Arsenal v Liverpool - Tactical Preview

By Phil Dodds
Last updated : 18 August 2011

Kenny Dalglish and Arsene Wenger

Clashes between these two teams have tended to be quite exciting in recent years. Recall Dirk Kuyt's 112th-minute equalising penalty to all-but-end Arsenal's title hopes in April of this year, as well as Pepe Reina's mistake to gift Arsenal a point in Roy Hodgson's first game in charge at the start of last season. And who could forget Andrey Arshavin's four goals in the 4-4 thriller at Anfield in 2009? Indeed, Saturday's game can already be seen as an early-season battle for fourth place, and both sides have much to prove.

Dirk Kuyt and Martin Kelly should reclaim their places on the right flank for Liverpool on Saturday, after fairly unremarkable performances from Jordan Henderson and John Flanagan last week. Otherwise, Dalglish will probably stick with the same team which impressed in the first-half against Sunderland, but faded badly in the second. He will be hoping that the extra match-practice and a week's training will see his team looking fresher and better prepared for the challenge.

A basic 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 shape gives Suarez a free role to wander the pitch looking for space, while new signings Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique seek to form a partnership on the left. Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam should retain their starting places in midfield, though Dalglish has the likes of Jay Spearing, Raul Meireles, Jordan Henderson and Alberto Aquilani available if he needs them (Gerrard is still not fully recovered from a groin infection). Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and, in goal, Pepe Reina, seem to be assured of their first-team places.

Arsenal perhaps have fewer reasons to be optimistic. Aside from the fact that they've just sold their talismanic captain to Barcelona (while Samir Nasri looks likely to be a Manchester City player by the weekend), theirs is a side depleted by injuries and suspensions: Wenger will have to make do without some or all of Abou Diaby, Alex Song, Gervinho, Johan Djourou, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore.

As such, the relatively untested Emmanuel Frimpong will probably come into central midfield to take the role of tough-tackling defensive midfielder which Song surrendered by stamping on Joey Barton's leg last weekend, and Arsenal's new 19 year-old Summer signing Carl Jenkinson looks set for a Premier League debut at left-back in Gibbs' absence. Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott should start on the wings, although Wenger has hinted that he may give a debut to either Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or Ryo Miyaichi.

The latter, an 18-year-old Japanese winger who spent most of last season on loan at Feyenoord, is described by Dutch football expert Mohamed Moallim as "fearless, direct and pacey," possessing "brilliant intuition coupled with a good sense of foresight and vision." Wenger has referred to has "exceptional talent," and has suggested that he "can have a big impact this season," so don't be too surprised if he is thrown on a second-half substitute to shake up either Jose Enrique or Martin Kelly.

This is how the two teams are likely to line-up:

At first glance, the two teams' shapes look quite similar. But there are important differences. Firstly, Luis Suarez will be encouraged to stay much higher up the pitch than Aaron Ramsey, such that Liverpool will often look to be playing a traditional 4-4-2, while Ramsey will drop deeper into midfield to make Arsenal into a 4-3-3 without the ball. Also, Liverpool's wingers (Kuyt and Downing) are likely to drop deeper when their team is defending, as Dalglish likes his side to defend in the traditional "two banks of four." In comparison, Walcott and Arshavin will do less tracking back, which could end up pinning back Liverpool's fullbacks (Kelly and Enrique), limiting the away side's attacking width.

The wing battles could well be key in this game, particularly on Liverpool's right where Dirk Kuyt will be up against Carl Jenkinson, who has only ever made eight league starts in his entire professional career (all for Charlton in League One). The youngster featured against Udinese for twenty minutes and, although some Arsenal fans were impressed, he did make a couple of defensive mistakes, and will surely be targeted by Dalglish.

It is worth noting, as well, that Thomas Rosicky has played on the left of Arsenal's central midfield in their last two games, but he is not a player who is particularly defensively gifted, nor is he especially dilligent in his tracking-back and closing-down (the same is true of Andrey Arshavin), so Jenkinson may well find himself pretty isolated at left-back. This is when Suarez's free role can come in very useful. He will probably tend to drift out wide to the right-wing, where he and Kuyt can double-up on Jenkinson and cause him problems. If this results in Arsenal's left-sided centre-back, Thomas Vermaelen, getting dragged wide to help the fledgling full-back, then that can open up space for Andy Carroll or a midfield runner to exploit.

Wenger's side lived dangerously against Udinese in their Champions League qualifier on Tuesday evening. Firstly, as against Newcastle, they allowed all their central midfielders to make forward runs, on the proviso that one of them would stay back and hold. This "total football" idea worked well last season as Jack Wilshere and Alex Song had built up a good understanding, but Udinese were able to break into a lot of open space on Tuesday, occasionally free to run directly at Arsenal's defence 2-vs-2 or 4-vs-4. Again, Suarez is incredibly adept at causing havoc in attack when he has space to run at opposition defenders.

And Arsenal have also been keeping a very high defensive line this season, and are likely to do the same against Liverpool to try to neuter Andy Carroll's aerial threat. But Udinese's Kwadwo Asamoah and Pablo Amero each easily bisected Arsenal's centre-backs on the half-way line, and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny had to come to the rescue both times. In essence, Arsenal's high-risk defensive strategy still looks a little shaky, and Dalglish will be keen to exploit any defensive weaknesses.

Liverpool do also have reasons to be pessimistic, unfortunately. With new signings still settling in, and lack of match fitness clearly a problem for certain players, they will need to make sure that their ball-retention is both more accurate and more intelligent than in the second half against Sunderland. Liverpool had just 39% of the possession last time they played Arsenal, and, with their relatively direct, fast-paced style of play, they might find that they struggle to assert their dominance on the game. In that 1-1 draw in April, most of Reina's goalkicks were aimed for Andy Carroll's head. If the big striker's target-man play is not at its best, Liverpool will just constantly cede possession to an Arsenal side who know how to use it to their advantage. It's all very well talking about the threat offered by Downing's crossing or Adam's set-pieces, but a team must be able to get a hold of the game and to impose their own patterns of play.

Ultimately, Liverpool will need a coherent strategy for when they reclaim the ball from Arsenal. If they don't, they'll probably just look aimless and disjointed, as against Sunderland. Fortunately, Arsenal do have some obvious defensive weaknesses, and Liverpool look well equipped to exploit them, so an early-season victory at the Emirates is certainly achievable for Dalglish's side.

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