Arsenal vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch This Saturday

Hi-res-160388190-daniel-sturridge-of-liverpool-loses-his-boot-as-he_crop_650x440

Before the Capital One Cup rolled around this midweek, Arsenal and Liverpool were heading toward Week 10 of the English Premier League in good spirits and fine form, having dispatched confident wins last Saturday.

But Tuesday night saw Jose Mourinho continue his impressive record over Arsene Wenger, with Chelsea knocking Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup with a 2-0 away win at the Emirates Stadium.

Not that the first-team’s momentum should be dented in any way, given that it was a trademark Wenger B team selection on Tuesday, but suddenly the mood among Arsenal fans has turned just a little tenser, a little testier, while the Liverpool camp are starting to feel optimistic again.

Saturday will see the league-leading Gunners welcome the visit of the third-placed Reds in a surefire spectacle. Let’s look ahead at six key battles that will have a huge say in where the points go at the end of the 90 minutes.

 

Per Mertesacker vs. Luis Suarez

Here’s the current situation: Per Mertesacker on form is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Luis Suarez on form is one of the best forwards in the Premier League. Both are on form playing in teams that are riding high.

But how will this duel turn out?

Mertesacker excels in his positioning, aerial dominance and composure. Suarez has all three in abundance—his two headed goals in the recent victory over West Bromwich Albion, especially his first one, were of such superlative quality that they’ve surely added “heading” to his skill set—but it will be his unpredictability and propensity to pop up almost everywhere on the pitch that will make things tough for Mertesacker.

Add the other half of the SAS strikeforce, and the Arsenal defence may have a huge in-form headache on their hands.

 

Laurent Koscielny vs. Daniel Sturridge

So this brings us to the other half of the equation.

Laurent Koscielny has been a standout at the back for Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, and his pace and tackling have been rightly praised as he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

But he’s up against a Daniel Sturridge surging with confidence and self-belief, well on his way to becoming a top international-class striker, and with a new-and-improved Luis Suarez alongside him to help.

The constant movement and interchanging of Sturridge and Suarez will present a nightmare to all four of Arsenal’s defenders on the day, and their barnstorming form—Sturridge has a league-topping eight league goals with Suarez having scored six in four games—means that keeping a clean sheet at home will be no mean feat.

 

Aaron Ramsey vs. Steven Gerrard

Thankfully for them, Arsenal have got a brilliant midfield to take the spotlight and pressure off their defenders, and despite Mesut Ozil’s high-profile arrival (more on him later), no one has hogged more of the headlines surrounding the Emirates than Aaron Ramsey.

With five goals (from just 21 shots) and four assists in just nine league games, Ramsey has stepped up his game several notches, in the process becoming one of the Premier League’s most in-form and all-round box-to-box midfielders.

Which, curiously, is the kind of form and description that used to be attributed to his opposite number on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard delivered an impressive midfield performance as one half of an advanced pressing pair against West Brom, but he may find himself looking on at Ramsey and reminiscing the years (and legs) gone by if his colleagues don’t afford him enough support.

 

Jack Wilshere vs. Jordan Henderson

Ramsey has been in such peerless form that Jack Wilshere, erstwhile Arsenal’s “Golden Boy,” has had his mantle taken off him by the Welsh international.

But while Wilshere’s displays this season have yet to reach the lofty heights that his early performances suggested he would consistently, he has still been a useful outlet in the Arsenal midfield, and his movement, passing and now goalscoring will represent a threat against Liverpool.

He will find himself up against the Reds’ unsung hero this season in Jordan Henderson, who has run his socks off delivering relentless pressure toward opposing midfields.

Henderson’s energy will be essential to nullify the talented Wilshere—and with Philippe Coutinho likely to start on the bench after his injury layoff, he will have to provide a creative spark too.

 

Mesut Ozil vs. Lucas

But if there were one key battle to triumph over all key battles, it would be Mesut Ozil’s against Lucas in Arsenal’s attacking midfield.

A fluid and dynamic Gunners midfield has Ozil as its tip, and he has shown in his two months in the Premier League that he can influence any game and wreak havoc with his movement, vision and passing.

So it’s just as well that Lucas has seemingly returned to form at the right time. His anchoring of the flipped midfield against West Brom was his finest performance in many a month and will need to be repeated on Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers will have it drilled into his team that the Arsenal midfield isn’t just about Ozil: His masterful manipulation of space brings his midfield colleagues into play and into threatening positions, and Lucas will need the three center backs behind him to provide as much support as he can get.

 

Olivier Giroud vs. Martin Skrtel

Speaking of space and movement, there’s no finer No. 9 around at the moment than Olivier Giroud, currently on five goals and four assists in the league (just like Aaron Ramsey).

