The level of competition in the Premier League this season has been refreshing to say the least. Three teams at the top are unbeaten so far and separated by a mere two points, but the next three are not far away either. The fourth, fifth and sixth (and seventh) are separated from each other by one point each and the fourth is just four points off the top. No doubt the point differences will increase as the season goes on and one way it will increase is when two of these top-six teams take each other head on. On Saturday, Liverpool travel to Emirates Stadium in London to take on Arsenal in exactly one such encounter.
Arsenal are back in the fourth. That might have been derisive to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal of late, but for Unai Emery’s Arsenal that statement reflects the talent in the team, Emery’s own philosophies and the possibilities that lay ahead. After starting poorly with defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea in the league, the Gunners are undefeated in 13 games in all competition and have drawn only once – last weekend at Selhurst Park. To be fair, that away game at Crystal Palace was perhaps their toughest game of the 13 games in the run. So, it is fair to say that Arsenal come into Saturday’s game with form behind them but without having been tested properly in the last two and half months. That said, it is clear that some of their biggest players are back in form – with Ozil looking like the player who played for Real Madrid and Aubameyang and Lacazette showing the class they were signed for. These players are well rested for Saturday as Arsenal did not need their help in beating Blackpool in the League Cup on Wednesday night. There is, however a mini-crisis of sorts in defence as injuries could lead Emery to field a makeshift defence and against even a mildly faltering Liverpool attack, that is going to be the Spaniard’s biggest challenge on Saturday.
Liverpool come into this game having dispatched Red Star Belgrade and Cardiff City with relative ease, scoring four goals in both games. However, the scorelines, especially the Cardiff one, are slightly flattering as there were periods in the game last weekend that showed that despite the results, this Liverpool attack is not yet functioning like it was doing last season. In defence, it is a completely different matter. Liverpool are one of the only two teams in the league, whose xGA (expected goals against) are in single digits. No wonder that both the teams that share the trait also share the top spot in the table. Unlike Arsenal, Liverpool has had a tough two months, playing the likes of City, Chelsea (twice), PSG, and Napoli in the time. After Saturday’s game, Liverpool are left to play only Manchester United out of the Big Six. Klopp and his team know that a win on Saturday can help them consolidate their top position even further and will go all guns blazing to achieve exactly that.
- Arsenal have not won in their last six Premier League games against Liverpool (D3 L3), their longest such run since a run of 12 winless games between 1994 and 2000. However, Liverpool generally find it difficult at the Emirates Stadium, as they have won only twice in the league at the Emirates stadium in last 18 years.
- Recently, however, the Reds have been rampant against the Gunners. Liverpool have scored at least three goals against Arsenal in each of their last five league games (17 goals in total). Liverpool have never done this in six consecutive top-flight games against any opponent and Arsenal have not had any opponent achieve this feat against them in the top-flight ever.
- Arsenal themselves have been pretty rampant goal scorers this season, as they are currently tied with Chelsea at second-highest number of goals scored (24). In their last nine league games, Gunners have scored at least two goals in each of them. But, they have never been leading at halftime, suggesting that the bulk of their scoring has been happening in the second half.
- Jurgen Klopp is unbeaten in five league games against the Gunners. If Liverpool do not lose on Saturday evening, Klopp will match Sir Alex Ferguson’’s record. Only Mourinho (12) and Gerry Francis (8) will have waited more for their first defeat against Arsenal.
- Unai Emery, who has beaten Klopp in their only meeting (2016 Europa League final), has turned Arsenal into an aggressively pressing side. Arsenal allow their opponents just 8.70 passes per defensive action (PPDA), which is just second behind Pochettino’s Spurs. Liverpool, who are expected to lead such stats are mid-table in this stat – with PPDA as high as 12.46.F
Aubameyang this season is turning out to be the pacy attacking threat that Arsene Wenger had signed him to be. A return of 7 goals scored and one assist in the league (9 scored in all competitions) has the Gabon international topping the goal scoring table. Of these seven league goals, five have come in his last three games, indicating that his form is getting better. In four games against Liverpool – all in Europa League, Aubameyang has scored one and assisted one goal. An xG90 of 0.51 and xA90 of 0.13 indicate that if he plays all 90 minutes,
He may be matching Cristiano Ronaldo goal for goal in Europe, but Roberto Firmino is in slightly underwhelming form in the Premier League, by the standards he has set in the last two seasons. But, what better way to get into attacking form other than playing the team against whom you have scored a goal and an assist in last three games. Firmino’s performances have been central to how Liverpool have dominated Arsenal in the recent past. His scoring blip (5 games run in the league) might come to an end, as xG90 of 0.42 and xA90 of 0.24, indicate Aubameyang-like probabilities of goal contribution from Firmino. The Brazilian’s next goal might be around the corner and he surely would like to get into the record books by scoring one more goal-assist double.
Arsenal are in a defensive crisis of sorts, especially on the flanks, as Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac are all doubtful for Saturday evening’s game. Lichsteiner does provide one backup but the other full-back position might need to be filled by Granit Xhaka. Laurent Koscielny is also unlikely to feature due to being unfit. In the midfield, Matteo Guendouzi was sent off in the League Cup and is suspended, which might bring Ramsey in. On the attack, Gunners are expected to be full-strength as their only chance of winning hinges on the attack and not on the makeshift defence.
For Liverpool, Naby Keita and Henderson are recovering from their injuries but are still doubtful. Other than the former Gunner, Alexander-Oxlade Chamberlain, rest of the squad is fit and well rested. If Klopp sticks to his newfound 4-2-3-1 formation, then it could be serious competition between Fabinho and James Milner for the berth alongside Gini Wijnaldum. In defence, Joe Gomez might be preferred over the error-prone Dejan Lovren.
When two teams have scored 27 goals in their last five league games, the only certainty is that a goal fest should be on the cards. Given that Liverpool have recently dominated against the Gunners and that the hosts are deprived of some of their defensive options, a narrow Liverpool win seems to be the most likely result.
Arsenal 2 – 3 Liverpool