Friday, April 3, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Liverpool: Not Decisive But Telling

We've had almost two weeks to get ready for Saturday's contest at Emirates Stadium between third-place Arsenal and fifth-place Liverpool. You'd think with all that time and the tedium of the interlull that a wealth of interesting, intelligent analysis would have emerged. 

Turns out not to be the case. The best almost anyone can muster is "This is the Top-Four Decider."

Actually, even that's off base.

After this weekend, there will be seven matches left on Arsenal's and Liverpool's schedules. That's 14 opportunities for something unpredictable. Add Man United, Spurs, Southampton, and even Man City to the mix, and the possibilities multiply.

Yet the probabilities suggest that Arsenal are already in a strong position to qualify for the Champions League, possibly the strongest they've been in a number of seasons. Most respectable models are pointing to a 95 percent or better probability of a top-four finish, which a victory on Saturday would enhance. Arsenal's form is also the envy of the Premier League: 33 points from the last 39 and eight consecutive wins at home.

Liverpool, early 2015 darlings of the media and the league's form team, have dipped. They looked pedestrian in their last outing against Manchester United and languid in their fortunate 1-0 win at Swansea.

As "How Arsenal Can Attack Liverpool's 3-4-3" points out, those matches offer Arsenal some guidance for exploiting Liverpool's weak spots. Pressure on the three central defenders, shorn of the suspended linchpin Martin Skrtel, and emphasis on the space left by too aggressive wingback play would be advantageous moves for Arsenal.

Arsenal will also take pointers from its successful trip to Old Trafford in the FA Cup, when rather than standing off Manchester United as they did in visits to other top opponents this season, the Gunners pressed through the midfield and forward line. This caused Manchester United's three central defenders and wingbacks considerable difficulty, and Danny Welbeck's winner was a result.

Welbeck seems like the ideal player on the right side to execute the preferred pressing tactic, but his knee injury on England duty creates an obvious lineup question. In truth, there's a question even without his tweaked knee. Will it be Welbeck or Aaron Ramsey in the starting XI? You have to think the other midfield and forward positions are spoken for by Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Alexis, and Olivier Giroud. With Francis Coquelin in the holding midfield role, that leaves one spot for either Welbeck or Ramsey.

Manager Arsène Wenger's decision will likely come down to Welbeck's fitness and his assessment of Liverpool's soft spot. If midfield pressure and energy seem more troubling to Liverpool, then the manager will go with Ramsey; if the weakness is defensive and on the flanks, Welbeck will probably be preferred. He'll also consider Arsenal's right back candidates from the returning Mathieu Debuchy, Hector Bellerin, and Calum Chambers and how best to support that choice defensively.

This is the kind of selection decision the manager will face as the season moves toward its close. All the club's senior players have been in training in recent days, giving Wenger the rare luxury of personnel options. With no midweek fixtures to drive squad rotation, the manager can choose his league and FA Cup lineups based on form, chemistry, and the opposition. That's another strength that Arsenal can call upon, one that could be telling between now and late May.

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