Liverpool vs. Arsenal: 5 Key Battles for Premier League Clash

Willie GannonSenior Writer IFebruary 7, 2014

Liverpool vs. Arsenal: 5 Key Battles for Premier League Clash

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    Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    Arsenal travel to Anfield to take on Brendan Rodgers' high-flying Liverpool in one of the Premier League's defining games of the season, but what are the key battles that will decide the match?

    The Gunners are sitting pretty on top of the Premier League after 24 rounds of games. In nine seasons since 1994, the team leading the Premier League at Christmas have gone on to win the title. Arsene Wenger will have his team fired up for the most important week of their season as Brendan Rodgers looks to ambush him.

    While the two managers get set to lock horns, their respective teams will be looking to right perceived wrongs and keep control of their own fate. 

    Should either team stumble, the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea will surely pounce on Arsenal while the Reds have Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton breathing down their necks.

    Not only is this game important for the two teams involved, it is also the match that almost every single Premier League team-supporting fan will be keeping an eye out for.

    There will be great strikers on show, midfielders who could grace any pitch and defenders who would kick their own mothers to deny a goal. The game is set, the players are waiting and the drumroll is ready to begin.

    Here, Bleacher Report offers five key battles that will decide the most important game of the season: Liverpool vs. Arsenal.

Steven Gerrard vs. Jack Wilshere

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    In his pre-match media outing for Arsenal's official website, Arsene Wenger intimated that Jack Wilshere would return to the fold against Liverpool.

    It's important to have as many players back as possible in the squad.

    In the big games it is always decided by having the complete squad available.

    As many top players as possible because most of the time these games are decided by players who come on or strong players who have a big statement in a big game.

    He also said that Mikel Arteta was "alright," so expect both players to feature against the Reds.

    This will, perhaps, be the most interesting tussle of all the battles at Anfield. Steven Gerrard is the undoubted midfield king for his club and country, but Wilshere is looking to usurp those thrones, the latter in particular.

    Roy Hodgson will be a keen observer as his two most important midfielders go head-to-head. With the World Cup in Brazil just around the corner, both players will be eager to impress. 

    Gerrard is no longer the attacking force he once was. In recent months his aging legs have meant that Brendan Rodgers has usually deployed him in a deeper midfield role. With that being said, the 33-year-old Liverpool captain is still a potent force and commands huge respect.

    The one player who will be looking to show none, but in the best way possible, will be Wilshere. The 22-year-old was just beginning to find his feet again after working his way back into Wenger's team when he was struck down with a series of minor injuries.

    Whether he is 100 percent again is not certain, but he will know in his heart of hearts that this is a game where the pain barrier must be played through. His club and World Cup destiny could rely on it.

    Squawka StatisticsJack WilshereSteven Gerrard
    Minutes Played1,3411,675
    Total Passes8791,216
    Key Passes2536
    Goals36

Per Mertesacker & Laurent Kosciely vs. Luis Suarez & Daniel Sturridge

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    The tag team battle between pitting Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny against Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge could very well decide this game.

    The Arsenal pairing have been central to everything that has been good about the Gunners' defensive record this season. Only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals than Arsene Wenger's team this term.

    Given the pragmatic approach taken by Jose Mourinho compared to Wenger's attacking philosophy, that is some statement. On the road, Arsenal possesses the best defensive record in the league and have conceded 15 goals in 12 matches. Considering that they conceded six in a madcap match at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City, that means they have allowed just nine goals in those 11 other games.

    Defensive solidity has been the key element of this Arsenal team all season and in five of their last seven matches, they have been drawing at half-time before going on to win.

    Per and Kos are the only defensive duo to keep Suarez and Sturridge to a blank all season, and the Liverpool strike force will surely want to put that right. 

    They have been involved in almost every single goal the Reds have scored this season and are currently the highest and third-highest scorers in the Premier League respectively. Liverpool have also scored at least two goals in each of their last nine games at Anfield. They like to play there and they attack, a lot.

    Both forwards are highly mobile and look to isolate defenders so they can use their greater pace or their creative instincts. Mertesacker likes to stay central while Koscielny picks up the runners. Liverpool will undoubtedly try to get the German into one-on-one situations, and this is where Arsenal need to be most careful.

    Squawka StatisticsPer MertesackerLuis Suarez
    Games Played2219
    Total Passes1,058759
    Clearances1456
    Goals223

     

Brendan Rodgers vs. Arsene Wenger

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    Alex Livesey/Getty Images

    Psychological games have been few and far between in the build up to this clash.

    Arsene Wenger moved to put the past behind him and tried not to antagonize Liverpool any further when he said at his pre-match press conference, per Sky Sports, there was no chance of the Gunners putting in a renewed bid for Luis Suarez.

    Wenger said, "he was never our player, it is a situation that didn't come off and that is it." Arsenal bid £40 million plus 1 for Suarez during the summer.

    When asked if the Gunners might revisit the deal again, he added: "At the moment no, no."

