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Arsenal at Liverpool preview: managing expectations

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Now is not the best time for the Gunners to be traveling to Anfield.

Liverpool FC v Manchester United - Premier League
Arsenal haven’t won at Anfield since 2012.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

When the Premier League schedule is released each year, I like to circle important dates - the North London Derbies, matches against the other top clubs (especially the away ones), and periods of fixture congestion. If I were fancy and sophisticated (which I’m not), I would use different color highlighters for each of those categories.

Under that system, tomorrow’s match away to Liverpool would be a multi-colored one. Anfield has not been kind to the Gunners lately. Since besting the Reds there in 2012, Arsenal are 0-2-3, conceding 17 and scoring just 7. Tomorrow’s match comes near the end of a congested Christmas period that has seen an injury-ravaged Arsenal side take a measly 8 points from 15 on offer. In short, it is not a good time for Arsenal to be traveling to Anfield.

If Unai Emery trots out a lineup similar to the one used against Brighton, Arsenal are going to lose. Possibly badly. The return of Shkodran Mustafi to the lineup (he trained the past two days and tweeted he was close to coming back) won’t do much to change that. With three defensive midfielders on the pitch and limited support for whoever is playing up top, Arsenal will manage 40% possession at best, be forced to defend wave after wave of attack, and things will not go well. Liverpool’s attack is the second best in the Premier League by goals scored, and it is in-form with 9 goals in the last 3 matches.

The attacking side of things doesn’t look great either. Liverpool have conceded just 7 goals all season, the fewest in the league. Arsenal, meanwhile, have struggled to create chances lately, despite facing 4 of the bottom 10 defenses by goals allowed, including 3 of the 5 worst. The slight silver lining is that Arsenal scored one of the seven goals Liverpool have conceded this season when the sides drew 1-1 at the Emirates in November.

Unai Emery’s options are limited. Nacho Monreal is likely out tomorrow. Unless Emery goes outside-the-box, his lineup will likely include Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sead Kolasinac, both of whom are defensively suspect (Kolasinac at least provides a legitimate threat going forward). It will also include Laurent Koscielny, who has yet to look fully himself since returning from injury. Ideally, you’d want more reliable, defensively sound options against Liverpool.

Consequently, Emery will probably do what he did against Brighton — play all three defensive midfielders to bolster the backline. As I said before, that’s not going to work. It’s like the prevent defense in the NFL: the only thing it prevents is you winning. I doubt Arsenal will even manage a draw going that route.

Instead, Emery should throw caution to the wind. Arsenal are not going to get a result from a low-scoring game. They will probably need 3 or more goals to have a shot, so why not deploy a lineup capable of doing that? Play Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özi, Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together.

Do something different and unexpected. Something other than the conservative approach that hasn’t really worked of late. If you start from the premise that Arsenal aren’t likely to get a result at Anfield, who cares if you give up five goals instead of two?

Try a 4-3-3 with Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles as outside backs, Ramsey, Xhaka, and Torreira in the midfield, and an attacking trio of Özil, Lacazette, and Aubameyang. Or play a 3-4-3 with Koscielny, Sokratis, and Mustafi across the back, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, and Ramsey in the midfield, and that same attacking trio.

Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. Unai Emery has not shown a willingness to have fewer than two of his three defensive midfielders playing at the base of the midfield. Tomorrow, I expect a 3-5-2 with Koscielny, Sokratis, and either Mustafi or Lichtsteiner in the back, Kolasinac, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Torreira, Maitland-Niles (or Lichtsteiner if Mustafi plays CB) in the midfield, and an attacking duo of Özil and Aubameyang. Sigh.

WHAT: Arsenal at Liverpool

WHERE: Anfield

WHEN: Saturday, December 29th 9:30 AM PT | 12:30 PM ET | 7:30 PM BT

US TV: NBC

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