Liverpool thrashed Arsenal at Anfield earlier this season and will therefore be hopeful of getting their Christmas period off to a good start when the two teams meet again at the Emirates on Friday (19:45 GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Arsene Wenger was openly critical of his players following that 4-0 defeat in August, saying that they were not physically, technically or mentally at the right level to compete with a Liverpool side who ripped through them at ease and scored twice in each half to take victory.
It was a crushing defeat and one that raised fresh questions over the club’s decision to extend Wenger’s contract for a further two seasons at the end of the previous campaign. Many felt that Arsenal’s failure to finish in the top four for the first time in 21 seasons had provided ample excuse to part ways with the long-reigning Frenchman, but he continued nevertheless.
The result has been an Arsenal side who again look equipped to hang onto the back of the top four and compete for such a finish over the course of the campaign but who still look unlikely to take a step forward to again challenge for the league title – a prize they last won back in 2004. The Europa League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup, the last mentioned of whose last four they reached with a 1-0 win over West Ham on Tuesday, will provide opportunities for silverware.
Familiar frailties persist, the most striking of which is Arsenal’s inability to manage away matches. In nine road games so far this season, they have taken just nine points. That is comfortably the worst record among the realistic top-four challengers. In both attack and in defence, they perform significantly worse away from the Emirates.
The Gunners have some very talented players, particularly in forward areas, and they seem to have found a more successful formula on home soil. There, Arsenal have the third-best record in the Premier League, with eight wins and one defeat in nine matches.
That will, though, be balanced on Friday by just how good Liverpool’s recent away form has been. Their 4-0 win at Bournemouth last weekend saw them become the first team in top-flight history to win four consecutive away matches by a margin of three or more goals. West Ham (4-1), Stoke (3-0) and Brighton (5-1) were the previous victims.
It wasn’t the hardest run of games, as illustrated by the fact that all four teams are currently within just three points of the bottom three, but the manner in which Liverpool brushed their opponents aside provided further evidence of the strength of their attack. The Reds are one of only three teams to have averaged over two goals per match so far this season.
Mohamed Salah has played a key role in that. The Egyptian international is the current Premier League top scorer, with 14 goals in 18 appearances. His pace and power has added another dimension to an already impressive forward line. With Philippe Coutinho in excellent form and Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino likewise, Liverpool offer a potent and varied threat.
The problem is that opponents have started to take strong precautionary measures, particularly away at Anfield. Liverpool probably created enough chances to down both Everton and West Bromwich Albion in recent draws, 1-1 and 0-0 respectively, but they certainly found them more difficult to break down than most of their road opponents. The more open the opposition, the more space the rapid Liverpool attack have to exploit.
Indeed, Arsenal’s willingness to try and play their normal game probably contributed to their thrashing in the first fixture between the teams. Even on home soil, the Gunners took a more cautious initial approach against Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby last month and they can be expected to similarly modify their game-plan on Friday. They, too, are capable of springing forth quickly in transition with an in-form front three.
This is, then, poised to be interesting cat and mouse encounter and certainly a more even affair than the match at Anfield. Things are likely to open up as game progresses but a draw still looks the most likely result.