Arsenal Face Uphill Battle as Momentum Shifts Toward Liverpool
Arsenal have enjoyed a lung-bursting start to the season and rightly lead the Premier League, but as Liverpool get ready to visit the Emirates Stadium, momentum might just be shifting toward Brendan Rodgers' team.
Who will win?
The Reds have been quick to stoke the fires of this particular encounter. Both Rodgers and Jordan Henderson have talked to the media in recent days, and each has let the Gunners and Arsene Wenger know they mean business.
Henderson told the Daily Express that he expects his team to send a "message" out across the Premier League with a good result. He said:
Confidence is very high. We’ve started the season very well, but there’s still room for improvement and we’re still going to push and try and become better as a team.
Arsenal have been flying, but so have we, so I think it will be a good game to watch and hopefully we can get a good result. It would send out a message that we’re here and we mean business.
Rodgers has added to Liverpool's buoyant mood by initiating early mind games with his Arsenal counterpart. The Reds manager suggested that Liverpool is the true, rightful and only place that Luis Suarez should enjoy the Premier League. Arsenal's bid of £40,000,001 for the striker was rejected out of hand during the summer. Rodgers talked to the Daily Mail and said:
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For us and the institution we are, we were never going to sell to a rival. [Arsenal]
We were very firm and told Luis this was the place to showcase his talent. There is no greater stage for him.
Once the window was shut, he was absolutely brilliant. He is 26 years of age, and he is maturing.
Rodgers also implied that Philippe Coutinho will play some part against Arsenal. The Brazilian sustained a shoulder injury against Swansea City in September.
Coutinho's return to first-team action could be the decisive difference between the two teams. The creative dynamo was brilliant during the early part of the season and carries a potent attacking threat. His inclusion could be complicated for Arsenal by the fact that Mathieu Flamini will be absent with a groin injury.
The Gunners have only lost two games this season and the Frenchman played no part in either. Since he rejoined the club in September from AC Milan he has been exceptional. His positional sense and disciplined style of play has provided the foundation for the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil to prosper.
There is little doubt that Arsenal will miss Flamini. He was absent against Borussia Dortmund in the Gunners' recent Champions League defeat. Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey struggled to get a grip on midfield all night with the German side very much dictating the tempo of the game.
The same can be said of Arsenal's recent Premier League win over bottom side Crystal Palace. Flamini was returned to the first team, but had to leave the pitch after just eight minutes with a groin injury. The void that was created without his presence gave Palace all the impetus they needed.
Kagisho Dikgacoi and Mile Jedinak dominated central midfield for the 35 minutes following the substitution. The end result was Julian Speroni not having to make a single save in the Palace goal for the entire first half.
The Gunners eventually overcame the relegation-bound strugglers. However, their travails have been indicative of their Premier League form since they beat Sunderland 3-1. They have toiled to cope with life in central midfield in two of their last seven matches, with the wins against Norwich City and Napoli standing out.
The most worrying aspect of Flamini's continued absence from Wenger's plans is his effect on Mesut Ozil. The German seems to have suffered more than any other player at Flamini's exclusion. He has been an outstanding addition to Arsenal's team, but his worst performances for the Gunners have coincided with Flamini's absences.
Now the Gunners are coming into contact with the most aggressive central midfield triumvirate in the Premier League, being led by a resurgent Steven Gerrard.
Lucas Leiva's tenacity and discipline, Gerrard's nous and top-player mentality and Henderson's energy have made the Reds a formidable opponent. Henderson, in particular, has been excellent in recent weeks and really complements Rodgers' philosophy. Lucas does the vast majority of defensive work as Gerrard acts as the team's playmaker, while Henderson adds intensity and power.
He works tirelessly and, while not being the most technical of players, has become as essential part of Liverpool's team and tactics. He is given the most demanding role in the Reds midfield as he supports both midfield and attack in equal measure, and he covers every blade of grass in his area.
Liverpool, in many ways, possesses the most balanced midfield in the Premier League, and their run of results shows this. It will be more than interesting to see how the Gunners' highly mobile midfield approach the Reds.
