There’s no injury list quite like an Arsenal injury list. The familiar names are on there: Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Laurent Koscielny, while there are also doubts about Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Theo Walcott, though, may be ready to return from the groin injury he picked up last month.
Daniel Sturridge, Glen Johnson and Dejan Lovren are all missing for Liverpool, with Mario Balotelli a doubt, although it’s unlikely he’d have forced his way into the starting line-up anyway.
It was in the home game against Arsenal last February that it first became apparent just how devastating Liverpool could be. The pace and directness of Luis Suarez, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, operating in the diamond shape that would become familiar, destroyed Arsenal, putting Liverpool 4-0 up inside 20 minutes as they went on to win 5-1.
At the Emirates earlier in the season, though, Arsenal had controlled midfield in winning 2-0 – and in a sense, with Suarez and Sturridge absent, it’s that game that’s more significant. Liverpool played three at the back, but were forced to change at half-time as Aly Cissokho, who’d been destroyed by Rosicky, was taken off for Philippe Coutinho. Arsenal also beat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup a little the week after their Anfield thrashing, although on that occasion, despite Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling all playing, they operated with more of a 4-3-3.
Although Liverpool lost 3-0 at Old Trafford, there were signs of improvement in the defeat to Manchester United. Brendan Rodgers had selected a back three for that game and, perhaps for weight of numbers more than anything else, it did seem to make them slightly less open at the back – even if there were clear issues at times in the holding midfielders, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen holding a screening position in front of the back three.
The 3-4-2-1 shape was retained against Bournemouth in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday. Having a spine of eight did seem to make it easier for Liverpool to keep possession – they held the ball for over two minutes in which they completed 51 passes before their first goal – but the defensive shakiness remained.
The question is, given how Arsenal exposed the back three last season, will Rodgers risk it again? There’s a serious risk that Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, with their extreme pace, could hit the space behind the wing-backs. A 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with Lucas Leiva perhaps returning, would be more solid, and would provide more obvious protection for the centre of defence, but it would probably be at the expense of attacking fluidity.
Rodgers has a tendency to prefer the more attacking of any two options and, given that Arsenal’s strength is going forwards and its weakness at the back, it makes sense for him to take the game to Arsenal as much as possible. Whether he’s bold enough to select Lazar Markovic, excellent going forward against Bournemouth, at left-wing-back ahead of Alberto Moreno is another issue.
One advantage of the 3-4-2-1 is that it gets Adam Lallana and Coutinho playing in unusual areas. Holding midfielders aren’t used to picking up players playing in those sort of deep inside-forward positions. Mathieu Flamini sat deep against Newcastle last Saturday, protecting Mathieu Debuchy and Per Mertesacker. Oxlade-Chamberlain, if fit, can shuttle back, but if Liverpool can control possession, there should be opportunities there for them.
Arsenal conceded 20 goals in four away games against the other sides who finished in the top five last season; Liverpool’s level has dropped, but there’s little evidence that Arsenal’s vulnerability away from home has been resolved.
ARE LIVERPOOL AS BAD AS THEY SEEM?
According to WhoScored.com, Liverpool are averaging 14.7 shots per game, the fourth highest figure in the Premier League (Arsenal, with 17.2 shots per game, are second), yet they’ve scored the ninth most goals (Arsenal are fourth). It’s not a perfect measure, but that suggests a major problem for Liverpool is that they aren’t taking chances.
Liverpool are conceding 11.3 shots per game, the sixth lowest figure in the Premier League (Arsenal, conceding 8.4 shots per game are top of that chart), yet they have conceded 22 goals, the 12th best figure (Arsenal are sixth in that table). Both sides, that suggests, are being let down by inadequacies in the two boxes, Liverpool more so. In a sense that offers hope: the process isn’t too bad: what they need is greater sharpness at both ends of the pitch.
Although neither side is in form, it’s a little surprising Arsenal are perceived as (narrow) favourites. Liverpool at 2.80 look decent value given the recent signs of improvement, although the more cautious move of backing them at + 0.25 on the Asian line at 1.75 may be advisable.
Read more from Tactics Expert Jonathan Wilson