrard is fit and available to start following his midweek exertions with England, I would fancy Kenny Dalglish to play the captain as part of a three-man midfield, with Jay Spearing coming back into the team to balance out the middle of the park.
Gerrard is at his most effective when breaking through the centre, and Arsenal's occasionally weak spine may suffer heavily at the Reds' captain's late bursts.
Defend Narrow, Defend Deep
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It's not just Martin Skrtel who is going to have to defend well for Liverpool to keep Arsenal at bay.
Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson—or Martin Kelly, should either of those first two not start the game—are going to have to be on top form in the defensive third against the Gunners.
Arsenal's biggest threat is still their pace and trickery in wide areas, with Theo Walcott, Gervinho and now Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all adept at creating and scoring chances when cutting in from wide areas to support Robin van Persie.
Normally, Liverpool attempt to press the play high up the field at Anfield, with the defence fairly close to the halfway line.
Against Arsenal, they are going to have to re-think that strategy a little.
If and when the away team get the ball through the first line of Red shirts (forwards, attacking midfielders), Liverpool's back four need to drop deeper, quickly.
Pepe Reina is a great reader of the game and almost always takes up a smart starting position, so with Liverpool's defence holding a line about 10 yards or so outside their own penalty box, the threat of the ball over the top of the defence, or inside the channels between centre-backs and full-backs, is removed entirely as Reina will sweep up anything that comes his way.
With the pace of Johnson and Jose Enrique in the full-back areas, there will also be little room or opportunity for the Arsenal wide men to use their blistering speed to its fullest potential.
Playing this way opens up the game in front of the defence a little more than usual for Liverpool, but the Gunners playing in front of the defence is not the biggest problem.
Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam, or whichever pair is picked in central midfield, will have their work cut out for them to press the Gunners' midfield continually as they recycle the ball from side to side, looking for an opening, but again, defending deeper than usual reduces the chance that Mikel Arteta et al will be able to pick the lock of Liverpool's defence.
It's a little boring, and a little negative for what we want to see at Anfield, but it is what will work for the Reds.
On the flip side, giving more room in midfield means that if Liverpool do win back possession quickly, there is enough room for the likes of Adam and Gerrard to put their more attacking skills into play by finding a clever pass to the forward men, as Liverpool can hit Arsenal on the counter.
Not for the First Time...Be Clinical!
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42 shots, two goals.
Those were the stats from the Carling Cup final last week, where Liverpool peppered the Cardiff goal with shots from outside the box, attempts from close range off set pieces and a whole bushel load of wayward Andy Carroll headers.
The statistics were pretty much in keeping with a season which has seen Liverpool need upwards of 20 shots to score a single goal in the Premier League.
That, quite simply, must improve.
The Reds cannot expect to muster two dozen attempts against the top clubs, or even against the bottom clubs sometimes, and so need to be far more clinical when lining up shots.
Easier said than done, of course, but it is something that must be worked on and concentrated on in the moment.
Arsenal are great in attack and may well score a goal—Liverpool can't rely on making 30 chances themselves to have enough opportunities to win the game.
What Team Should Kenny Dalglish Go With? Kuyt Pushing for Recall, Henderson Out?
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Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish will face a few difficult decisions in the aftermath of watching his team secure the League Cup trophy last weekend.
Jordan Henderson incurred the wrath of supporters with a low-key display, to put it kindly, while the heroics of Dirk Kuyt have not gone unnoticed either.
In matches against the biggest sides, Dalglish has favoured playing a true holding midfielder and letting another central player get forward to support the attackers, with a 4-2-3-1 type of formation being the popular alternative to his usual 4-4-2.
With Lucas Leiva out injured, Jay Spearing could well get another opportunity to counter the Arsenal trio of Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song in the centre of the park.
Jamie Carragher should also come in for the injured Daniel Agger as mentioned.
Steven Gerrard was replaced for England in midweek with a tight hamstring, but may be fit enough to play against Arsenal.
Expected Liverpool line up:
Pepe Reina; Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Jose Enrique; Jay Spearing, Charlie Adam; Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Stewart Downing; Luis Suarez.
Subs: Alexander Doni, Martin Kelly, Sebastian Coates, Maxi Rodriguez, Jordan Henderson, Craig Bellamy, Andy Carroll.