Arsenal v Liverpool
Saturday 3rd April 2021: 8:00pm (Sky Sports)
Arsenal’s thrilling 3-3 draw with West Ham at the London Stadium already feels like a lifetime ago due to the international break (and the dull monotony of lockdown), and Mikel Arteta will hope that the attacking, fighting nature of Arsenal’s second half performance against the Irons can be replicated against Liverpool at the Emirates on Sunday night.
Playing behind closed doors against Liverpool has been surprisingly impressive for Arsenal, who won on penalties at Anfield in a Carabao Cup fourth round tie back in October, and most notably snatched a 2-1 victory against the Champions in the latter stages of the 2019/20 season at home. Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Allisson had mistakes punished by Reiss Nelson and Alex Lacazette, in a backs to the wall display that was the catalyst for an FA Cup semi-final win days later against Manchester City. Let’s not forget the Gunners’ 2020 Community Shield victory against the Reds on penalties as well!
So could we say that Arsenal are a bogey team for Jurgen Klopp? The win at the Emirates may have been only a week or so after Liverpool were crowned Premier League champions, but it was the sort of defensive display that has become synonymous with the Merseysiders in the current campaign, with or without van Dijk. Liverpool have conceded 4 more than the Gunners, and are only four points in front in 7th place, with Arsenal starting the weekend in 10th- remarkably average seasons for both clubs.
Most pundits will point to the numerous centre-back pairings, injuries and van Dijk’s lengthy absence when discussing Liverpool’s failings, and of course this has been a very significant part of their struggles this season, not helped by Jurgen Klopp sometimes failing to adapt his tactics to suit inexperienced or part-time defenders.
Klopp has resolutely stuck with the high line that was so successful in the title-winning season, but this high-risk approach is something that Mikel Arteta will look to exploit with a pacy attack- maybe this is the perfect game for Gabriel Martinelli to make a grand return to the Arsenal side, tormenting the defence and linking up with Martin Odegaard, a partnership many Gooners will be dreaming of. The Brazilian’s brilliant solo counter-attack goal at Stamford Bridge immediately springs to mind, and his speed and calmness on the ball could be vital on Sunday night.
Liverpool will be buoyed by the return of Diogo Jota, who scored the decider in their win over Wolves, before enjoying a brilliant international break. The Portuguese scored a brace against Serbia (in a game in which Cedric Soares impressed) before netting again in a win over Luxembourg.
Liverpool’s attack has arguably been just as problematic as the back four, with the trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino not meeting their previous high standards. Jota is perfect for Jurgen Klopp as a fourth option in attack, and his return to the side could not have come at a better time. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a player seemingly short of confidence in the red and white of Arsenal, was instrumental in helping Gabon to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, a much needed boost for him, and hopefully his club too.
Emile Smith-Rowe missed England U21s’ final group game against Croatia on Wednesday due to injury. Bukayo Saka did not join up with the England senior squad, instead remaining at London Colney for an assessment on a hamstring injury.
Liverpool remain short of defensive options, so the decision for Jurgen Klopp will be whether to play Fabinho at centre back, or push the Brazilian into his natural position in defensive midfield whilst utilising a more natural, albeit less experienced or capable centre-back pairing. Divock Origi missed the Wolves game due to a minor muscle injury, but is expected to make the bench on Saturday.
The reverse fixture was a 3-1 victory for Liverpool, but this one is certainly a lot more difficult to predict. The win over Wolves, coinciding with Jota’s return, was crucial for Jurgen Klopp, and if the front free and Jota find form then it could be a long night for the Gunners.
However, Arsenal supporters will be praying that Mikel Arteta gets his tactics and team selection right in order to really get at Liverpool’s defence. If Smith-Rowe misses out, it could be the perfect opportunity for Gabriel Martinelli, and that is something for us all to be optimistic about.