Arsenal and Liverpool head into Sunday’s tie at Anfield faced with a host of mutual problems. Underwhelming performances in their first two matches of the new season laid bare their deficiencies, on the field and off. Even at this early juncture, the lack of consistent goal scorers and reliable defenders, along with the potential departures of their star players, is casting a shadow over both clubs.
Arsenal’s need for a dependable frontman is an ongoing problem. Since the departure of Thierry Henry a decade ago, only three players have notched twenty goals in a league season. Henry managed the feat five of six seasons preceding his departure. Adding Alexandre Lacazette to an attacking stable featuring Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck means Arsene Wenger is not short of options. All three scored in Arsenal’s dramatic season-opening win over Leicester to raise expectations, but drew blanks in the 1-0 loss against Stoke City.
Liverpool face the same issue. Since blitzing the league in the 2013/14 season, which saw Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge score 31 and 21 respectively, no Liverpool player has managed more than 13 goals in a league season. The Reds added to their attacking options by signing Mohamed Salah, but are not linked with a move for an outright forward. Sturridge can be highly effective when fit; however, his history of injury problems makes relying on his goals risky. Divock Origi, the other clear option up front, appears out of favor with Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool started well with three goals against Watford, but managed only a solitary—gifted even—goal versus Crystal Palace.
At their best, both Arsenal and Liverpool have enough attacking talent to see off lesser sides even without a prolific forward. It is against opponents able to neutralize the dynamic movement of their front players that the presence of a center forward of reliable quality can make the difference. The timely goals of Diego Costa and Jamie Vardy, to take the most recent examples, were crucial for Chelsea and Leicester on their way to the title.
Despite the lack of a proven Premier League forward, the real problems for both sides are at the back. Arsenal opened the season with a makeshift back line that promptly conceded three to Leicester. A better performance against Stoke came to nothing thanks to a lack of cutting edge. Admittedly, those sides fielded were without veterans Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, and Shkodran Mustafi. Wenger will be hoping their ability and influence will tighten things up, but all featured in the last campaign when defensive lapses were a common occurrence. New signing Sead Kolasinac has made a noteworthy start, but it remains to be seen what role he will play when Wenger has a fully fit squad. There are still doubts about the manager’s commitment to a 3-4-3 formation as well. If results fail to improve, he may feel the need to scrap the experiment.
Liverpool also conceded three to Watford week one, and the Reds’ need for a commanding central defender was plain to see. Static defending, particularly on set-pieces, and an overall lack of discipline doomed their effort at a comeback. Jurgen Klopp’s side’s Champions League qualifying match forced changes in week two against Crystal Palace; only Joël Matip started both times. The improved defensive showing, with newly-signed left back Andy Robertson the standout performer, will leave Klopp with more questions than answers. With consistency paramount in defense, the German still seems unsure of his best back four.
The two clubs share problems behind the scenes as well. Critical to either competing for the title this season is holding on to their top players. Unfortunately for both, they face significant challenges in this area.
Arsenal hope to have Alexis Sánchez, who has yet to play due to injury, in the lineup to face Liverpool. However, his future at the club remains clouded by uncertainty. After Arsenal missed out on Champions League football with their fifth place finish, the Chilean stoked rumors of a transfer when he voiced his desire to play in the elite competition. Manchester City, where Sánchez would reunite with old boss Pep Guardiola, and Paris Saint-Germain are the clubs most interested in his services. With Arsenal reluctant to sell to a direct rival like City, and PSG hampered by Financial Fair Play rules stemming from the Neymar deal, a transfer may not happen this year. Sánchez is out of contract next summer, and though it would most likely put paid to title hopes this campaign, it may make more sense long-term to cash in now.
Liverpool are fending off repeated offers from Barcelona for Philippe Coutinho. As the Reds’ chief creator, the Brazilian is the genesis of much of the side’s attacking play. His departure would be devastating. Much to the club’s chagrin, Coutinho seems eager to leave, handing in, or rather emailing, a transfer request despite being told he will not be sold. Barça are reportedly preparing a fourth and final bid worth upwards of £130m, and Coutinho is said to be ready to make a public statement in an attempt to force a transfer. Liverpool may just be holding out for the maximum fee.
Whatever the result at Anfield on Sunday, these problems will linger on. Neither side has yet shown that they learned from the mistakes of last season. They once again seem incapable of putting a solid defensive performance together with a formidable attacking display. These inconsistent performances coupled with transfer troubles may find both these teams outside the top four come the end of the campaign.
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