Arsenal and Liverpool face off in the Premier League on Saturday in a game where victory could mannered be a necessity whether they’re to safe their naked minimum aims for the season. The visitors to the Emirates Stadium could find themselves needing to make up an eight point hole on fourth place by the point they kick-off at 3pm E.T. whilst the Gunners have a sizeable clutch of clubs to clamber over whether they’re 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 certain as night follows day so the dawning of a fixture against Arsenal will see Roberto Firmino develop into 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 whether you count the glorified friendly that’s the Community Shield) and used to be 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 given two assists as the Reds’ title defense fell into a scramble to receive back into the Champions League.
That has been tied into a wider a story of Firmino’s decline, and rumors that his spot in the team is ripe for upgrade come the summer. It can be true that he’s not the same force he used to be in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season, when his attacking output used to be not that far off Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Now he isn’t scoring with such regularity but he continues to receive in similar good positions to put the ball in the net, his per 90 expected goals (xG, a measure of the likelihood any shot leads to a goal) in the Premier League this season sits at 0.4 in comparison to 0.47 two years ago. Indeed he’s taking better quality shots this term than his best scoring crusade for Liverpool (17-18) when his xG per 90 used to be 0.35.
Even supposing he isn’t what he once used to be he isn’t a naughty striker by the standards of the Premier League, fairly one who has gone through something of a bloodless 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 receive 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 the entire more concern and rancor.
It does not help that in recent games he has missed high profile chances against Olympiacos or been lacking entirely, as used to be 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 lots of the season Arsenal struggled to receive 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 last third per 90 of players who had played five Premier League games. It used to be little wonder he found the net so now and again.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s shots in the Premier League and Europa League since Christmas Day. Bubble size reflects the expected goals value of each and every effort.
Since Christmas that has changed, a minimum of moderately. Aubameyang is in any case 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’s 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 final season (0.43) and is nearer to his Golden Boot-winning 2018-19 crusade.
There are no signs of decline and crucially he’s 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’s a cluster of four shots on the graphic above. Aubameyang shoots from there like Damian Lillard does from the logo. It will have to 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 not any reason to think he might not be back a number of 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’ve beaten without conceding are Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion. It does not make for pretty reading for Arteta, yet equally it is tough to disclaim that the Gunners have taken remarkable strides defensively under their coach this season.
Arsenal have the league’s fifth best defensive record relating to goals conceded and its sixth best relating to opponent xG. David Luiz, Rob Holding, Pablo Mari and Gabriel have all had fine performances now and again this season, the latter in specific has seemed like a building block at the back for years yet 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’ve played so far to switching off from a free-kick to allow West Ham to score the second one of three goals they netted in 32 significant minutes at the London Stadium final month.
“One of [the areas that we need to improve] is related to the attention and focus that you wish to have throughout the whole game,” Arteta said. “For instance, the way we conceded the second one goal against West Ham, where we turned our backs on a free-kick near 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 actually like, the way the team played and reacted, the character we showed and the quality that we given on the day to come back against a actually good opponent from three goals in the back of.”
So why predict that this will reinforce? Largely because Arsenal are proving they’re 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 steady 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. This is a positive blend to ease defensive issues.