After a decent first season at the Emirates, Giroud has blossomed this term and has struck up a productive understanding with his supporting acts, and Ozil’s arrival and Santi Cazorla’s return has only augmented the attacking setup.

On paper, it’s just the one out-and-out striker that Liverpool’s three-man defence has to deal with, but in reality, when Arsenal move forward as a unit, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho will need to be at their best to keep the hosts at bay.

Especially Skrtel, the man who has kept vice-captain and recognized cultured center back Daniel Agger at bay in recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers has hailed Skrtel’s resurgence in form, according to the Liverpool Echo, but Giroud will have something to say about that.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

The Football Business Column: A Latest Update on Globalization in Football

Germany continues its rise 

At this point, we’re all well-versed in the global financial and marketing power boasted by the English Premier League, otherwise known as the Barclays Premier League: the long-term partnership with Barclays Bank has given England’s top flight plenty of commercial exposure and opportunities. Manchester United have led the way with the corporatization of English football, and are one of the only professional sports clubs (never mind in football) to have an international office.

But German powerhouses Bayern Munich are about to join them. It’s recently been confirmed that they’re about to start a New York office, with Pep Guardiola taking his squad to the US for friendlies and training camps next summer, with plans for an office in China to come. This comes on the heels of Bayern’s rapid ascension towards the “super-club” class in European football, as they vie to win the Champions League in two consecutive seasons.

Does this herald the arrival of the Bundesliga (or at least of the German football club) in the global footballing elite? Bayern are storming into that select category of storied, successful and rich football clubs, and with their recent announcements seem to be aiming for world domination. With the Bundesliga receiving plenty of positive coverage in the past few years on their financial sustainability, profitability, and most importantly the coexistence of commercial successes with the strong development of the German national team, Bayern are riding the waves.

And it’s not going to stop anytime soon. For all the plaudits that NBC have taken for their coverage of the Premier League this season, the higher-ups at the US broadcaster need to beware: Fox have agreed a multi-year deal with the Bundesliga to deliver coverage across North and South America, Europe and Asia. If this is the start of an exciting rivalry between the Premier League and the Bundesliga, then football fans only stand to benefit.

 

Liverpool break into the emerging markets

For all of the contrasting criticism and praise that John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group have had to endure in their stewardship of Liverpool, one unanimous agreement among all observers has to be that they’ve expanded aggressively on the commercial side of things. And the latest developments at Anfield show that not only do they have ambition to return to the top playing field in football, but they also have the financial and reputational clout that only the biggest clubs enjoy.

We’re talking of course about Liverpool’s recent academy ventures in both India and China, two of the world’s highest-profile emerging markets with fierce interest in football and populations to sustain growth and development. The phrase of choice is “market-leading development center for young players,” but the story for both the Indian and the Chinese academies is the same: It’s a chance to reach out to the young generation, improve football education and potentially unearth Liverpool’s first ever Asian superstar.

As ever in their coaching ventures, Liverpool will be working with local coaches and also adding a considerable portion of social education in the programs to develop youngsters as both human beings and footballers, but the underlying commercial opportunities scream out loud: a chance to secure a generation of kids as Liverpool fans, and the drooling prospect of shirt sales and marketing expansion with an Asian first-team player at Anfield.

With the success of Manchester City’s football school in Abu Dhabi, it seems that elite English clubs will continue their global expansion efforts, and Liverpool’s recent activities capture both the imagination of any football business fan and a fast-growing consumer base.

 

What happens when you put football with football?

By now, you’ve probably heard about the annual NFL games at Wembley, and Manchester City’s plan for MLS dominance with New York City FC. Put the US and two of the most popular and financially successful leagues in the world together, and you have a marketing bonanza, and that’s exactly what the Americans and the English have collaborated on and produced.

Except that it’s about to be taken to another level. Not only has new Fulham owner Shahid Khan considered playing an NFL game at Craven Cottage featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars (also under his ownership) in the future, but the NFL could even be exploring the possibility of opening a franchise in London. Which means that a London-based team could be competing in a league across the pond.

Even more interesting are the stadium plans associated with this global expansion of the NFL. Tottenham Hotspur, who have already been featured in a brilliant skit mocking football fans in America and American football this summer as part of NBC’s promotions for their Premier League coverage in the US, are reported to be interested in cohabiting a new stadium with said London NFL franchise.

This would mean that White Hart Lane Mark II (let’s call it that for now) would not only host two high-profile teams in two of the highest-profile sports in the world, but that it would immediately challenge Wembley’s status as the preeminent (only) American football stadium in London. Following the New York Yankees’ involvement with New York City FC and Manchester City, this latest reversal plan seems just to be the beginning of an intriguing soap opera.

 

This piece was part of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.