Finely balanced: Fans await Arteta’s art-and-guile versus Klopp’s clobber-a-club football stye at Emirates

Finely balanced: Fans await Arteta’s art-and-guile versus Klopp’s clobber-a-club football stye at Emirates


First takes on ninth as Jurgen Klopp’s struggling Liverpool travel to the Emirates Stadium in London to go to war with Mikel Arteta’s league-leading Arsenal. If you were told this at the beginning of the campaign, you could be forgiven for believing that it was a poor attempt at a practical joke. The roles have virtually been reversed compared to last season however.

Now, Arsenal look to be the only side capable of challenging Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled Man City machine, led by an apex predator up top who feasts only on goals in Erling Haaland.

In the first eight league games, the North Londoners have accumulated seven victories, losing just once which came away at Old Trafford in a 3-1 defeat.

However, Liverpool will have a point to prove and will want to put a dent in Arsenal’s hopes of winning the Premier League for the first time since the Invincibles feat in 2004. Speaking about Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive issues has become rather tedious over the past 12 months.

Yes, the England international has weaknesses and a peculiar tendency not to check his shoulder for runners in behind but the full-back’s offensive importance for the Reds far outweighs any deficiencies.

To the defender’s credit, quite a lot of the criticism spewed towards him is primarily a tactical issue due to the intense, yet risky nature of Klopp’s style of play. Prior to the draw against Brighton last weekend, the German coach came out strongly to defend his player for what he believes has been a false labelling of blame.

Klopp said, “We have the way we play, in our high press, very often Trent is the highest of all the three in the back. That’s the way we play football. If you want to press, you have to have players in certain positions. It’s a risk we take, it’s not a crazy risk but in the one moment where we don’t win [the ball], people ask where is Trent?”

Well, essentially, when Liverpool are attacking, Alexander-Arnold is the highest positioned out of the entire back four, often sitting really high up the pitch, allowing him to be impactful in the final third.

This leaves the English giants exposed during opposition counter-attacks, especially down the side of the centre-backs, causing the central defenders to get dragged out to the wide areas of the pitch where they are less comfortable. Brighton, Napoli and Ajax all recognised this very issue in recent weeks.

Each team scored incredibly similar goals during transitional moments, exploiting Alexander-Arnold’s higher positioning. Klopp showed a stubbornness this season that may have caused his side several points already in all competitions.

The 55-year-old held a firm belief in his methods even when things had gone quite stale for the Reds. Liverpool attacked in the same way as they have done so successfully during the coach’s tenure. Unfortunately, the structure had gone rather stale and opponents knew how to exploit the team’s tactical frailties.

The draw against Robert De Zerbi’s Seagulls forced Klopp’s hand. Change was needed, and it came in the 2-0 victory over Rangers in Europe under the Anfield lights in midweek.

While the visitors had already been struggling in the Champions League, credit must be given to Liverpool’s players and coaches. The six-time winners of the competition looked far more secured during defensive counter-attacking moments.

This was because Alexander-Arnold was held in a deeper position by the manager, with left-back Kostas Tsimikas given license to move further up the pitch. Often, the shape resembled a back three, with the right-back tucking inside.

The primary issue for Liverpool is that this newfound shape has been untested against quality opposition. Versus the lightning quick speed of Gabriel Martinelli, Klopp’s tactical tweak will either sink or swim.

What is worrying for Liverpool is that this won’t be the first time Martinelli has come up against this type of structure with a full-back tucked inside, making light work of Diogo Dalot a few weeks back at Old Trafford despite Arsenal losing 3-1 to Manchester United.

The battle between Martinelli and Alexander-Arnold will be influential in deciding the result this Sunday. With a massive weight on his shoulders to impress, Nunez’s time at Anfield got off to a flier as the ex-Benfica man scored in his first two official competitions for the Reds.

However, limited game-time and a three-match suspension in just his second Premier League outing have left Nunez struggling for form. On Tuesday, as Liverpool got back to winning ways by swatting Rangers at home, Nunez was named in the starting line-up for the first time since the goalless Merseyside derby at the beginning of September.

