Battle of formerly maligned midfielders may settle Arsenal vs Liverpool
With Arsenal and Liverpool boasting the most aesthetically gifted players and the highest-tempo passing games in the Premier League, this encounter should be both stylish and ferocious. Both teams like to dominate possession with a high defensive line, and as such the opening 15 minutes – as they each press hard to assert early dominance – may prove decisive.
Aaron Ramsey and Jordan Henderson, often the understated driving forces behind their respective teams, will need to race out of the blocks in the lunchtime kick-off at the Emirates Stadium.
As difficult as it might be to accept, the correlation between Liverpool's scintillating post-Christmas form and the growing absence of Steven Gerrard is not coincidental.
Gerrard's slow movement and passing look increasingly out of place among the youthful buzz of Brendan Rodgers' side. And nobody characterises this energy and determination like Henderson.
Henderson's flitting movement and clever interchanges with Liverpool's front three are essential to the setup which has provided so much creative freedom for Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. 'Pulling the strings' feels like a particularly pertinent idiom, considering the extent to which Henderson's movement and forward passes facilitate the see-saw dropping off of those front three.
Ramsey's role is not too dissimilar, and although the Welshman only recently recovered from another hamstring injury, his performance against West Ham typified his remarkable talent.
Unlike Henderson's control, Ramsey makes more passes into wide positions due to Arsene Wenger's 4-3-3 formation – but to similar effect. Against West Ham, Ramsey created 5 goalscoring opportunities including 1 assist, while making 64 passes from multiple positions across the pitch.
Note the differences in passing patterns between these two players.
A vast array of attacking talent will be on the pitch in north London, and it's difficult to predict which player, or team, will steal the headlines. But considering the fast-paced passing football we can expect from both sides, and the ways in which both teams suffer when not allowed to dominate possession, the performances of these two midfielders will be crucial in setting up victory.