When the schedules first came out this season, both Arsenal and Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for circling this Sunday’s match at Anfield as their clubs’ first real test of the new season. Of course, this being the Premier League and two of its least consistent ‘big 6’ clubs in recent times, both will head into the weekend with blemishes already on their records. Arsenal are coming off of a tough loss against Stoke City, while Liverpool drew 3-3 with Watford to open the season.
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp echoed Arsene Wenger this week with his comments about the transfer market, discussing during his weekly press conference the difficulties in finding players that represent true upgrades over what already exists at the club. When the financial stakes are as high as they have been this summer, it becomes even more difficult. Still, despite him not being available again this weekend due to an..ahem.. “illness”, Klopp will be very relieved to keep attacking centerpiece Philippe Coutinho at the club, with Barcelona electing to spend a huge chunk of their Neymar money on Dortmund wunderkind Ousmane Dembele instead. Arsenal fans will be a little less optimistic this week, with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere all in the last years of their contracts. Arsene Wenger still has a lot of work to do in the fans’ eyes before the transfer window shuts until this winter.
With Arsenal struggling so far this season on defence, Liverpool will look to exploit the Gunner backline with their high octane, counter pressing style. If Arsenal are as careless with the ball when playing out from the back as the were against Leicester City, expect the Reds to run rampant on the attack. New signing and underrated stud Mohamed Salah has proven a capable foil so far to the scorching pace and vicious shot of Sadio Mane on the opposite flank, with Roberto Firmino having a good start to the season through the middle.
Even without Coutinho, Liverpool impose a serious threat to the Arsenal back line. However, much like their opponents, the Reds’ defence is anything but settled. The midfield could also be an area for the Gunners to exploit, as the steady if unspectacular trio of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum are susceptible to being overrun at times, The Reds are one of the few clubs in the Premier League capable of matching the Gunners step for step over a frantic 90 minutes, so an exciting, end to end match could be on the cards for this Sunday.
Arsenal will be most relieved to get both their best attacker and best defender back for the match at Anfield on Sunday. Laurent Koscielny should make his desperately needed season debut after completing his suspension that he earned at the end of last season against Everton. In attack, it is of course all about Alexis Sanchez being fit again after his unlucky abdominal injury. This will be the first match of the year for the Gunners with the squad largely fit and in place.
One question facing Arsene Wenger is whether or not Arsenal stick with the 3-4-2-1 that served them so well to close out last season, or will they start the match with a four man backline, as they have switched to in each of the first two matches of the season when trailing. Having taken the time and effort this summer to switch the u23s into the same formation, it is unlikely that Wenger will give up on it so quickly this season. The Arsenal boss will probably wait and see if the team look more like themselves once Koscielny and Alexis have settled into the side again.
Jordan Henderson, LFC: This season, Juergen Klopp has favored Henderson in a holding role at the base of the midfield with Wijnaldum and Emre Can pushed slightly further on. Much like Arsenal these days, the majority of Liverpool’s most threatening players are on the flanks, but football is still won and lost in the battle for the centre of the park. Playing a traditional 4-3-3, the Reds will have one more central midfielder than their opponents, so it will be up to this trio to wrestle control of the pace of play away from the visitors. Henderson catches flak from fans of both club and country, but right now he represents the most creative and consistent option the Liverpool have in the midfield.
Granit Xhaka, AFC: Yet another central midfielder! Arsenal have not struggled this season to get on the ball and keep possession, but the distribution from deep has been average and the defending in central midfield has been well off the mark. The problem is Aaron Ramsey, whose engine and attacking mentality is so valuable when in attack, but can lack the crisp passing and positional awareness needed to form a responsible partnership in front of a back 3. Often, Xhaka is left as the lone shield to the defence, and as a result, the Gunners have seen themselves overrun in the midfield too easily. His may be the largest collection of responsibilities in the side, and he will need to have a good day at Anfield for his team to have a chance to come away with 3 points.
A positive result on Sunday is vital to both teams, as neither will want to fall too far off of the pace already in the league. Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City have all improved their teams during this summer’s transfer window, and one has to look no further than last season to see how quickly the League leaders can create space between themselves and the other top teams. Expect Arsenal to come out flying Sunday, testing the shaky Liverpool back line as often as is possible. Both clubs are looking to mount serious title challenges this season, and nothing will do more for their aspirations than a victory this Sunday. It’s ‘big 6’ football! What’s not to love?