With the Premier League seemingly heading to the blue side of London, the scramble for the remaining Champions League spots is busy heating up quickly. The Premier League hasn’t been this competitive in a long time, with only five points separating 2nd from 6th there are five decent teams contesting only three remaining Champions League positions in the top four. In the biggest tie of the weekend, Liverpool face Arsenal, and despite distinct differences in playing style these teams share some similarities in terms of the difficulties they’ve been facing lately. We’re going to have a closer look at the teams to identify which side is most likely to come out on top.
Both teams started the season brightly and appeared to be legitimate title contenders, but in recent weeks they’ve lost their way with some defeats to teams they should’ve beaten. Both teams are somewhat leaderless on the pitch and have struggled to really impose themselves on their opposition convincingly.
Arsenal’s situation is worsened by the fact that the relationship between the club and the fans (as well as the manager) is deteriorating, with Arsenal’s perennial breakdown no longer just a quirky myth, but now a worrying trend. After their recent losses to Watford and Chelsea, as well as a Champions League thumping at the hands of Bayern, Arsenal are in desperate need of a win to restore confidence to a shell-shocked team.
Similarly, Liverpool have suffered surprising defeats to Hull and Leicester recently, putting Klopp’s men in the unfamiliar position of being outside the top four. Neither team has been at their best, but both require the three points from this tricky match at Anfield to increase their chances of getting Champions League football next season.
Both sides have been incredibly shaky in defence throughout the season. Liverpool’s defence has seen many different players lining up together, along with James Milner, a midfielder by trade, do an acceptable job at full-back for some time but struggling recently. The right-back position has been Liverpool’s most stable, usually filled by Nathaniel Clyne. The centre back situation is dire for both teams, though, with Mustafi and Koscielny being the best options for Arsenal but both of whom have had difficulties with injury and poor form at various points. For Liverpool, their best center back is likely Joel Matip, but since no center back pairing has featured consistently their organisation at the back has been at sixes and sevens all season.
Due to injuries and selection problems Lucas has been played at the back a few times and his inability to perform well in the role has left them in the lurch on multiple occasions, but Klavan is more likely to feature on Saturday. This match may feature a fair number of goals since both defensive setups have been inconsistent and disappointing.
A similar scenario plagues both teams’ midfield options as well. Arsenal have unfortunately lost Santi Cazorla to injury, which means they need to rely on less than ideal options like Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Surprisingly Oxlade-Chamberlain, usually an attacking player, has been their most impressive player in midfield for a small number of games.
Liverpool will be missing their captain Jordan Henderson, so the likes of Emre Can and Wijnaldum, neither of which have been particularly impressive lately are probable starters. The midfield battles aren’t likely to be very thrilling since both teams don’t have their best players available and possession is likely to change at a rapid pace, which benefits the counter attacking play both sides are capable of.
Compounding problems for both teams is the fact that their attacks have been suffering for some time, too. Although Arsenal have the big names in Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, neither of the talismanic forwards have mustered decent performances lately. Arsenal’s malaise is visible in the players’ body language, and the confidence necessary for forwards to thrive just isn’t there, so although they may outweigh Liverpool in terms of raw talent getting any decent performance out of them is questionable at this stage.
Liverpool, on the other hand, has an attack that is generally more than the some of its parts, but for some reason they haven’t clicked lately. Although Mané and Coutinho are back in the team, the fluidity of their attack hasn’t shifted back to what they showed at the beginning of the season. Due to the lack of competent defences this game is likely to be decided by individual skill from the likes of Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez, Mané or another one of the mercurial forwards from both teams.
Walcott/Oxlade-Chamberlain/Bellerin vs. Milner: If Milner is played at left back his lack of pace is a real weakness for Liverpool. Arsenal have an abundance of fast options on their right flank that could prove problematic for Milner and whoever features on Liverpool’s right side in midfield. Arsenal’s counter attacks could be particularly effective down this side as Bellerin at full back tends to link up well with any of the forward options that play ahead of him.
Coutinho vs. Xhaka: Liverpool’s attacks are often started and finished by Coutinho, and his performances are only augmented by freedom to move. Arsenal will need to shut down any space for Coutinho to operate in, meaning disciplined and tiring performances from their midfielders will be a necessity. Xhaka is supposed to be a defensively minded midfielder, but because of his poor disciplinary record and often disappointing positioning Coutinho might find he has an excess of space to create chances in or pass his forwards in behind the Arsenal defence.
Firmino/Mané vs. Koscielny/Mustafi: Due to Arsenal’s sketchy defensive organisation the free flowing Liverpool forwards could easily find space in behind the slower centre backs. The pace that Mané provides could be especially problematic since Arsenal’s full backs contribute in attack often which leaves their slower centre backs exposed and vulnerable to the speed that several of Liverpool’s attacking options possess.
Considering the low confidence that is subduing both teams the fact that Liverpool are at home may play a large role in their performance. The Anfield crowd will be desperate for their team to get back to winning ways, and doing it against a rival competing for the same positions they are will make it all the more thrilling.
Arsenal, on the other hand, won’t want to go to a ground has intense as Anfield after their recent losses, and speculation surrounding Arsene Wenger’s support at the club and prospective future further complicates the attitude in the dressing room. Both clubs have leaky defences and some skillful attackers, but Liverpool may just have enough to edge the tie if they can keep their heads at the back. By the same account Arsenal can capitalise on an unsettled Liverpool defence, this is a difficult game to call but Liverpool likely just barely have the edge.
Predicted Result: Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal