Arsenal tasked with challenge of containing red-hot Mohamed Salah
Right before Christmas, Arsenal will receive a visit from a man who wears red and white that is altogether unwelcome. Gunners fans might well shout and cry, but there's little they can do about it: Barring a last-minute injury, Mohamed Salah is coming to town.
The Egyptian is arguably the Premier League's most in-form player. Supporters of Liverpool's rivals hoping for a winter dip in his performances will have been disappointed: He has been nothing short of a revelation. His 24 appearances in the Premier League and Champions League have already yielded 19 goals. For a player who doesn't operate as a traditional striker, that's an astonishingly good record.
Salah's starting position on the right is partly what makes him so difficult to deal with. He has a tremendous ability to time his runs between the full-back and the centre-half. And what runs they are: When Salah gets motoring, few can keep pace. He's the kind of player who can be kryptonite to Arsenal -- devastating on the counter-attack, and blessed with the speed of foot and thought to capitalise on the Gunners' all-too-frequent defensive errors.
Manager Arsene Wenger must have given the question of how to deal with Salah some thought over the past few days. It's not as simple as "Stop Salah, Stop Liverpool" -- they have a front four who are all capable of causing considerable damage. However, diminishing Salah's threat would be a huge boost to Arsenal's chances of coming away with vital points.
The first issue facing Wenger is whether to go with a back three or a back four. The availability of Shkodran Mustafi after injury affords him the opportunity to field his first-choice defensive trio, with Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal flanking the German international.
However, in recent weeks Wenger has abandoned the system that saved Arsenal's season in 2017-18. The Gunners have started four of the last five matches with a flat back four -- and in the other match, against Southampton, they switched to that system after around an hour. It's proven a successful change too, with four clean sheets in as many games.
One of the advantages of the back four is that it enables Arsenal to field another man in midfield. This could be vital in ensuring Coutinho does not get the run of that part of the park. If Arsenal can dominate the Brazilian, they cut off Salah's supply line.
Salah will be the immediate responsibility of whoever is deployed as Arsenal's left-back. In the last two Premier League games, that's been youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles, surprisingly selected ahead of new signing Sead Kolasinac. Maitland-Niles has acquitted himself well in an unfamiliar role, combining tidy defensive work with the ability to roam forward and provide a threat on the overlap.
Most onlookers expected Kolasinac to come back in for the Liverpool game, but the Bosnian was selected for Carabao Cup game against West Ham, suggesting Wenger is preparing to leave him out on Friday.
In some respects, Maitland-Niles could be well-suited to cancelling out Salah's threat. He is almost as quick as his prospective opponent, while his right-footedness is not necessarily an issue when faced with a player with such a pronounced tendency to cut inside.
However, it would be a huge call to task one so young with stopping the Premier League's hottest forward. If Wenger has concerns over the youngster, he could install Mustafi alongside Koscielny, and opt for one of Monreal or Kolasinac at left-back. However, both have shown they can struggle to contain players with burning pace. Maitland-Niles does not have that problem.
It looks as if Wenger is preparing to dispense with the back-three experiment, and test his preferred back four against one of the most dangerous attacks in the league. It's a gamble -- and will be an even bigger one if he takes the plunge by starting Maitland-Niles.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.