Arsenal and Liverpool face off in the Premier League on Saturday in a game where victory could well be a necessity if they are to secure their bare minimum aims for the season. The visitors to the Emirates Stadium could find themselves needing to make up an eight point gap on fourth place by the time they kick-off at 3pm E.T. whilst the Gunners have a sizeable clutch of clubs to clamber over if they are to have any hope of European football through their league finish.
This game has brought more goals and more hat-tricks, 166 of the former and six of the latter, than any other fixture in the Premier League and rarely fails to deliver drama. Here are some bold predictions…
Firmino will score…
Roberto Firmino anytime goalscorer: +290 (odds via William Hill sportsbook)
Some things in life are just immutable. As sure as night follows day so the dawning of a fixture against Arsenal will see Roberto Firmino transform into a hybrid of Ronaldo Fenomeno and Cristiano Ronaldo to bully his way past whichever hapless defender falls in his path. In 11 Premier League meetings against the Gunners Firmino has eight goals and three assists. No team has conceded more to the Brazilian.
Admittedly, Firmino is on a three game dry streak against his favored opponents (four if you count the glorified friendly that is the Community Shield) and was not at his best when Liverpool won 3-1 at Anfield earlier in the season. Equally, he has hardly set the league alight in 2021, where his struggles mirrored those of his team-mates as he scored one goal and provided two assists as the Reds’ title defense fell into a scramble to get back into the Champions League.
That has been tied into a wider narrative of Firmino’s decline, and rumors that his spot in the team is ripe for upgrade come the summer. It may be true that he is not the same force he was in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season, when his attacking output was not that far off Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Now he is not scoring with such regularity but he continues to get in similar good positions to put the ball in the net, his per 90 expected goals (xG, a measure of the likelihood any shot results in a goal) in the Premier League this season sits at 0.4 compared to 0.47 two years ago. Indeed he is taking better quality shots this term than his best scoring campaign for Liverpool (17-18) when his xG per 90 was 0.35.
Even if he is not what he once was he is not a bad striker by the standards of the Premier League, rather one who has gone through something of a cold streak where chances he once would have pounced on are going wasted. A return to a happy hunting ground might be all it takes to get back in the groove.
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…And so will Aubameyang
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang anytime goalscorer: +145 (odds via William Hill sportsbook)
Even Firmino’s struggles have not attracted the same column inches as the perceived difficulties of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has scored just nine Premier League goals so far this season and is at risk of his worst domestic return in a season in a decade. That it has come after he signed a major new contract at the Emirates Stadium has prompted all the more concern and rancor.
It does not help that in recent games he has missed high profile chances against Olympiacos or been missing entirely, as was the case when Mikel Arteta dropped him for the north London derby after he arrived late to the team meet-up. Add to that that for most of the season Arsenal struggled to get him the ball in areas where he could be effective; before his manager’s eureka moment on Boxing Day Aubameyang had the 153rd most touches in the final third per 90 of players who had played five Premier League games. It was little wonder he found the net so infrequently.
Since Christmas that has changed, at least somewhat. Aubameyang is finally getting back into spots where he can make a difference. Having registered 0.23 xG per 90 in the Premier League and Europa League before Christmas he is now back up to 0.77 xG per 90. On both occasions he has found the net at a comparable rate. His domestic league xG per 90 since Christmas 0.66) far outstrips what he produced last season (0.43) and is nearer to his Golden Boot-winning 2018-19 campaign.
There are no signs of decline and crucially he is getting to his spot on the pitch, the left hand spot in the penalty area between its edge and the defensive line, around 14 meters from goal, where there is a cluster of four shots on the graphic above. Aubameyang shoots from there like Damian Lillard does from the logo. It should not be as effective a shot as he makes it seem.
So while Aubameyang has had some off days of late, those are to be expected of any striker, even one of his caliber. There is no reason to think he will not be back among the goals very soon.
Arsenal’s defensive woes ease
Liverpool under 1.5 goals: -135 (odds via William Hill sportsbook)
Not since January 30 have Arsenal kept a clean sheet and in 2021 the only teams they have beaten without conceding are Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion. It does not make for pretty reading for Arteta, yet equally it is hard to deny that the Gunners have taken significant strides defensively under their coach this season.
Arsenal have the league’s fifth best defensive record in terms of goals conceded and its sixth best in terms of opponent xG. David Luiz, Rob Holding, Pablo Mari and Gabriel have all had fine performances on occasion this season, the latter in particular has looked like a building block at the back for years to come in his best moments. The issue is that they and those ahead of them have developed a worrying habit of late of handing basic goals to their opponents, from a loose Dani Ceballos pass in both Europa League ties they have played so far to switching off from a free-kick to allow West Ham to score the second of three goals they netted in 32 remarkable minutes at the London Stadium last month.
“One of [the areas that we need to improve] is related to the attention and focus that you need during the whole game,” Arteta said. “For example, the way we conceded the second goal against West Ham, where we turned our backs on a free-kick close to our box, is something that we cannot do. It just gives a goal to the opponent.
“And there’s also the other face, that we really like, the way the team played and reacted, the character we showed and the quality that we provided on the day to come back against a really good opponent from three goals behind.”
So why predict that this will improve? In large part because Arsenal are proving they are a good defensive team that make careless errors that can theoretically be easily coached out of them. Arteta has had that time over the international break, a two week period where of his regular defenders only Kieran Tierney and Cedric Soares have been with their national teams. The rest will have had a fortnight of recuperation after a mentally grueling period mixed with being drilled on the training ground. It is a positive blend to ease defensive issues.