Tactical Battles That Will Shape Liverpool's Clash with Arsenal
Saturday's meeting between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield has to be considered one of the biggest games of the season so far, with both the challenge for the Champions League and the title race hugely affected.
The match marks the start of a crucial couple of months for the Gunners as they go to Merseyside, host Manchester United, face Liverpool again in the FA Cup next weekend, play Bayern Munich home and away in the Champions League and then take on Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City all before the end of March.
All are huge tests, but Arsenal are going to have to emerge from all of them pretty much unscathed if they are to turn what has been an impressive season into something tangible.
As for Liverpool, talk of a title challenge has given way to just that of reaching the top four this season, something that would still be a terrific achievement for the club given their competition.
After impressing everyone in front of their home fans in the 4-0 demolition of Everton, the Reds will hope to rediscover the winning feeling following the disappointing 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion last time out.
But which will be the biggest battles at Anfield?
Here we look at five key contests which could decide the game:
Steven Gerrard vs. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
After being compared to Steven Gerrard by his manager last month, as seen here in the Daily Mirror, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a performance similar to the Gerrard of old in scoring twice on his first league start since the opening day of the season against Crystal Palace last weekend.
Only time will tell whether Arsene Wenger's words prove prophetic but with Gerrard stationed in a deeper role for Liverpool these days it will be largely up to the Reds skipper to track the runs of his England teammate in and around the box.
There is no doubt that the return to fitness of Chamberlain has come at a crucial period for the Gunners given their injury problems and their huge matches coming up—and as seen last weekend the 20-year-old is certainly capable of affecting matches at the highest level.
With Gerrard growing into his new role and with Liverpool no doubt seeking to monopolise possession at Anfield, this could be a much tougher test for him than last Sunday was.
Suarez and Sturridge vs. Mertesacker and Koscielny
Before the 2-2 draw at Southampton recently, Arsenal had only conceded more than one goal in one of their previous 16 Premier League away games―the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City in mid-December.
In Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge they'll be facing their toughest striking test since that miserable afternoon at the Etihad Stadium, and after conceding twice at St Mary's does that previously impregnable Per Mertesacker-Laurent Koscielny partnership suddenly look a little vulnerable?
Suarez and Sturridge can now boast 40 goals between them in all competitions this season―that's more than the likes of Newcastle and Aston Villa collectively―and so they are sure to test the German-French pairing as one opts to drift to the left and the other stay in a central striking role.
They will alternate this approach throughout the match, and Arsenal's central defensive pair will need to switch on and be wise to it in order to not be caught out in a manner that so many defences have been this season.
Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan vs. Nacho Monreal
Fans of both of these clubs perhaps wouldn't have expected these three players to be such key figures earlier in the season, but the Liverpool right could well be the flank that the Reds look to exploit the most during this clash.
Raheem Sterling has been in excellent form in recent weeks, and he is backed up by another player currently enjoying his football in Jon Flanagan―who could well be watched closely by the Brazilian legend Cafu here, as per the Metro―the pair could combine to give left-back Nacho Monreal a tough time.
The Spaniard has started each one of Arsenal's five Premier League matches in 2014, but he'll need help from the player stationed ahead of him here―perhaps the attack-minded Santi Cazorla or Lukas Podolski―to halt the frequent searing runs of Sterling and Flanagan's regular overlaps.
Brendan Rodgers will see the right flank as his side's route to potential success, and Monreal will have to be aware of that.
The Midfield Battleground
Liverpool were still persisting with their three-at-the-back experiment when they went to the Emirates in late November, where their inability to compete in midfield contributed to a disappointing evening during which they were never really at their best.
Brendan Rodgers actually abandoned the formation at half-time in north London, and it hasn't been seen since, but the injury to Lucas Leiva adds another midfield problem for the Reds here.
Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson are two certain starters, but Rodgers must also be pondering the selection of Joe Allen in the centre of the pitch to try and counteract Arsenal's trio, which will be controlled from the centre of things by Mikel Arteta.
We've already highlighted the importance of the battle between Gerrard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but if Rodgers decided to pick Allen over Philippe Coutinho, what may be seen as a defensive move on paper could allow his team to regain more control in an area of the pitch which will be so crucial.
Playing Allen alongside Gerrard would then allow Henderson a little more room to gallop around the pitch as he has done to great effect this season.
Kolo Toure vs. Himself
Kolo Toure will have made the kind of error seen against West Bromwich Albion last week before. All defenders would have. It is simply part of the game.
The Ivorian's immediate apology and Brendan Rodgers absolving him of any blame after the match all shows how the Reds have moved on, but there is sure to be a little grain of doubt placed in the back of the centre-back's mind ahead of such a big clash against his former club.
With Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho showing no signs of returning just yet, this will arguably be the biggest match of Toure's Liverpool career so far, and you can rest assured that Arsene Wenger will be seeking to play on the supposed weakness of a player he sold to Manchester City three-and-a-half years ago.
Toure is clearly mentally strong but at a time in his career when his body is perhaps working somewhat slower than his mind, this will be a massive test for him.
Come through it by contributing to a Liverpool win and last weekend's slip up will be pushed even further back in plenty of minds.
Fail again, and what has been a pretty good Liverpool career so far will have turned somewhat sour.
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