In fact, this was merely Nunez’s third start in a red shirt since his transfer from Benfica.

Overall, the expensive striker put in a great shift off the ball and ran the channels really well. Nunez constantly caused chaos with his runs in behind Rangers’ backline as Liverpool created several chances by slipping balls through to the No9.

Unfortunately, it was yet another night where the 22-year-old fired blanks and was unable to get himself on the scoresheet, but the attacker did manage to get into excellent goalscoring positions. It seems rather inevitable that Nunez will begin bagging more consistently in the near future due to the high chances that the striker gets.

The trip to Arsenal tomorrow presents the perfect opportunity for Liverpool’s shiny new toy to do so. The Gunners’ defensive depth may actually play into the forward’s hands. Nunez shares a lot of similarities with Romelu Lukaku in terms of his strengths and weaknesses.

Both lack a quality first-touch and are often misinterpreted for being strong target men, capable of holding the ball up when, in reality, running into space beyond the backline is where the duo feast the most.

Mikel Arteta is adamant that his players must defend on the front foot, pressing high and condensing space between the lines, with the defence pushing right up to the halfway line. As Spurs did in the first half of the North London derby last weekend, Liverpool will look to feed Nunez in the space left by Arsenal’s high line, especially during attacking transitions.

The hosts’ goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale must ensure he is ready to pounce from outside his box to sweep up balls in behind to Nunez.

Granit Xhaka has always been a polarising figure at the Emirates. A love-hate relationship with the supporters has sweetened over the past 12 months as the Switzerland international has now become a fan-favourite for his heroic performances on the pitch.

During Arteta’s tenure in the dugout, Xhaka has been used as a bit of a Swiss-army knife, if you’ll pardon the pun. In the past, the former captain has been deployed as a left-back, a centre-back, a lone No.6 and in a double-pivot.

However, since the manager shifted Arsenal’s shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, Xhaka has been pushed forward and has become a more advanced midfielder, operating between the lines. At first, this seemed like it would never work. Xhaka is a wonderful passer of the ball and has an innate ability to rattle the back of the net from range, but the former Borussia Monchengladbach star doesn’t perform well in tight pockets of space.

Contrasting Xhaka to Martin Odegaard or even Fabio Vieira who are both excellent and are highly nimble between the lines, it seemed as though the Swiss midfielder was going to struggle to execute Arteta’s tactical instructions.

Nevertheless, this hasn’t been the case. In fact, Xhaka’s higher positioning in the left half-space has made Arsenal much more dangerous in the final third as the veteran has linked up really well with Martinelli and the left-back on his side, regardless of whether Oleksandr Zinchenko plays or else Kieran Tierney.

The Gunners have been able to use the intelligence and passing range of Xhaka to break down deep-lying defensive blocks this season, making the midfielder a very useful asset for the league-leaders in the attacking third of the pitch.

The best example of Xhaka’s creative qualities unlocking a low block was during Arsenal’s cosy 3-0 victory over Brentford. Having received a square pass from Tierney on the left, Xhaka scanned the penalty area, waiting for the Bees’ backline to step up and close him down.

Once they did, the versatile Swiss general lofted the ball over the top of the defence towards Jesus who was back-pedalling. The Brazilian headed it home for Arsenal’s second of the game.

Liverpool need to find a way to shut Xhaka down to limit his influence on Arsenal’s ability to progress the ball from deep and be involved in the final third. Jordan Henderson, despite heavy criticism recently, could be the perfect option to mark Xhaka and stifle his influence on Arsenal’s attacking play.

Both teams have strengths, but both also have weaknesses which should make for an electric affair in North London to prefix Manchester United’s trip to Merseyside to face Everton on Sunday night.

Losing the game won’t be the end of the world for either side. However, a victory for the Gunners would show the world that Arteta’s men are to be taken as serious title challengers this season, while three points for Liverpool would put Klopp’s strugglers back on course to climb the table after a rocky start.

Arsenal versus Liverpool has always provided entertainment to the masses and this weekend should be no different.

  • The Sun report
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