Which under-pressure team will get a win at Anfield: Liverpool or Arsenal?
Arsene Wenger may not be winning any popularity contests at the Emirates these days, but he won't be lacking for affection when he visits Anfield on Saturday. What a warm willkommen he can expect from Jurgen Klopp, complete with a big, toothy grin and arms extended nearly as wide open as his back four was against Leicester earlier this week. God knows Wenger could use a hug, what with all the existential dread surrounding him lately. Will he go or will he stay? And if he goes, will Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil follow him out the door? If he stays, is there a high-speed ATM in North London to make Sanchez and Ozil happy?
This isn't even taking into account the ravenous beast lying in wait for the Frenchman at the Emirates where a loud faction of disgruntled "Wenger-outers" are practicing their noxious chants in anticipation of Bayern Munich dropping another five goals on the Gunners. But first, there is the small matter of beating Liverpool, a team that needs a relevant win as badly as Arsenal does.
In fact, Saturday's game between the Premier League's two most underachieving elite teams couldn't come at a better time for both managers.
Liverpool is not a Klopp crisis quite yet, but a couple more spineless performances like Monday's effort against the reigning champions (I know, it's easy to forget) will surely have the Kop faithful baying for his kopf. Klopp has enjoyed a relatively charmed 18-month ride at Anfield, but no amount of hipster cred, theatrical touchline hijinks and jokey quips to the media can cover up the ever-widening cracks in a shambolic defense.
It may have looked like a tactical masterstroke when Klopp deployed Lucas Leiva as a center-back against Spurs, and the aging Brazilian midfielder didn't allow the "world class" striker a sniff of goal. What, however, was he thinking when he stuck with that defensive strategy against Jamie Vardy, a player who makes Kane as mobile as a tree stump?
The Leicester speed merchant could carry Robert Huth on his back and still beat Leiva over 30 yards. And does any one other than Klopp believe that Emre Can, when given the responsibility of shielding the back four in place of the injured Jordan Henderson, can reproduce any of the Liverpool captain's attributes except perhaps for passing the ball sideways?
Liverpool has only won once in 2017 against a team not named Plymouth Argyle. Until this week, though, they have only disappointed their own supporters. Against Leicester, they took it one step further, letting down all right-thinking people (OK, maybe not those on the red side of Manchester) by failing to avenge Claudio Ranieri's graceless firing.
Wenger, of course, is all too familiar with gauche treatment, having endured two seasons of relentless abuse at the lungs of the What Have You Done For Me The Last 13 Years Brigade, a group that recently traveled all the way to the Allianz Arena to make sure he didn't miss the point. The Frenchman certainly doesn't need any further reminders as to what happened when Arsenal last faced the Bavarian giants. People tend to remember the worst 45 minutes of their lives.
The pummeling that Arsenal took in the second half of their Champions League match and the absence of any competitive fightback was a damning indictment of Wenger's ability to galvanize his team. Yet such is his Ferguson-esque autonomy within the club that only Wenger can call time on his two decades of imperious success mingled with serial disappointment; for the time being, he's chosen not to reveal his intentions.
This sense of uncertainty has basically forced Arsenal to put their future plans on hold, including finding the right person to fill Wenger's oversize parka as well as contractually locking up their two most prized players, Sanchez and Ozil, both of whom are waiting to see whether Wenger signs the new two-year deal that's been on the table for months.
Should things not go Arsenal's way in the next two games (and given the team's history of noble irrelevant victories, I fully expect the Gunners to eke out a win over Bayern), it's hard to see Wenger deciding to endure another season with an unforgiving mob howling for his well-coiffed head. If Wenger were to walk away, I suspect Sanchez would be right behind him. Ozil has seemingly already gone. I mean, has anybody seen him on the field in the past month?
So yes, Saturday's game is kind of important, not least because Arsenal and Liverpool are separated by only a single point in the race to see who can stumble into the final Champions League place. Liverpool can also feel the hot breath of Manchester United on their neck, with their bitter rivals a point back in sixth. Meanwhile, Arsenal have finished above Tottenham in the table for the past 21 seasons but now find themselves gazing up at their despised neighbors who are three points ahead in second place.
All of which should make for a tasty encounter, especially if their most recent meeting is any gauge. That was back in August on opening day and within an hour, all of the following occurred: Arsenal were 4-1 down, Klopp had broken his glasses and strained his back during various wild goal celebrations and Wenger was treated to a lusty chorus of boos from the home crowd. Arsenal then pulled two goals back in one of their trademark comebacks that invariably fall short (Liverpool won 4-3) and afterwards, Wenger lamented that his team wasn't ready mentally or physically. Plus ca change and all that.
Ever since, Liverpool and Arsenal have matched each other in terms of spectacular inconsistency, albeit in disparate ways. Liverpool have gone unbeaten against the other members of the top six, but four of their five losses have been to teams in the bottom half of the table. Conversely, Arsenal has steamrollered over the likes of Sunderland, Hull and Swansea only to struggle mightily against the big teams. Their last flicker of hope to contend for the title ended in a 3-1 stomping by the runaway leaders Chelsea on Feb. 4.
Similarly, it seemed ordained that Liverpool would do a face plant against Leicester, which hadn't earned a solitary point in its past five matches under Ranieri. The result was a microcosm of the Reds' staccato season, coming as it did on the heels of one of their most swashbuckling displays of the campaign, an emphatic 2-0 thumping of the white-hot Spurs. Adding to the indignity was that Liverpool had the benefit of 16 days off before the Leicester match, a welcome respite from the fixture congestion that Klopp has complained about ad nauseum ever since arriving in England.
To take advantage of what was essentially an unofficial "winter break," the manager whisked away his charges to a five-star resort in sunny Spain for training and pool-side drinks with those tiny umbrellas in them. Liverpool's meek capitulation against Leicester is proof that the Reds can sink to the occasion equally well whether physically spent or thoroughly refreshed.
To his credit, Klopp blamed himself as much as the players for the abject performance. "We all play, myself included, for our future," he said. "I don't think the players are not as good as I thought they are, but they need my help more to show it every day."
The problem is, as both Klopp and Wenger are painfully aware, that neither of them has enough strong characters in their lineups to kick-start the various delicate psyches when they fall behind. Arsenal haven't had a forceful on-field leader since Patrick Vieira, and Liverpool lost their talismanic captain Steven Gerrard two seasons ago. If they possessed a modern-day Roy Keane, then maybe Klopp and Wenger wouldn't be so stubbornly inflexible when it comes to their tactical choices.
It will be interesting to see if Wenger takes a page from the Leicester playbook and instructs his team to sit deep and concede possession to Liverpool, thereby nullifying the Reds' biggest weapon: their ability to harry and hassle the opposition in their own third.
You have to think that a draw would be acceptable to Wenger, who faces a much more daunting challenge four days later. For the looming presence of Big Bad Bayern alone, I hope Klopp gives him a long, heartfelt hug.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.