Marquee matchup: Liverpool, Arsenal promise a breathless bout

In what usually foreshadows the death knells of a football match, Sunday’s meeting between Liverpool and Arsenal has been broadly earmarked as a goal fest.

It’s because the two teams can’t defend.

Liverpool’s backline woes have seen Dejan Lovren scapegoated by the club’s fans, as Jurgen Klopp appears to be focusing his efforts into creating the league’s most top-heavy team.

Arsene Wenger’s throng, meanwhile, enters the contest having recorded an unconvincing 4-3 win over Leicester City and a 1-0 loss in Stoke City to begin the season. Most accusatory fingers have been pointed at Laurent Koscielny‘s absence through suspension, and a defensive midfield that lacks bite and struggles with ball retention.

History isn’t on Arsenal’s side: The Gunners last beat Liverpool at Anfield in 2012 thanks to goals from Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla.

Injuries and suspensions

Philippe Coutinho will remain on the sidelines with a back injury or illness or whatever Jurgen Klopp thinks up next. Barcelona is reportedly preparing a fourth bid for the Brazilian worth around £136 million, and he’s being kept away from the public eye by his boss. Trent Alexander-Arnold is set to get the nod ahead of Nathaniel Clyne, who is still working his way back to fitness, and Emre Can should be in the first XI after he “twisted a little bit” in his two-goal showing against Hoffenheim.

Alexis Sanchez is expected to be thrust straight into the starting lineup after overcoming an abdominal strain. The biggest boost to Arsene Wenger’s plans is Koscielny’s return following suspension.

Projected lineups

Liverpool starting XI: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Klavan, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Can; Salah, Firmino, Mane

Arsenal starting XI: Cech; Koscielny, Mertesacker, Kolasinac; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Xhaka, Monreal; Ozil, Sanchez; Lacazette

What to watch

Liverpool’s stumbles with the supposedly lesser sides in 2016-17 contrasted with how it fared in the top-six clashes. Teams like Hull City, Swansea City, Crystal Palace, and Burnley were happy to sit deep against Klopp’s forwards, closing off the space behind them that the Reds try to exploit, and then steal a win on the counter-attack.

Against its title rivals, Liverpool instead played more like the minnow, happy to soak up the pressure and let the opposition’s defensive line ease up the pitch and stretch the gap between them and the goalkeeper. A concession of possession and smash up the pitch later, and Liverpool’s front three was homing in on goal.

(Courtesy: Sky Sports)

The speed of Liverpool’s attack was in full display against Hoffenheim in midweek. Can’s second strike – the German didn’t play in an unadventurous fashion alongside Jordan Henderson like last season, instead assuming a forward-thinking box-to-box mantle – is an early candidate for one of the campaign’s best goals. It was a stunning, one-touch team move ended by a fluttering Roberto Firmino cross and Can volley.

The benefit of Can getting involved in the attacking play is that Georginio Wijnaldum will be less engaged in that department. The Dutchman’s an expert at recycling possession and an underrated cog in the lineup, but frequently fluffs his lines in front of the onion bag.

Granit Xhaka, standing right in Can’s path, is a soft section of Wenger’s XI; a hindrance with his loose possession and poor decision-making. However, Klopp will be encouraged to quickly hit the flanks when watching the tape of Leicester’s trip to north London.

Hector Bellerin is a great talent going forward, but his defensive traits are questionable. He was dropped by Wenger when the French boss changed to a back-three last term, and exactly why that happened was shown by Marc Albrighton‘s easy ride in the season opener. Bellerin should be dropped, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another player who prioritises attacking and can be caught out.

Mane, a player of greater quality and much superior speed than Albrighton, is ready to gallop into space behind Oxlade-Chamberlain, onto the end of a Henderson long ball or smart use of possession from workhorse Firmino, on Sunday. Andrew Robertson or Alberto Moreno will also threaten when overlapping from left-back.

Arsenal can try to stifle the Reds’ waves with a smarter selection in front of Petr Cech. It could be a good time to reintroduce Per Mertesacker, and task him with a sweeper-like, stay-at-home job while his colleagues can express themselves a little more either side. Shkodran Mustafi may be benched amid links to Inter Milan.

But, fitting with the pre-game forecast of goals with a chance of calamity, Arsenal chief focus should be scoring more than it concedes.

The unique talents of Sanchez are expected to return alongside Mesut Ozil, and they will devise and dash behind Alexandre Lacazette. Liverpool’s defence is unlikely to keep that triple threat quiet, especially if the swinging door known as Lovren is fielded.

EPL | theScore

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