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Arsenal v Liverpool: Three key battles to watch at the Emirates

After their pulsating draw before Christmas where Liverpool must have wondered how they didn’t nick a late winner after their five-on-two counter-attack saw Trent Alexander-Arnold smash the crossbar, the pair met again weeks later in the FA Cup.

Arsenal were much the better side on that occasion only to find themselves dumped out by two late goals. 

Arsenal’s form has left them on the outside of the title race with Liverpool now Manchester City’s closest challengers.

A draw doesn’t do much good for either side and we may be in for an unforgettable meeting in North London.

We look at three key battles ahead of Sunday’s clash.

Arsenal v Liverpool

Declan Rice v Dominik Szoboszlai

It does look like Arsenal are going to come up short again in the title race, barring a remarkable second half of the season. Even winning every single game would only get them to 94 points and with Manchester City around, that’s not guaranteed to be enough.

For a while it looked like their new-look midfield with Declan Rice able to do something of a holding job on his own and Kai Havertz providing more attacking threat alongside Martin Odegaard would fire them to another title race, but too many dropped points over Christmas likely killed off their title bid.

Not that Rice can shoulder much blame. His talents have been well known for a long time, and in commanding a £100m fee over the summer, no one should’ve been surprised to see him performing at a high level for Arsenal.

But the former West Ham man has been outstanding. His relentless work ethic virtually provides an extra half a player for Mikel Arteta, putting out fires before they ignite. He’s also been able to come up with a goal, and will be key on Sunday evening.

Liverpool’s side still looks somewhat unbalanced, even if they’ve found themselves in the title race. Alexis Mac Allister or Wataru Endo have been asked to play holding roles, while Trent Alexander-Arnold has been allowed to drift into midfield. It’s given Dominik Szoboszlai the role of creator, and it’s one he’s excelled in.

Like Rice, we shouldn’t be surprised at his performances considering he cost around £65m, but Szoboszlai’s enjoying a fine debut season in the Premier League.

The Hungarian has a real knack for moving the ball into dangerous positions and ranks well in a number of areas:

StatPremier League rank
Carries into Final Third9th
Progressive Carry Distance*15th
Key Passes19th
Shot Creating Actions20th
Progressive Passing Distance*20th
Progressive Passes23rd

All stats per 90, minimum 10.0 90s

*Excluding defenders and goalkeepers

Though the Hungarian only has three goals and two assists so far, if Rice can keep him quiet, he’ll go a long way to keeping Liverpool quiet.

William Saliba v Darwin Nunez

The weekly stat about how long it had now been since Virgil van Dijk had been dribbled past was been transferred to William Saliba (though Van Dijk appears to have regained his crown).

It’s not that Saliba is constantly winning tackles, but that he’s from the Paolo Maldini school of ‘if I have to make a tackle, I’ve already made a mistake’. Saliba’s excellence comes from his impeccable positioning, and that when he does commit to a tackle, he makes sure it’s a duel he wins (Saliba’s 92.9% tackle success rate is the highest of all 218 to have played a minute in the Premier League this season)

Darwin Nunez, meanwhile, continues to defy every statistical metric to stop himself being an elite goalscorer.

He leads the league in big chances missed and against Chelsea conspired to hit the woodwork four times. Nobody in the entire season has managed it more than three times, while the Uruguayan took his tally to nine for the current campaign.

Liverpool’s Captain Chaos may be a figure of fun at times but he’s a constant headache for defenders, whether cutting in from the left or playing through the middle, and Saliba will likely be no different on Sunday.

Bukayo Saka v Andrew Robertson

Though rival fans may try put Bukayo Saka down, there’s no getting away from the fact he’s one of the most effective wingers in the league. Only six players have more than Saka’s 13 goals and assists in the league this season, and those 13 goal contributions haven’t been bunched up in a handful of games, but across 13 different matches with only Mohamed Salah contributing in more games this season.

Jurgen Klopp has been without Andrew Robertson for nearly three months and Kostas Tsimikas since before Christmas, leaving Joe Gomez to deputise at left-back.

Robertson returned against Chelsea, getting 21 minutes under his belt, though it remains to be seen whether Klopp will deem him match-ready for the trip to the Emirates. 

The Reds boss either goes with a makeshift left-back in Gomez or one who might not be 100% fit in Robertson; either way, Saka should be looking forward to the contest.

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