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Unleash Pepe or shut down Salah - The big tactical decisions Emery faces for Liverpool clash

6:00 pm AEST 24/8/19
Nicolas Pepe, Unai Emery, Arsenal
The Gunners take on the Reds at Anfield on Saturday in the Premier League and Unai Emery has plenty to ponder

The Premier League’s top two meet on Saturday in what is shaping up to be an intriguing early season battle.

Arsenal travel to Merseyside after winning their first two games in the league for the first time in a decade, having seen off Newcastle at St. James’ Park and Burnley last weekend at the Emirates.

Strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have continued where they left off last season, with Aubameyang having already found the net twice, while Lacazette opened his account for the new campaign with a goal against the Clarets.

But it’s not just the forwards who have made their mark during the last fortnight, with new signing Dani Ceballos already showing why Unai Emery was so desperate to bring him in from Real Madrid, while club record signing Nicolas Pepe has also caught the eye with two cameos off the bench.

It’s all led to a feeling of genuine optimism around the north London club, in stark contrast to the doom and gloom that hovered over the Emirates following the disastrous end to last season.

Arsenal’s impressive start will be tested this weekend, however, when they travel to Liverpool. The Reds have also won their opening two games and currently sit top of the Premier League on goal difference.

The reigning champions of Europe smashed Emery’s side for five at Anfield last year and have scored 12 goals against the Gunners during their previous three meetings on Merseyside.

So Emery is well aware of the challenge facing his side on Saturday and the Spaniard knows he has plenty to ponder when it comes to getting his team selection and tactics spot on.

Here we take a look at the major decisions facing Arsenal’s head coach ahead of the top-of-the-table clash.

Back three or back four?

Unai Emery has reverted to type so far this season.

When he arrived in England he was a coach known to favour a 4-2-3-1 formation and that’s the system he started out using in north London.

But a lack of natural wingers, combined with injuries, saw him move towards a back three and that was how the Spaniard set Arsenal up more often that not during the second half of his first campaign in charge.

So far this season, though, Emery has gone back to 4-2-3-1. 

He used that system against Newcastle and Burnley, with Reiss Nelson and Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing in the wide positions at St. James’ Park and Aubameyang and Nelson starting against the Clarets. Alexandre Lacazette, meanwhile, has been operating as the central striker.

And the big question ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Anfield is whether Emery will stick with the back four or if he will look to shut down of some of the space for Liverpool’s attack by adding an extra defender and using wing-backs.

David Luiz’s arrival in the summer certainly gives Emery the option to do that, with the Brazilian centre-back known to be a defender who likes to play in a back three.

Calum Chambers - so impressive in the win at Newcastle - could come in and play alongside Luiz and Sokratis, or Nacho Monreal could also move inside, with Sead Kolasinac being brought in for his first start of the season as the left wing-back.

Going with a back three would not be popular with some Arsenal fans, who grew tired of that system last season, but there is certainly an argument that it would be a wise move.

Arsenal gave up plenty of space down the flanks last weekend against Burnley, so much so that Emery did actually make a tactical shift during the second half to go with a back three in a bid to plug the gaps that the visitors were exploiting.

With the threat that Liverpool pose down either side, Emery will no doubt be extremely concerned that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah will be given the type of space that Burnley enjoyed last weekend - especially with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson bombing forward on the overlap.

Going with a back three could help shut down some of that space, with the wing-backs dropping deep to support the centre-backs whenever Liverpool look to get forward.

The system would also allow Emery to pair Aubameyang and Lacazette together as central strikers rather than having the former operating in a wider role.

Xhaka to return?

There was no Granit Xhaka against Burnley last weekend, with Arsenal’s current skipper missing out due to a lower back and leg injury.

But the Switzerland international has now returned to full fitness and has been back training at London Colney ahead of the trip to Anfield.

Given he was handed the armband by Emery, you would expect Xhaka to come straight back into the side. But the way Arsenal’s midfield operated against Burnley suggests Xhaka’s return should not be a given.

Despite having plenty of critics at the Emirates, there is no question that the Gunners have tended to miss Xhaka when he hasn’t played due to his ability split the lines with his passing and start attacks.

But with the arrival of Luiz and Dani Ceballos this summer, Arsenal might not be so reliant on Xhaka any more.

Luiz’s exceptional passing ability gives Emery another option, while Ceballos is more than willing to drop deep to collect the ball and get Arsenal going.

The Spanish midfielder was exceptional against Burnley, picking up two assists as part of a midfield three that featured Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock playing in the deeper roles.

It was a midfield that looked fluent, energetic and capable of getting up and down the pitch quickly - something Arsenal will need amid the intensity of Anfield.

The temptation to bring Xhaka back in will be huge, not least because of his experience, but there is an argument that Arsenal could be better served leaving him on the bench.

Unleash Pepe?

The question on everyone’s lips. Will Nicolas Pepe be handed his first start at Anfield?

Arsenal’s club record signing was given 45 minutes against Burnley and impressed during a lively second-half cameo.

Unai Emery admitted in the build-up to Saturday’s game that the Ivory Coast winger was now ready to start, but a lot will depend on the formation.

“For Saturday, he [Pepe] is maybe ready to have more minutes,” said Arsenal’s head coach. “His progress has been positive. The most important piece of the adaptation is to help him feel comfortable with us.”

If Arsenal go with a 4-2-3-1 formation, Pepe will likely come in and replace Reiss Nelson on the right of the visitors’ attack.

But if Emery goes with a back three, the width will come from the wing-backs and you would expect Pepe to once again start the game on the bench.

It’s a big decision for Emery. Attack could prove to be the best form of defence for Arsenal at Liverpool and a forward trio of Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette could certainly cause the hosts problems.

Bench Lacazette?

When Arsenal were thumped 5-1 at Anfield last season, Alexandre Lacazette was left on the bench - just as he was against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Given his impressive performance against Burnley last weekend, which saw him open his account for the new season, it would be something of a surprise if the France international did not make the starting XI at Liverpool.

But we’ve seen Emery go with just one striker before in away games against the top six, preferring to put more willing runners in the wide positions.

As appealing as a front three of Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang could be, the trio would not offer the full-backs much in terms of protection if Emery set them up like he did against Burnley.

Aubameyang is not a player known for tracking back and that could leave Nacho Monreal exposed against Salah and Alexander-Arnold, Indeed, it would be a similar story on the opposite flank with Maitland-Niles up against Mane and Robertson.

It could be that Emery decides to go with a slightly more conservative option, potentially using Aubameyang as the central striker with Henrikh Mkhitaryan possibly coming in on one of the flanks.

Leaving one of his star strikers out would not be a popular choice with the fans, but tactically it's one option that will certainly be in the thinking of Arsenal's head coach.