As far as early season match-ups go, Liverpool at Arsenal may be the most interesting we’ve had so far. The two square off at the Emirates on Monday with not much at stake now, but potentially have repercussions later on in the season.
Liverpool’s sluggish start has still produced two 1-0 victories, as they remain unbeaten in the league.
Slow against Stoke and somewhat incapable of finishing against Bournemouth, the Reds will look to shake off the rust against their most difficult opponent yet. Arsenal’s embarrassment in their opener at the Emirates, a laughable 2-0 loss to West Ham, was followed by a strong performance at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace last week. Despite a little help from a Damien Delaney own goal, Arsenal certainly looked the better team. It was also a plus that Petr Cech wasn’t as atrocious as he was against West Ham.
Both teams are coming off improved performances compared to their openers. In a fixture that ended in a 4-1 drubbing of Liverpool at the Emirates last season, Arsenal will look to add to that while Liverpool will attempt to avenge it. Here are some key points to watch out for as the two battle it out in North London.
Two straight clean sheets is a tremendous start for Simon Mignolet and Liverpool’s back four. Sure, they weren’t against the attacking juggernauts of the Premier League but Stoke and Bournemouth pose tricky tests for any side. The back line of Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and 19-year-old Joe Gomez doesn’t sound daunting, but they’ve strung together two good performances. However, they are in for a much sterner test.
With the likes of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and (if fit) Alexis Sanchez running at the defense, Liverpool will have to really hope that their “bend-don’t-break” defensive mentality continues to. Skrtel, Lovren and Clyne are battle-tested in the Premier League and are capable of holding their own. Gomez has shown incredible potential and strong defensive ability against Stoke and Bournemouth, but he will surely be targeted by Arsenal. While on paper Liverpool’s back line looks like it could manage on Monday, we’ll have to wait and watch.
Arsenal’s Center Forward
Olivier Giroud has started both of Arsenal’s games thus far, and is really their only pure center forward as Danny Welbeck remains injured and Joel Campbell isn’t part of Arsene Wenger’s plans at the moment. Theo Walcott would like to be among those considered but he hasn’t started a game yet and continues to make appearances on the wing.
Looking towards this match, most would expect Giroud to be the starter. What’s important to watch for is how that role develops as the game progresses. Giroud was invisible in Arsenal’s opener and, despite scoring a wonderful goal, he was relatively average throughout the rest of the contest. If Liverpool’s back line can frustrate him the way West Ham did, how will Wenger respond? Will he finally allow Walcott the chance he wants this season? Or will he pull another trick out of his sleeve and deny Walcott once more?
This is all circumstantial of course, as Giroud could very well put together a strong performance. If he doesn’t though, it will be interesting to see how Wenger reacts.
Who joins Coutinho and Benteke up front for Liverpool?
Philippe Coutinho and Christian Benteke have scored Liverpool’s only goals this season and they are likely to be the driving forces behind Liverpool’s season. They are certain to start Monday but who will be the players helping them in the attack?
Adam Lallana’s great preseason has been quickly forgotten with an atrocious performance against Stoke. He followed that up with another sub-par performance against Bournemouth, although he showed more potential in the attack in a more central role.
Jordon Ibe has been solid on the wing but lacks any end product, something which is needed with Benteke playing in the middle.
Roberto Firmino was lively against Stoke but not so much against Bournemouth, leading us to believe that his fitness still isn’t at the point where he should be starting for Liverpool. Rodgers may stick with the squad that has been successful so far, but lookout for tweaks to the formations to better suit Lallana or Firmino depending on who starts.
Sanchez was brilliant for the entirety of last season but one of his most brilliant moments came in that April thrashing of Liverpool. Coming off of a long campaign followed by the Copa America Sanchez has quite possibly been a victim of overplaying. Wary of a burnt out player Wenger has been very careful, starting him on the bench in their opener and taking him off after 75 minutes against Palace. He will most likely start against Liverpool but what will his impact be?
We all know what Sanchez is capable of but can he produce that considering his current level of match fitness? He had two shots on goal and got into dangerous positions but he still wasn’t his regular, sharp self. Arsenal have weapons as I discussed earlier but without their most dangerous weapon, how difficult will their attack prove for Liverpool?
Liverpool’s new skipper has been thrust into a holding role with James Milner given license to roam, and although it may not be his natural role, he has handled it well. The problem now is not his role though, rather it is his health. A foot injury leading up to last week’s match couldn’t keep him out of starting the game but he did have to be pulled off after 52 minutes.
His availability for the match at Arsenal is in doubt as he and Liverpool consider how risking it now could have a negative impact long-term. Whether he plays or not, there is a dilemma for Liverpool in the midfield.
If Henderson plays the question about Brendan Rodgers’ utilization of him remains in the air. A real attacking threat, Henderson is somewhat wasted playing behind Milner. Cutting out Ibe or Lallana could benefit Liverpool as they can push both Milner and Henderson forward and stick Emre Can behind them.
If Henderson is kept out, Rodgers should feel comfortable throwing Can or even Lucas Leiva into the skipper’s holding role. However, Can’s tendency to maraud forward could expose Liverpool’s defense, and Arsenal will not shy away from taking advantage of that. Lucas on the other hand may not be quick enough to keep up with Arsenal’s midfield. Rodgers will have a lot to think about when it comes to his skipper’s availability, and it will create an intriguing storyline going into the match.
With Chelsea v. Manchester City being a bit of a disappointment to the neutral last week, many are hinging on this fixture to be the first exciting matchup of powerhouses this season. Both teams have attacking power although neither has seemed to really utilize it fully yet. Liverpool’s back line has recorded two clean sheets while Arsenal’s has produced none. Hold on to your seats!