The big doubt for Liverpool is Jordan Henderson, who started Monday’s win over Bournemouth with a foot injury and was forced off with the problem during the second half. Joe Allen and Daniel Sturridge are also both out.
Arsenal, of course, are never wholly without injuries but by their standards, the list of absentees isn’t especially troubling. Although Tomas Rosicky is out and Mathieu Flamini is a doubt, the only two players missing who might have played a major role against Liverpool are Danny Welbeck, struggling with a knee injury, and Jack Wilshere, who has a fractured ankle.
Arsenal seem to have an unbearable need to be Arsenal. Promising in pre-season and the Community Shield, when they suggested the defensive improvement of the end of last season had been carried over into this, then flopped badly at home against West Ham, before producing a typical performance in the win over Crystal Palace last week: although they were mesmerising at times going forwards, they also looked extremely vulnerable at the back.
Liverpool, meanwhile, without finding any great fluency, have won both games so far 1-0. They rode their luck against Bournemouth, who had what seemed a fair goal ruled out and then saw Christian Benteke’s header count even though Philippe Coutinho was manifestly offside, but there was at least a resilience about them.
The sides last met in April when Liverpool, unsettled by the ongoing Raheem Sterling saga, seemed oddly weary and were hammered 4-1. Arsenal, playing an aggressive 4-3-3, pressed with great energy and focus, with the result that Liverpool at times struggled to get out of their own half.
BENTEKE’S DUAL THREAT
Liverpool are unlikely to be penned in as they were last season, if only because in Christian Benteke they have the perfect out-ball. The striker is powerful and mobile, and long experience at Aston Villa means he is adept at chasing aimless punts forward. But that’s a worst-case scenario and the evidence of the first two games of the season, Monday’s win over Bournemouth in particular, is that the accommodation of Benteke into the side has been less arduous than many anticipated.
He won 10 aerial duels on Monday without Liverpool ever looking like they were overly direct, and what that means is that Brendan Rodgers’ side can now hurt opponents even if they’re not dominating the game. Benteke offers a threat on the break with his pace, and from set plays with his aerial ability. Given Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace means Arsenal occasionally get caught sitting deep, there’s a great onus on Francis Coquelin to make sure Benteke never gets a run at the centre-backs.
CAZORLA’S DEFENSIVE ROLE
It shouldn’t make sense, but Arsenal look a far more solid team with their deft scurrying Spaniard at the back of midfield rather than their surging Welshman. Santi Cazorla, signed as an attacking midfielder, has been alongside Coquelin in most of Arsenal’s best displays over the past six months or so and, while Aaron Ramsey may hanker after the central role, he may be best simply accepting that his position for now is on the right.
If Liverpool are able to get any measure of possession, this will be a major test of the Coquelin-Cazorla pairing, with Coutinho and Jordon Ibe both prone to drifting in from their flanks to create in awkward three-quarter positions.
Until now, Liverpool have played a 4-2-3-1 this season, but it may be that against Arsenal, Rodgers changes that slightly. Adam Lallana hasn’t imposed himself in either game so far, and with an argument for a more defensive presence, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise f the shape changed to 4-3-3 and Emre Can came in for him, dropping into a deep-lying midfield role flanked by James Milner and Henderson (assuming he does recover from his foot injury in time to play).
It was Can who came on for Henderson on Monday, so it’s possible he’ll start anyway, leaving Rodgers with a decision over whether to stick with Lallana or perhaps start Roberto Firmino.
Liverpool seem bizarrely long at 5.05 given the sides’ respective starts to the season. Even if it turns out Arsenal’s defeat to West Ham was freakish, Benteke is just the sort of player who has caused Arsenal problems in the past, and their defending wasn’t impressive against Palace.
There’s surely value in backing Liverpool +0.5 on the Asian Lines at 2.18.
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