The holiday fixtures have been the gifts that keep giving to Liverpool, who suddenly find themselves six points clear atop the Premier League at the halfway point of the season.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
They look to maintain that gap and continue their unbeaten ways Saturday at Anfield against an Arsenal side encountering that first prolonged stretch of patchy play under first-year manager Unai Emery.
While no one has coronated Liverpool (16-3-0) champions – especially since they are the only team over the past decade to fail to win the Premier League when atop the table at Christmas – some of the tension that came with overtaking Manchester City has ebbed as the reigning title-holders have lost back-to-back matches in the always-demanding holiday fixture run.
The upshot for Jurgen Klopp’s side is they are seven points clear of City as new challengers Tottenham Hotspur are their closest pursuers – but still six points back of the Reds. Liverpool maintained the status quo of their best Premier League start with a clinical 4-0 hiding of former manager Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United on Boxing Day.
Mohamed Salah broke open a close game shortly after halftime when he drew and converted a penalty on 47 minutes to make it 2-0. Liverpool added some gloss to the scoreline in the final quarter-hour as Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho added markers, with the latter netting his first goal since arriving from Monaco this summer.
“A pretty perfect day for us; not a perfect performance, but a really good performance,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website post-match. “Result-wise and a lot of parts of the performance, really good.”
It was Klopp’s 100th victory at Liverpool in all competitions, but the lopsided scoreline Wednesday also gave them an equal goal difference with City. The teams play each other at the Etihad on Jan. 3 in what could very well be a make-or-break match for Pep Guardiola’s side to repeat as Premier League champions, but the Reds boss refuses to make anything more of the match at the moment with a top-five Arsenal squad serving as a precursor to that showdown.
“It means nothing. We play Arsenal and City (in our next two games), so it’s good that we have six or seven points more than other teams. But that’s pretty much all,” Klopp said about the table at the moment. “What we wanted to do all the time (was) create a situation, a basis for the rest of the season and now the first part of the season is over.
“What we said as well is that we want to create our own history. We are the first Liverpool team in the Premier League to be unbeaten in 19 matches – a little history and a nice step. (We have) conceded seven goals – all really, really good numbers. A good situation, that’s clear, but 19 games to go.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold, who assisted on Shaqiri’s goal, made his return at right back after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury. The expectation is Klopp will retain his 4-2-3-1 set-up for this match, with Fabinho and Giorginio Wijnaldum his central midfielders as he has for the last two high-profile league matches versus Everton and Manchester United. They, along with centre back Virgil Van Dijk, have been key linchpins in helping Liverpool record seven clean sheets in nine league matches at Anfield (8-1-0) while outscoring opponent 22-2.
Though he has scored just two goals in his last 15 league matches, Klopp is expected to keep Roberto Firmino in the middle of his three across since his nous and movements off the ball give Salah, Shaqiri and Sadio Mane the space to operate throughout the final third.
Salah, on the other hand, has found a rich vein of form with six goals and two assists in his last five matches in all competitions. The Egypt international is tied with Tottenham’s Harry Kane for second with 12 goals in league play, trailing only Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (13).
Speaking of Aubameyang, he too is in splendid form as his seventh-minute goal Wednesday was his third in the last two games. Arsenal (11-5-3), however, failed to build on that early marker and was held to a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion. It was a frustrating match all around for the Gunners, who are 1-1-2 since having their 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions end at relegation-threatened Southampton earlier this month.
“I think the key to the match today was the first 45 minutes, when we controlled the match as we wanted to,” Emery explained post-match. “We scored and we had the advantage, with another two good chances for Aubameyang to get the second. Their goalkeeper saved with two good actions and from then, they equalised.
“In the second half we tried again to control the match, to create the chances, but we didn’t do that. We had control with possession but not with creating chances against them. It wasn’t enough to win the game today.”
If there was good news for Arsenal in addition to the point gained, it was holding midfielder Lucas Torreira did not pick up a fifth yellow card that would have forced him to sit out this match. Emery is still mixing and matching personnel along his back line, with Said Kolasinac and Sokratis seemingly the only consistent fixtures at left back and centre back, respectively.
By the end of Wednesday’s match, Granit Xhaka was playing centre back after serving as the base of a midfield diamond in front of Arsenal’s back four the first 70 minutes.
