By Séamus Leonard
There was a time when a top of the table meeting between Arsenal and Liverpool was a regular occurrence. They were the halcyon days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, just before Sky Sports got its grubby hands on English football broadcasting rights and changed the landscape forever.
But the advent of the Premier League in 1992 saw Manchester United become the top dogs of English soccer. More’s the pity. It’s not that these sides have been residing in the doldrums ever since – indeed Arsenal has three Premier League titles and Liverpool has conquered Europe in the interim – but there is no doubt that this pair has been left in the shade in recent years by the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea.
That could change, however, and change soon. There is a different feel to the Premier League this year. Manchester United is still finding its feet after the departure of Alex Ferguson as manager, Manchester City’s performances have not yet reached the level of its financial outlay, and Chelsea is not the force it was during Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge.
Not that anyone at The Emirates or Anfield is getting carried away with their respective impressive starts. The fixture list has been kind to both clubs, and both were able to successfully negotiate their most difficult encounters to date – Arsenal beat North London rivals Tottenham 1-0, while Liverpool enjoyed a similar result against Manchester United.
Arsenal’s season has been defined by two major developments. Firstly, the capture of Germany international Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid proved that the Gunners have the ability to speculate to accumulate in the transfer market. And, secondly, Olivier Giroud has emerged as the kind of striker Arsenal can rely on, a situation not enjoyed by manager Arsene Wenger since Thierry Henry decided to leave the English capital for the brighter lights of New York City.
Few would have predicted Arsenal would be at the summit at this stage of the season, especially after the capitulation at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the campaign back in August. However, there are still nagging doubts about the Gunners’ ability to stay the distance. An important 2-0 victory away to Crystal Palace last Saturday was sandwiched between a Champions League defeat to Borussia Dortmund and a Capital One Cup loss to Chelsea in midweek. It would be foolish to read too much into the latter defeat, as Wenger used the game as an opportunity to blood some of his youngsters.
More worrying from an Arsenal point of view will be the absence of Mathieu Flamini with a groin injury. The Frenchman’s ball-winning skills have been invaluable since he returned to North London from AC Milan at the start of the season. Flamini joins a long list of Gunners who are currently on the treatment table, including Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Abou Diaby. On the basis of Arsenal’s injury woes alone, this would appear to be a good time for Liverpool to visit The Emirates. Factor in the confidence from last Saturday’s 4-1 demolition of West Brom and it seems a particularly opportune time for manager Brendan Rodgers to be bringing his charges south.
In a not unusual turn of events, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez will be center of attention. His superb hat-trick against the Baggies last week would have had the spotlight on the Uruguayan anyway, but there is the added spice of Arsenal’s famous £40,000,001 bid for him during the summer. A lot will probably be made of Arsenal’s approach, but why wouldn’t it want to coax a seemingly unsettled player of Suarez’s ability. Wenger et al conducted their business in the proper manner, Liverpool dug its heels in and Suarez remained on Merseyside and is arguably in the form of his career. It happens. End of story. Well, maybe not.
The Liverpool number seven will not be Arsenal’s only concern, however. His strike partner Daniel Sturridge is the league’s top scorer on eight goals already, including his audacious lob over West Brom keeper Boaz Myhill last Saturday. The devastating SAS combination up front is helping deflect attention from Liverpool’s persisting problems in midfield and defense. While last Saturday’s 4-1 result looked great on paper, the reality was that Liverpool allowed West Brom back into the game at 3-0, and could easily have conceded at least one more goal in a very dodgy period after James Morrison’s penalty narrowed the margin.
That said, Liverpool’s midfield looked a lot more effective as Rodgers decided to ‘flip the triangle’. That meant rather than playing with two defensive midfielders in front of the back three, Liverpool left Lucas Leiva alone in that role and pushed both Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson further forward. This allowed the Reds to press West Brom high up the pitch, with Henderson particularly effective at winning possession in the opposition’s half. Some would consider Rodgers brave to employ similar tactics away to Arsenal. Others might argue that it would be foolish not to, as not only does the formation accentuate Liverpool’s strengths, it may also expose Arsenal’s defensive frailties.
Attacker Iago Aspas remains sidelined with a thigh injury and left-back Jose Enrique’s knee problem makes it unlikely he will feature, but aside from that Rodgers has no new fresh injury worries. Indeed he has Philippe Coutinho back available after shoulder surgery, but will probably avail of the luxury of keeping the Brazilian playmaker in reserve.
Liverpool has an abysmal record at The Emirates. Just one win in 13 visits reflects how poorly the Reds have fared since Arsenal moved to Ashburton Grove in 2006. As such, Liverpool supporters have rarely relished a trip there. On current form, however, there should be no such fear on Saturday ahead of what promises to be a fabulous encounter.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC, with coverage starting at 1330 EST.
Arsenal v Liverpool
When: Saturday, November 2, 1330 EST/1730 BST
Where: The Emirates, London
Previous Premier League match: Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal, Liverpool 4-1 West Bromwich Albion
League Position 2013-14: Arsenal 1st (22 points), Liverpool 3rd (20 points)
Projected Arsenal Starting 11
DEF: Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
MID: Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta, Ozil, Cazorla
Subs from: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Jenkinson, Monreal, Gnabry, Park, Miyaichi, Rosicky, Bendtner
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Toure, Skrtel, Sakho
MID: Johnson, Lucas, Gerrard, Henderson, Cissokho
FW: Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Agger, Flanagan, Ilori, Allen, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Sterling, Coutinho, Moses
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/kuaver/8481987857/”>Dean.Jones</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>