Arsenal v Liverpool: Jonathan Wilson's Tactical Preview


TEAM NEWS

Arsenal will be missing Danny Welbeck after he hurt a knee on international duty, and although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be available after a hamstring injury, he is a major doubt. Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Mathieu Debuchy are all back in training after lengthy spells out but none likely to be fit enough to play any part.

Liverpool, meanwhile, are without Daniel Sturridge and Jordon Ibe, with Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana doubtful. Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel are both suspended after stamping incidents in the 2-1 home defeat to Manchester United a fortnight ago.

 

RECENT FORM

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Liverpool’s run of 13 league games without defeat came to an end against United, and there had been a sense of weariness about them in the couple of games before that. This, really, is a game they cannot lose if they are to harbour realistic hopes of closing the five-point gap that has opened up between them and the Champions League qualification places.

Arsenal have won six in a row in the league since the defeat away to Tottenham at the beginning of February. When the sides met at Anfield in December, Liverpool were just starting out with their 3-4-2-1 experiment and, despite having 27 shots to Arsenal’s five, forced a 2-2 draw only with a Skrtel header seven minutes in to injury time. Both sides, ultimately, were guilty of defensive sloppiness.

 

THE STERLING CONUNDRUM

Although he had played there against Swansea City, it was something of a surprise when Raheem Sterling started against United at right wing-back. He didn’t perform especially badly in the role, but it did seem strange that Brendan Rodgers should keep one of arguably his most dangerous creative players tucked away in a largely unthreatening position. The rumour that Sterling was somehow being pushed to the periphery as his contract talks continue to rumble on without reaching resolution may not have been true, but you could see why it had sprung up.

With Sturridge injured, Sterling could perhaps return to a false nine role, or he could replace Lallana alongside Philippe Coutinho if he isn’t available. The interview Sterling gave this week, though, suggested contract negotiations may have reached an impasse and if that is the case, you wonder what Rodgers’ response will be.

Read Adrian Clarke on why Raheem Sterling holds all the power in contract dispute

 

FILLING THE WELBECK HOLE

Arsenal v AS Monaco FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16 : News Photo

Ideally, Arsene Wenger would probably have liked to have selected all three of Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud, all of them quick, dynamic players who might be able to exploit the spaces behind the wing-backs. There are two options to replace: Mesut Ozil could be moved wide, which would have the benefit of creating space for both Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla in front of Francis Coquelin, or Theo Walcott could come in.

Walcott is a more natural like-for-like replacement, but he has looked dreadfully out of sorts since he returned from injury (and he too is stalling on a new contract), but Wenger may feel that his pace would place pressure on Liverpool’s left wing-back. Ozil, operating on the other flank with Sanchez switching to the right, might risk giving Liverpool’s right wing-back – Lazar Markovic, perhaps – a clear run at Nacho Monreal or Kieran Gibbs.

Read James McNicholas on Why Arsenal's Injured players are returning at just the right time

 

PRESSING

Rodgers was furious after the United defeat at the way his side had failed to push high enough up the pitch in the first half and put pressure on the United midfield, who ended up controlling the game. It’s safe to assume Liverpool will be primed not to repeat that failing on Saturday, and they have memories of how Arsenal fell apart in the opening 20 minutes under a rigorous assault at Anfield last season.

Arsenal’s consistent failing over the past decade, in fact, has been the inadequacy of their pressing when matched against the very best. That could go to one of two extremes; either Arsenal will be unsettled or Liverpool will push too high and expose themselves to the pace of Sanchez and the through-balls of Ozil.

 

VERDICT

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Impressive as Arsenal’s recent run has been, they’re still not a team you would trust entirely at the moment, the home defeat to Monaco being a classic example of their flakiness. Nonetheless, they have won away at Manchester City in the league and Manchester United in the Cup this year, suggesting a measure of resilience, and only United have beaten them at home this season.

The uncertainly over Sterling and other injuries have contributed to a sense that Liverpool’s exceptional run of form may be sputtering out, so while there’s a temptation to go Liverpool +0.5 at 2.02 on the Asian line, the better option is probably Arsenal to win at 1.82.

 

Read more from tactics expert Jonathan Wilson