Though midfielder Mesut Ozil made way for Alex Iwobi at halftime, Emery said that decision was more tactical than anything the former Germany international did or did not do on the pitch in the first 45 minutes. Still, much will be made if Emery sits Ozil against a high-profile opponent as he has for the two matches against Tottenham Hotspur.
Iwobi, though, did set up Lacazette’s equaliser on 82 minutes in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in November when Emery opted to attack for the point by sending in Iwobi, Aaron Ramsey and since-injured Danny Welbeck to play with Ozil, Lacazette, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the final 22 minutes of that 1-1 draw.
James Milner had given Liverpool the lead just after the hour at the Emirates prior to Lacazette’s match-tying marker.
Liverpool are unbeaten in their last seven league matches (3-4-0) versus Arsenal since a 4-1 loss in 2015. The Gunners are winless in their last five trips to Anfield (0-2-3) since a 2-0 win in the 2012-13 season and are 6-8-13 there in all competitions in the Premier League era.
Per Bet365, Liverpool are commanding 1/2 favourites to continue their winning ways with another three points, with Arsenal’s form of late consigning them to 6/1 underdogs at Anfield. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 15/4.
Oddsmakers are expecting a substantial goal haul, with 8/15 odds the teams will clear the 2.5 goal threshold unlike the reverse fixture at Emirates, and 6/4 odds for a second such low-scoring result. There are also 8/13 odds on both teams scoring in this match, with 6/5 odds on at least one team posting a clean sheet.
Salah’s form has made him the first goal-scorer favourite with 3/1 odds, followed by Daniel Sturridge (7/2). Fellow Liverpool substitute Divock Origi completes the top three at 9/2, while Mane and Firmino are 5/1 options to give the Reds a 1-0 lead. Aubameyang is the top pick of the Gunners at 11/2, closely followed by Shaqiri (6/1). Arsenal striker Lacazaette is a few notches back at 8/1.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the Egypt international offers a 4/6 return on a goal, while Sturridge is also better than even money at 5/6. Origi is just off that standard at 11/10, and both Firmino and Mane are again joined together at 5/4. Aubameyang, the Premier League’s leading scorer, is a 7/5 pick to continue his goal-scoring exploits, edging out Shaqiri at 6/4. Lacazette lurks further back at 21/10, while the much-discussed and mercurial Ozil offers a 4/1 return for a goal.
There are certain things about both lineups that are in a state of flux. While Fabinho and Wijnaldum have been the defensive midfield axis for Liverpool, it would not be surprising to see Jordan Henderson replace either of them in the first XI as Klopp ponders his options.
Arsenal’s four-man back for this match could wind up morphing into a five as Xhaka could sit deeper in the midfield to help Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis with the added benefit of shielding right back Stephan Lichtsteiner from the meancing pace of Mane. Since Liverpool do not have a No. 10 who can spray passes to their attacking four — the Reds are more of a possession and carry team offensively — how Wijnaldum and Fabinho deal with Guendouzi and Torreira nipping at their heels will likely shape how this match plays out.
Something else to watch will be what Klopp’s patience level with Firmino is. No one argues the Brasil international is tactically astute and the consummate teammate for all his selflessness up front. But at some point, the goals have to come. If the match is tied at halftime, would Klopp introduce Sturridge? It’s something worth pondering considering Firmino’s form.
Aubameyang and Lacazette will prove a handful for Van Dijk, who has answered almost every challenge thrown at him in the year since he made the move from Southampton. The Dutch international has comfortably combined with Dejan Lovren in central defence like he has done with injured predecessors Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, and keeping Aubameyang from finding any half-chance will be important.
For all the talk about whether or not Ozil plays, it is hard to see where Ramsey is going to impact the game aside from his tireless two-way play. If Emery is going to use all three of his defensive midfielders, it is essentially conceding the hope for a draw in which Arsenal are going to play deep and try to hit on the counter. Injuries have limited Emery’s flexibility to a great degree, but it also feels counterproductive to not have Lacazette serve as a solo striker and play more narrow to give Aubameyang and Ramsey chances to operate in the final third.
Arsenal showed plenty of bravery in taking the fight to Liverpool late in the reverse fixture, but this match appears a bridge too far for the Gunners as they become the latest team to fall to the Jurgen Klopp juggernaut.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 3, Arsenal 0.