While the Manchester clubs dominated the headlines with their high-profile managerial appointments and player acquisitions, Liverpool and Arsenal – mainly the former – have endured positive summer transfer windows.
With the window still open and managers still aiming to add players to their roster, it’s difficult to make bold statements regarding big games in the opening weeks. But the stability displayed at both clubs this summer ensures a predictable pattern at the Emirates: Jurgen Klopp’s high-octane gegenpressing against Arsene Wenger’s possession-based Arsenal outfit.
Klopp’s first full season at Liverpool provided the manager an entire pre-season to get his methodology across to his players, whilst bolstering a squad that may have not been of his preference prior to his arrival. Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane were the marquee Premier League-based signings that thrive via direct play, which ultimately epitomizes Liverpool’s newfound identity.
Wijnaldum is likely to play closer to Can, here, in attempts to utilize sheer physicality against Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla’s tricky movement. Liverpool could use a natural-ball winner in midfield, but Klopp’s preference to athletic all-rounders could be a decisive factor throughout the season.
Both Mane and Wijnaldum featured in Liverpool’s pre-season victory over Barcelona where Klopp fielded arguably his strongest XI. Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana sat ahead of Emre Can, with the former making late runs into the box, whereas Mane’s ability to play across the front-line and willingness to engage in take-on’s offers flexibility in the final third.
Mane’s best Premier League performances witnessed the attacker playing in a central role where he was able to pick up the ball in deep positions and run at the opposition or making runs behind the defence. However, it’s likely Mane will start from the right at the Emirates, while Roberto Firmino’s willingness to make inwards runs into half-space and combine with his teammates via intricate passing will likely be preferred over Divock Origi’s pace upfront.
Philippe Coutinho will aim to cut infield from the left to shoot on goal, but his defensive discipline will be put to the test against the speedy Hector Bellerin. Meanwhile, Adam Lallana will drift into pockets of space and attempt to link play within the final third.
In contrast to Liverpool’s multiple signings, Arsenal’s transfer activity has once again been remotely inactive. While the general consensus insists the Gunners are far off from a title-winning side – their second place finish last season is genuinely overlooked due to the decline of several top sides and Leicester City’s remarkable campaign – apart from a possible upgrade in the centre-forward position, Wenger possesses one of the better squads in the league.
The arrival of Granit Xhaka will boost Arsenal’s combative presence in the box, while Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin are equally imposing defensive midfielders.
“[Xhaka brings] his passing ability to play through the lines from deep positions, his work rate, and he’s good in the air,” Wenger told the Arsenal website. “He’s a young boy as well, 23 years old. There’s a lot to come from him.”
Cazorla’s success in a deep role last season, combined with the arrival of Xhaka, should push Ramsey into an advanced role on the right that will see him drift centrally to overload the midfield, but equally create space for Bellerin to run at make-shift left back James Milner. Liverpool’s clear weakness rests at the left-back position where Alberto Moreno’s defensive deficiencies has forced Klopp to turn his trust to Milner.
More so, Liverpool’s make-shift back-line could encounter issues with Alexis’ movement in the final third. The Reds still lack adequate protection of an unconvincing back-line that requires time to build a solid foundation, and they could encounter difficult moments coping with Arsenal’s movement between the lines.
Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil’s absence should see either Alexis start upfront considering his goal-threat in the final third. Wenger is also faced with the decision of handing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Theo Walcott on the opposite flank of Ramsey — nonetheless, both serve as useful impact substitutes.
Wenger’s main issue ahead of Sunday involves three injured first choice centre-backs, and will turn to Calum Chambers and Nacho Monreal at centre-back – the duo coincidentally started together in the same fixture last season – thus explaining why the club is linked with Valencia defender Shkodran Mustafi. Arsenal have been exposed by top sides in the past due to their poor structure out of possession, and they’ll be fully tested against Liverpool’s swift transitional attacks – this may result in a cautious Gunners approach.
“Maybe they will bring a few other players in and Koscielny is back in one or two weeks, or this week — I don’t know. But defensive problems only play a role in a game when the other team is really strong and offensive,” Klopp said.
“They have a lot of wonderful players for their offensive play and it’s only one game. It’s not that they have to play with this team the whole season or we have to play this team season — then we could talk about advantages or not. For this one game, it’s not a big role.”
Where both sides battled to a score-less draw in last season’s early clash, the return fixture was a six-goal thriller that highlighted the need for a ball-winner in each midfield. Sunday’s showdown should follow the former: neither side will be at full-strength, additional physical midfielders have been acquired, whereas a lack of match fitness can be decisive – in particular, Liverpool’s pressing over extensive periods will be scarce.
Where Wenger must find a solution to bypass Liverpool’s pressing, the Reds must do a better job in protecting space between the lines. In a league that’s welcomed top managers that are value organization and defensive structure, this would be the ideal platform for either side to display their improvement in this area, as it will be a significant component in any possible attempt at a legitimate title challenge.