For the majority of managers, the first weekend of the Premier League season is not the time when they want to be facing a clash with a major rival. Players are still not quite at their sharpest and new arrivals have yet to be fully bedded in, yet points lost will count just as much come the end of the campaign. For both Arsenal and Liverpool, however, that is exactly the situation they find themselves in going into their heavyweight clash at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The match will mark the first meeting between two of the seven sides that start the season with realistic hopes of landing the title in the most competitive Premier League season yet.
“I believe that it’s not necessarily what Liverpool wanted or what we wanted,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said at his pre-match press conference. “Usually you would like four or five games before the big games turn up, but the fixtures are as they are and you have to deal with it. It’s the same problem for both teams.”
Yet, although it is certainly not an ideal situation for either Wenger or Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp, it is particularly unwelcome for the Arsenal boss. Fretting over a lack of signings and injury crises has been all-too familiar at Arsenal in recent years. And those two issues have struck once again this summer to ensure there are grey clouds circling the Emirates Stadium even before the season gets going.
Per Mertesacker is out for the rest of 2016, Gabriel is sidelined for around two months and, with Laurent Koscielny not up to speed having been given an extended layoff following Euro 2016, Wenger doesn’t have a single experienced center-back at his disposal.
Calum Chambers, who started just one Premier League game in the center of defense last season, is looks set to be one of those who starts against Liverpool. Talking ahead of the game Wenger suggested that Rob Holding, a 20-year-old recent signing from Bolton Wanderers, could get the nod alongside Chambers, although Nacho Monreal and Francis Coquelin could also fill in.
Up front, Arsenal will have a makeshift look, too. Olivier Giroud, like Koscielny and Mesut Ozil, is not ready to start the campaign. Either Alexis Sanchez, who has played just one preseason game after injury, or Theo Walcott, unconvincing as a central striker through much of preseason, is set to deputize.
Klopp has insisted that he has not been giving any thought to Arsenal’s difficulties. And, indeed, he has fitness concerns of his own. New signing Loris Karius and defender Mamadou Sakho remain sidelined with injuries picked up in preseason, while Daniel Sturridge, James Milner and new midfielder Marko Grujic face a race against time to be fit for Sunday’s opener.
Yet, more so than his Arsenal counterpart, there is reason for Klopp to be ready to hit the ground running this season. The former Borussia Dortmund manager now has 10 months of work at Anfield and a full preseason under his belt having taken over in difficult circumstances two months into last season. For a manger who is so focused on instilling the required fitness and understanding of his high-octane counter-pressing philosophy, that time could be crucial.
Last season there were signs of it coming together, not least in a run to the Europa League final, but it was also obvious that more work and different players were required. While he hasn’t secured every target he would have liked, it is apparent that there is a clear plan about Liverpool’s transfer business, something that certainly couldn’t always be said.
In Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, in particular, Klopp has brought in two players with the qualities to make them a natural fit to his style. Several players have also left as Klopp has refined his squad, including Joe Allen, who scored a dramatic late equalizer when Liverpool and Arsenal played out a thrilling 3-3 draw at Anfield in January.
Prediction: Liverpool may not be at its best at the start of the campaign, but Arsenal’s problems are severe and the atmosphere at the club far from positive. Frustrated by a lack of signings and the club’s failure to make the most of last season’s wide open title race, it will not take much for the Emirates crowd to become disillusioned. On the field, Arsenal’s makeshift defense may well struggle with an attack that will be full of pace and running. A loser at home on the opening weekend of the Premier League season in two of the last three seasons, history may repeat itself for Arsenal on Sunday.
Predicted Score: Arsenal 1-2 Liverpool
Kickoff Time: Sunday, 11 a.m. EDT