Wednesday's clash between Arsenal and Liverpool is a pivotal game for both clubs. Defeat to Chelsea means that Arsenal are languishing in sixth, just three points above seventh-placed Liverpool. The Anfield club has started to improve in recent weeks but really must beat Arsenal to keep alive their slim hopes of finishing fourth. Victory over Arsenal would also be key for team spirit following the surprise cup loss to Oldham. Arsenal go into the game as slight favourites at 2.10 for the win, whilst Liverpool are at 3.10.
Both teams are likely to set up in a variation of 4-3-3. Liverpool will probably continue with a line-up similar to the one they used against Norwich last weekend, with Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Stewart Downing in attack. Joe Allen, Lucas and Steven Gerrard will likely make up the midfield three, whilst Brad Jones could continue to deputise for the injured Pepe Reina in goal, despite his howler on Sunday.
For Arsenal, Olivier Giroud will likely continue to lead the line with Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski playing off him. The French centre-forward has enjoyed a good ten days or so, scoring twice against West Ham and netting another brace versus Brighton in the FA Cup. Thomas Vermaelen is a doubt at centre-back so Laurent Koscielny might be recalled in his place.
Suarez and Sturridge
All eyes will be on the new striking partnership at Liverpool. Although Suarez and Sturridge operate in a front three, the two dynamic strikers are interchangeable and ran riot against Norwich in their last Premier League outing. Although starting with both players will leave Liverpool a bit more open than usual, Brendan Rodgers may want his side to start strongly given how slow Arsenal were to start the game versus Chelsea. If we observe the two players' average positions from the 5-0 victory over Norwich below, we can see how close together the two play:
Despite Liverpool being set up in a 4-3-3 Suarez (7) and Sturridge (15) are positioned almost as two central strikers, with Downing (19) wide right, providing the width. If Suarez and Sturridge move around freely and interchange effectively they can cause a lot of problems for an Arsenal backline that has been conceding goals of late. Whether Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker can cope with this movement remains to be seen, while Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna must also restrict the space behind them.
The battle out wide
Starting Sturridge does leave Liverpool vulnerable on whichever flank he starts (likely from the left, as he did versus Norwich). Glen Johnson will continue at left-back, and also enjoys getting forward. But Arsenal themselves play with a lot of width and pace. Walcott and Sagna will be more than eager to raid down this flank, meaning we could see a real battle. If Sturridge fails to track his full-back this could cause a lot of problems for Liverpool, who could be over-run in wide areas. The same is true of the opposite flank. Gibbs and Podolski have formed a good partnership in recent weeks, and the inexperienced Andre Wisdom might be exploited. As we can see from the average positions above, Liverpool's full-backs take up quite advanced positions, particularly Glen Johnson (2).
Gibbs (28) and Sagna (3) played high up in the opposition half against West Ham, whilst Walcott (14) is incredibly advanced in almost a right forward role. Podolski (11), on the other hand, is closer to Gibbs, with whom he interchanges effectively.
This promises to be an interesting clash between two sides who like to play the ball; Liverpool have the highest average possession in the league with 59.4%, whilst Arsenal come in third at 57.9%. The main areas of interest will be out wide, with the full-backs overlapping their wide men, and - in the case of Walcott for Arsenal and Sturridge for Liverpool - getting close to their respective centre-forwards. Victory for Liverpool is essential if they want to resurrect an outside bid for fourth, while Arsenal can’t afford to drop points if they want to keep pace with the top four themselves. Hopefully we'll see an open game with a few goals.