There can be little doubt that Arsenal have the pace and technical ability to hurt any team. They do, however, lack real physical power in this vital area, and with all things being equal, fitness, stamina and power will dictate the key midfield battles.
Liverpool have dominated most of their opponents over the course of the first 60 minutes and then seem to flag in the final third of games. This will be an area that Arsenal will be keen to exploit by keeping the game tight and by only counter-attacking at key moments.
While the game may well be decided by the midfield war, the most interesting battles will take place on the forward lines.
Rodgers has picked a team to suit his two incredible strikers. With most Premier League teams packing midfield with five men, Rodgers has found a way to play two strikers and be competitive in midfield by just playing three at the back.
The Reds' 3-5-2 formation in an anomaly in the Premier League and it has caused a multitude of problems for their opponents in their 11 games this term. Kolo Toure has been central to Liverpool's good start and defensive record.
The ex-Arsenal defender is more than looking forward to this match and wants to use it as another opportunity to show Wenger he made a mistake in selling him to Manchester City four years ago. He told the Daily Express:
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Without Arsene I wouldn’t be here. He’s a fantastic manager and gave me my chance to play football in this country.
It’s always special to go back, but I want to show that Arsenal made a mistake letting me go.
I want to show them what I can do and help my team win.
Toure has proved to be an excellent signing by Rodgers and his experience and mobility have helped the like of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger's development toward a three-man backline.
With most teams playing just one striker, the Reds' back three have performed comfortably for the most part this term. They will come face to face with Olivier Giroud, Arsenal's only striker of class who has scored five goals this season.
Giroud lacks real mobility and can be quite static during build-up play. He does, however, come to life when Arsenal break down the flanks, and his penalty box play is top-class. If Liverpool's wing-backs can push the Gunners' wide players back, then Giroud will, in turn, become redundant.
The same tactics, however, will just not work for Arsenal on Daniel Sturridge and Suarez. Both have been exceptional to date, while the same quite simply cannot be said of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.
The Arsenal central defensive pairing has done just enough this term. Koscielny and Mertesacker have made just 19 tackles, 37 interceptions and 71 clearances to date. This ranks them respectively as the 142nd- and 85th-most effective players in the league, according to Who Scored. Defensively they are ranked 144th and 162nd, respectively.
Suarez and Sturridge, on the other hand, have been a joy to watch. Their partnership is maturing with each passing week and they are one of the most formidable partnerships in European football.
Both players are highly energetic and highly intelligent and will drag their markers all over the pitch to create space. If their markers do not go with them, they simply pick up the ball and create havoc. If they do go with them, they face leaving a hole that the laser-like passing ability of Gerrard can exploit.
They ask constant questions of the opposition and it will be here that Arsenal need to concentrate most. Koscielny possesses great pace and possesses the ability to track either striker wherever they may go, as Mertesacker organizes the defensive breaks.
However, Koscielny also possesses the frustrating ability to make needless challenges in pointless positions and it is here that his decision-making at the highest level has to be questioned. His rash challenges against Aston Villa and Sunderland both resulted in penalties. He was also very lucky to get away with a reckless challenge on Shane Long in the final minutes of the Gunners' 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion.
His errors are frustrating because he has the pace and ability to be a top-class defender, but he just makes far too many needless errors. Against the likes of Suarez and Sturridge he will need to be at his very best, but he too will miss the defensive shield that Flamini usually provides.
This game will hinge on how Arsene Wenger approaches the game without Flamini. The onus will be on Arsenal's central pairing to be more defensive-minded than it would usually like to be. If the two push on too much they will get exposed by Liverpool's, and Gerrard's in particular, passing ability.
Both sides will also look to utilize the flanks in what will be yet another absorbing encounter. The Gunners' full-backs have been quite open this term and often leave huge gaps that the ambling Mertesacker cannot cover. Rodgers will look for his side to thread these type balls down the channels for Suarez and Sturridge to exploit.
In the end, as most matches do, the result will be dictated by the team who makes the least amount of mistakes.
Unfortunately for Arsenal their confidence is rocking following a poor run of performances while Liverpool's is rising. Wenger knows this to be true and he must act accordingly. If he doesn't the Gunners are only a short distance from another crisis.
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