    Brendan Rodgers, on the other hand, quite rightly ruled his own team out of the title race, per Sky Sports. He did, however, clarify that the title was his team's ultimate ambition though. 

    Well it's certainly the objective. (Winning the Premier League) I think that the position we've been in for most of the season means that we're fighting and we're up there.

    We want to finish as high as we possibly can, but certainly being in that top four is a key objective for us.

    It doesn't mean that we're any less ambitious.

    Both managers know that this game will be hugely defining for their respective seasons. Both teams have been playing above themselves all year and their rivals are snapping at their heels.

    One slip up and all that good work put in since last July will be for nothing.

    When the two teams last met, the Gunners ran out easy 2-0 winners. They had a rampant Aaron Ramsey to thank that day. This time around their central midfield area will be populated by players who have only just recovered from injuries. Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are expected to start with perhaps Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain making an appearance at some stage.

    Neither Arteta nor Wilshere are the most mobile of players and Liverpool will look to exploit this apparent weakness through the continuous running of Jordan Henderson and the probing of Philippe Coutinho. Steven Gerrard is likely to take a close eye on Mesut Ozil and Wilshere and neither will intimidate the Anfield great.

    Wenger will stick with his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation, so it will be interesting to see if Rodgers ventures away from the 4-3-3 that has served him so well of late. The ex-Swansea City boss is not afraid to make tactical changes. The one thing he must not do, however, is to allow Arsenal to overload central midfield.

    Should this happen, the game is as good as over.

    Looking at Arsenal's fitness problems, it would come as no surprise to see the Gunners go for the game right from the start as Liverpool wait patiently to hit them as the game wears on.

    This will be a tactical battle to enjoy, and Wenger and Rodgers had better bring their A-game or their season could suffer.

Mesut Ozil vs. Philippe Coutinho

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    Alex Livesey/Getty Images

    Neither Mesut Ozil not Philippe Coutinho are likely to come into direct contact during this all-important Premier League clash, but their creativity will be vital.

    Both players have been hailed as the key-creative men for each team. However, Ozil's statistics far outweigh Coutinho's. (See bottom of page)

    It must be said, however, that Coutinho has played in a number of positions and formations for Liverpool this term, while Ozil has commanded the attacking role in central midfield.

    Over the last two months, Ozil's game has dropped somewhat and he is the not having the same influence on games as in his first two months with the club. Following his £42.5 million transfer from Real Madrid, the German international was simply electric. 

    He regularly featured in Premier League team's of the week and mesmerised everyone with his skill and vision. 

    Since the start of December he has been given a performance score above 50 just once by Squawka's statistical analysis. Instead of dictating games, he is playing on the periphery and, as such, his impact has lessened.

    Liverpool's fans have great hopes for Coutinho. The nimble-toed slightly-built Brazilian is from the same stock as Ozil in that he is the kind of player that gets the fans on the edge of the seats. He has superb vision and, like the German, can pick a pass out where others only see a forest of legs.

    When games are tight, these are the men who usually rise to the top and create something out of nothing.

    Squawka StatisticsMesut OzilPhilippe Coutinho
    Total Passes1,267829
    Key Passes4729
    Goals Scored42
    Assists83

     

Arsene Wenger vs. Arsene Wenger

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    The biggest battle of all will be Arsene Wenger vs. Arsene Wenger.

    The Gunners are heading into the toughest run of fixtures one could possibly imagine between February 8 and February 19. They take on Liverpool in a top-four decider on Feb. 8. They then entertain Manchester United on Feb. 12 before facing Liverpool, again, in the FA Cup on Feb. 16.

    If three games against some of their biggest rivals weren't enough, the Gunners then face Bayern Munich in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Feb. 19.

    Wenger will have one eye on the upcoming fixtures. However, at this stage of the season, he would be insane to rest players and rotate his squad.

    That, however, is easy to say and is much harder to put into practice.

    Wenger must resist the urge to rotate too much. On paper playing Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta seem a gamble worth taking. It is, but only if the players are psychologically ready to play a game of this magnitude.

    If they aren't ready, Wenger will know very quickly and must act accordingly. 

    The Frenchman should not be fooled by the upcoming games against Bayern or the Reds in the FA Cup, and the Man United game in particular.

    He needs to concentrate upon this game and this game only. 

    Wenger is a man of great conviction and his teams have always played with a fundamental belief in his philosophy. He is not a man to waver, and nor should he. What he must watch out for, however, is the urge to make changes late on if the game is tight.

    In this situation, he must keep his best team out on the pitch and not think about the upcoming matches. Substitutions must only be made if 100 percent vital to the game.

    Matches of this nature are decided by discipline, character and momentum. There is no better way to build up some steam than to inflict a damaging defeat upon a close rival. 

    Picking the right team will be the toughest task he has had to face all season. 

    All he has to do is to stick to his convictions and not double-guess himself.

    That, however, is easier said than done.

     

    All statistics courtesy of Squawka and its Comparison Matrix.