Arsenal will need no reminding of the last time they visited Anfield, but for Liverpool it surely seems like a most distant memory. Arsenal went into that contest in February one point off the top of the Premier League, but were torn apart by Liverpool in an emphatic 5-1 defeat that saw them 4-0 down inside 20 minutes. It was stunning to behold and proved the catalyst for the end of Arsenal’s title challenge and the beginning of Liverpool’s.
Neither side did end their championship drought in May and, barring something extraordinary, neither will this season. Yet their meeting at Anfield on Sunday could still have significant consequences. Both currently find themselves outside of the top four, although with Arsenal, in sixth place, five points and five places ahead of Liverpool. It has not been the start to the season that either of these two storied English clubs anticipated, and a vulnerable air surrounds both.
That is most obviously true for Liverpool, which have backed up by their runners-up spot last season by winning just six of their first 16 Premier League games and having already been knocked out of the Champions League. The verve which they displayed against Arsenal has been sorely absent all season. Of course much of that can be put down to the departure of Luis Suarez, who didn’t score in the 5-1 demolition but was still arguably the most influential figure in exploiting Arsenal’s shambolic defending.
The pace of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge was the key feature of Liverpool’s surge in the second half of last season and saw manager Brendan Rodgers alter his tactics to maximize their impact. Previously a coach who stressed possession of the ball above all else, Liverpool became a devastating counter-punching team. Indeed, in that victory against Arsenal, as well as their most noteworthy other wins in that spell -- against Manchester City and Everton -- they had significantly less possession than their opponents.
This season, in the absence of both Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool’s possession percentage has gone back up, but their number of goals scored and their results have deteriorated. Liverpool spent serious money in the summer trying to overcome the loss of Suarez, but their biggest signing was Adam Lallana, a technical player suited to a short passing rather than quick-breaking style. It begs the question whether last season’s success was Rodgers showing his tactical acumen and flexibility to get the best out of the tools at his disposal, or whether he simply rode a Suarez-inspired wave of momentum. Can he achieve success at the top level with his dominant tactical philosophy and without a superstar in the form of his life?
For the time being, he surely deserves the benefit of the doubt. And in the past two matches there have been signs of life. Switching to a 3-4-3 formation, Liverpool have looked more dangerous going forward than they have in some time. The defense remains a major concern, as evidence by a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, but Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Bournemouth to move into the Capital One Cup semifinals at last gave Liverpool fans something to smile about.
Arsenal, fans, too have been in improved spirits in recent days. There were boos after a chastening defeat by Stoke City, but a week later 4-1 victories over both Galatasaray and Newcastle United brought cheers back to the Emirates Stadium and some welcome respite for manager Arsene Wenger.
Yet the more cynical supporters could be forgiven for wondering whether anything has really changed -- in the past week, or indeed for the past several seasons. Arsenal played some brilliant attacking soccer in the second half against Newcastle. Some of the linkup play between Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud was a joy to behold, resulting in special goals for Cazorla and Giroud. But being perhaps the most aesthetically-pleasing team in the Premier League is nothing new for Arsenal when going up against sides, like Newcastle, who offer precious little resistance. That has been enough to garner Champions League qualification for a hugely impressive 17 successive seasons. But a real title challenge remains elusive, derailed each time by crumbling when the pressure is on, both from the magnitude of the contest and the play of the opposition
The 5-1 defeat to Liverpool was followed in the remainder of the season by a 6-0 annihilation at Chelsea and 3-0 loss at Everton. Wenger still has to show that he has learnt the lessons of those capitulations and that, as in his early years at Arsenal, he can setup a resilient team as well as a beautiful one.
It is doubtful that Liverpool will present the kind of challenge to test that on Sunday, although going to Anfield and emerging with a win would still be a major fillip. And, while Arsenal fans may be frustrated with the consistency of third and fourth place finishes, that could well spark some envy among a Liverpool team that have followed up their season of thrills with one in which they languish in the bottom half of the table.
Team News Liverpool: Dejan Lovren is a doubt with a groin injury suffered in the midweek win over Bournemouth. If the center-back fails to recover, the fit again Mamadou Sakho is likely to come in. Mario Balotelli misses out through a one-match suspension.
Arsenal: Late decisions will be made over the fitness of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nacho Monreal and Theo Walcott. Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny are still out.
Prediction: Given that Liverpool’s defense remains less than convincing and Brad Jones offers perhaps even less security in goal than Simon Mignolet, while Arsenal are still missing key man Koscielny, it would be a major surprise were there not goals at both ends in this fixture. Arsenal’s attack certainly has much more going for it than Liverpool’s currently, helped by Giroud’s return adding another dimension to accompany the pace and creativity around him. Liverpool, though, have shown signs of rediscovering their zest. Raheem Sterling is not a natural striker, but he is a real threat, and the equally pacey Lazar Markovic is beginning to find his feet. At Anfield, Liverpool could secure an encouraging point.
Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. EST