Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have marshalled arguably the Premier League’s best back line this season and the Reds face a tough task, even at home, to get revenge
By George Ankers
Three months ago, an unstoppable force met an immovable object and the force was stopped. Arsenal remain one of the only four teams in the Premier League to have yet prevented both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge from scoring against them.
Between them, Liverpool’s ‘SAS’ have netted 37 top-flight goals so far this season but, facing off against the emerging partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, were found wanting. But will it be a different story when the tables are turned and the Gunners are the visitors at Anfield on Saturday?
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On the face of it, the challenge is the same as before for either side. In Arsenal, Brendan Rodgers’s men come up against almost inarguably the best defence in the league; the north Londoners have to their names 11 clean sheets (the joint-most alongside, surprisingly, West Ham) and only 21 total goals conceded (just one fewer than Chelsea, their only superior in this regard).
Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger’s side know for certain that this sizzling Liverpool attack is not a flash in the pan. Given time to be consistent, the Reds pair have delivered in style. Suarez, the Premier League’s top scorer by eight clear goals, averages one every 74.26 minutes and is joint-second in the division for intentional assists. His partner in crime, Sturridge, may have only 14 goals to the Uruguayan’s 23 but has more shots on target (52) than anyone else.
That effectiveness counted for little, though, when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium on November 2. The table-toppers frustrated their opponents so much that Rodgers had to make a complete tactical change at half-time, though not even that could change the tide.
On that occasion, with both fearsome forwards aligned directly against Mertesacker and Koscielny, the absence of Mathieu Flamini raised concerns that there would be inadequate protection from the ‘SAS’ but Mikel Arteta’s role in dropping back from defensive midfield soon put those worries to bed. The Spaniard played so deep as to often resemble a third centre-back and swept from one end of the pitch to the other filling in any holes that the strikers might have tried to exploit.
That allowed Mertesacker, slow but positionally excellent, to refrain from pushing ahead to meet incoming runs and instead sit as the deepest of the defenders. In the entire game, he did not attempt a single interception or tackle – because he did not need to. It is likely that Wenger will look to employ a similar reinforcement approach at Anfield.
While the bolstered defence did its part, Suarez and Sturridge were also hampered by a lack of service to them, caused by problems in other areas of the pitch. Employing a three-at-the-back style, Liverpool’s lone wide players were wing-backs Jon Flanagan and Aly Cissokho – neither first choice and neither comfortable with the scrutiny of their Arsenal counterparts.
Meanwhile, the use of a third centre-back, rather than deploying an extra attacker such as Coutinho or Raheem Sterling as will surely happen on Saturday, created more space in the middle of the pitch for the Gunners’ skilful attacking midfielders to cause chaos. Santi Cazorla, with only Flanagan down his side, gleefully sat further infield than usual to take advantage, scoring the opener.
Will the change of venue make a difference? It seems unlikely. Wenger’s men have conceded 15 goals on the road compared to only six at home but that statistic is skewed somewhat by their extraordinary 6-3 visit to Manchester City, who have dealt similar damage to record-breaking effect all across the division.
Liverpool have scored a handful more at home (33) than away (25) but this discrepancy is largely accounted for by the quality of opposition faced. Only four of their fellow top-10 sides have visited Anfield so far this season compared to eight from the bottom half, while their away calendar has featured seven visits to the top half and only five to the bottom. One might reasonably expect the difference to even out.
If there is any change in methodology at home, it may be that goals from outside of the box account for 24 per cent of the Reds’ home strikes as opposed to 16% while away. The hosts are welcome to let fly from range on Saturday, though, as Arsenal have incredibly only conceded two from outside the penalty area in the league so far. One of those was as far back as September 22, since when they have only grown in confidence, and the other was on that exceptional visit to the Etihad Stadium. Mertesacker and Koscielny are well prepared for that kind of test, and Arteta will fill the spaces ahead of them.
Perhaps the only remaining thing that might be cause to predict a different outcome is injuries. Both sides have their fair share but, in fact, they involve much the same personnel as missed the November fixture.
Flamini remains unavailable to Wenger but Arteta is set to return to the side on Saturday, resuming that vital role sitting deep, with the in-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain available to play further ahead in midfield should Jack Wilshere not quite make it back in time. The key men in defence remain as ubiquitous as ever.
For Liverpool, though, it could be a thornier issue. Though they have recently been playing with four at the back, first-choice full-backs Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique are once again out. Put together with Daniel Agger’s absence, this means game time for both the largely poor Cissokho and Kolo Toure, who suffered such humiliation last time out at West Brom.
On top of that, the Reds’ best (and really only) defensive midfielder, Lucas Leiva, is on the treatment table. While Arsenal have cover for Aaron Ramsey, their highest-profile player to feature in November but not on Saturday, the Brazilian’s uniqueness among his squad means that Liverpool are set to offer a weaker starting XI than that which lost in London.
When dealing with genius like Suarez and impact like Sturridge, one can never say never but, despite playing at home for a change, Liverpool’s task in breaking down Arsenal looks even tougher than before.
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