A depleted Arsenal side welcome Liverpool to the Emirates tomorrow for the second match of the 2011-12 Premier League campaign. Both sides sit on 1 point in the standings after draws last weekend, Arsenal's against Newcastle, and Liverpool's against Sunderland (at least they scored in theirs).
While Liverpool are relatively injury-free (Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel are hurt, and beyond them, Glen Johnson is the only doubt, really), Arsenal are the opposite. Jack Wilshere is injured. Abou Diaby is still out. Johan Djourou could not recover from his hamstring injury for tomorrow. Kieran Gibbs could not either. Armand Traore is hurt. Tomas Rosicky is hurt, and Wenger will rest him. On top of the injuries, Alex Song and Gervinho both are suspended tomorrow, following on the events of the Newcastle match. Oh, and Craig Eastmond is injured. I know you were all wondering about whether Craig Eastmond was available. (I kid, but actually...we could kind of use him...)
So Arsenal have serious concerns at the back and in midfield. There is a good chance that they will set up a back four of Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, and Jenkinson; beyond that, it's really really really thin. It's Squillaci-thin. Ignasi Miquel will probably be in the squad; thin. Given that Liverpool will probably start the left-footed Stewart Downing at right wing, and he will look to cut in onto his stronger foot, starting the right-footed Jenkinson at left back may not be a bad thing after all. Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll will be combining on the other side, and Dirk Kuyt could start on the right instead of Downing if the Reds are looking to have major workrate and help on one side.
Midfield is just a mess. Emmanuel Frimpong and Aaron Ramsey are ready to square off with Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva, but in front of them...well, it could get weird. Andrei Arshavin could fill in at central attacking midfield, and actually, his range of passing and ability to get into the penalty area could work well there in combination with Robin van Persie. Samir Nasri is going to be in the squad according to Wenger, and theoretically could start in the middle, but frankly, I'd rather see Arshavin there. Nasri looked lost there in preseason, and his skills are far more suited to playing on the wing. In the absence of Gervinho, Theo Walcott will start on the right, going up against Jose Enrique, a player that he burned several times last season in the 4-4 draw away to Newcastle. Given that Liverpool have Jamie Carragher in defence, playing Andrey Arshavin in the middle could be a great move, if the Meerkat returns to Anfield in 2009 form.
If Wenger decided to be cute, he could play a 4-4-2 with Ramsey and Frimpong in the middle, Arshavin and Walcott out wide, and RvP and Nicklas Bendtner combining up front. That would be funny, but maybe not in a good way...Liverpool would have a midfield advantage in that case, to say the least. No, I'm sorry I brought it up.
Without any further signings, Arsenal are likely to play like they have in their first two matches. If they could suck Liverpool in and then counter with Nasri, Arshavin, Walcott and van Persie, they could be devastating. Given that Tomas Rosicky is talking about the need to pass faster, this could definitely happen. On the other hand, Kenny Dalglish could get a severe case of the Mancinis and decide to play everyone behind the ball, with Charlie Adam hitting long diagonals for Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez and Stewart Downing. Last weekend, Carroll received most long balls in the defensive midfield area, so if Thomas Vermaelen can cut that off, Liverpool may be penned in a bit, and will be even more so if Arsenal close down Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam. With Arsenal's supposed weakness being aerially, Liverpool will probably use Enrique and Downing to launch crosses into the mixer for Andy Carroll, so Koscielny and Vermaelen will have to be strong, and make sure to cover any on rushing Liverpool players to deal with flick ons. Oh, and then there's Luis Suarez. He's brilliant, but he also only played 65 minutes, and could be lacking a bit of sharpness. If Carl Jenkinson or Bacary Sagna mark him out of the game early, Liverpool might look a bit toothless and not so spectacular upfront.
Prediction: Boos for Samir Nasri, red mist from Andy Carroll, and Andrey Arshavin to rediscover his Anfield form in a late late late 2-1 victory for Arsenal. Or, the latter doesn't happen and it's a somewhat dull 1-1 draw.