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Three tactical reasons why Arsenal vs Liverpool could be Premier League classic

The standout fixture on Saturday evening sees Arsenal host Liverpool at the Emirates, and for tactical reasons this really could be one of the most exciting games of the season.

Jurgen Klopp has already let us down once, of course, playing out a conservative 0-0 draw with Manchester City when we expected a classic… but there is no reason to think either Klopp or Unai Emery will be so cautious here.

Arsenal are prone to chaos. Still adapting to their new manager's methods, the Gunners are capable of producing bursts of creative brilliance followed closely by periods of erratic defending. Only Fulham matches have seen more goals than the 37 in Emery's Premier League games, reflecting the wild end-to-end nature of Arsenal's performances.

Liverpool are considerably more controlled this season than in 2017/18, but faced with that shaky Arsenal defence they surely can't resist the temptation to attack with gusto in North London. Here's why this match could be one of the great Premier League contests:

1) Emery likes to draw opponents out while Klopp gegenpresses

Many Arsenal fans have been left frustrated by their team's constant attempts to play out from the back despite many of their short passes going awry. Counterintuitively, the mistakes being made (though unintentional) are actually helping the Arsenal cause.

Emery's aim isn't to dominate the ball and play patient possession football, but rather draw the opposition forward, creating space in behind for a sudden flurry of activity. Essentially the Spaniard wants to create counter-attack-style scenarios even when his team have the ball; Arsenal will wait for the right opportunity and then, with two or three well-timed vertical passes, find themselves sprinting into the opposition third.

Consequently Petr Cech's wobbles helped the cause, since they emboldened the opposition and made them press high from goal kicks. Those mistakes, and indeed slow first-half performances, act like traps, lulling teams into a false sense of security. Drawing at half-time, visitors to the Emirates repeatedly feel spurred on to push forward… and therefore open themselves up to Emery's superb counter-attacking patterns.

Liverpool's high press, then, might just play right into Arsenal's hands, particularly given that Klopp's defence hasn't really been tested by speedy attackers so far this season (even Man City sat deeper than in 2017/18, reflecting a fear factor that has helped improve the Reds' defensive record). Then again, those Arsenal errors – wayward passes or just being caught on the ball – should provide Liverpool with some classic gegenpressing goals.

2) Arsenal's struggle to cope with transitions is good news for Liverpool's front three

Even if Arsenal can evade the Liverpool press and cause damage in behind, they are still vulnerable if one of their own attacking moves breaks down. Arsenal have consistently struggled in the transitions this season. In theory, they should have been more secure against Crystal Palace because Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira both sat deep, and yet still Wilfried Zaha created chances. Their performance last weekend suggests the issue stems largely from the high positioning of their full-backs.

The only tactical decision that could prevent a high-scoring game is if Emery instructs both his full-backs to play deep, which could happen given that Hector Bellerin is injured. Stephen Lichsteiner and (most likely) Nacho Monreal may hold back to prevent Liverpool's front three from countering too easily.

However, Emery isn't conservative by nature, particularly not at home; Liverpool's assertiveness on the counter is likely to find gaps, both in midfield and in the full-back positions, as Arsenal's expansive formation collapses. They simply don't have the compression between the lines, or narrowness in defence, to stop teams from cutting through them.

What's more, should Liverpool take the lead then Arsenal will be forced to open up, creating yet another goal fest at the Emirates. No fewer than seven of the Gunners' games this season have seen four or more goals, while Liverpool hve scored eight goals in their last two matches. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have clicked into gear at just the wrong time for Arsenal.

3) Aubameyang v Trent, Mane v Lichsteiner: mismatched key battles increase the possibilty of chaos

Salah and Mane will be looking forward to going up against Monreal and Lichsteiner respectively, with both players struggling positionally so far under Emery. Lichsteiner commited numerous fouls against Zaha and looked every bit his age (34) last weekend, while Monreal's error-prone ways are well established. Should either full-back get caught out, the three-on-three this would create is an alarming thought for Arsenal supporters.

At the other end, Liverpool may find a problem on their right flank. Trent Alexander-Arnold was dropped for the game against Man City, most likely because he lacks speed and has looked hesitant in recent weeks. The youngster looks like the weak link at the moment, which means Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could dominate on that side. His arcing runs into the middle will test a Liverpool defence rarely put under significant pressure.

The key battles taking place on the flanks are mismatches and in every case favour the attacking side. Consequently there should be plenty of successful dribbles, in turn opening up space for quick counter-attacks - and therefore end-to-end football. A congested midfield is the enemy of a good game, whereas pace on the flanks - with straightforward passing lines to get beyond the full-backs - often leads to entertaining matches. There is every reason to assume Arsenal v Liverpool will be a classic.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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