With Arsenal hosting Liverpool in a crunch Premier League clash on Sunday, Mikel Arteta will be looking for areas to best the outgoing Jürgen Klopp in their final meeting. Could it be, much like the title race, up in the air?
When Arsenal face Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, anything could happen.
With both embroiled in a fascinating Premier League title race alongside Manchester City, Tottenham and (possibly) Aston Villa, victory for either could be a huge boon to their hopes of lifting the famous crown-topped trophy come the season’s end.
Sunday’s game is a very tough one to call, though. The Opta supercomputer has even struggled to separate them, giving both an equal 35.9% chance of victory.
When they met in the FA Cup third round just four weeks ago it was Jürgen Klopp’s men who ran out 2-0 victors, but plenty felt Arsenal had been somewhat unlucky having had the better of the chances, particularly in the first half.
Minor details could very well make the difference again, and one area the hosts will feel they have superiority is in the air. Especially in the Liverpool penalty area.
Arsenal have scored 11 headed goals in the Premier League this season, two more than any other team (Nottingham Forest and Luton Town – both nine).
Of those, Gabriel Magalhães has scored three, one of which came against Liverpool in the reverse fixture in December (also two vs Crystal Palace). Other Arsenal players to find the net in the league via their head this season are Gabriel Jesus (two – one vs Luton, one vs Brighton), Bukayo Saka (vs Bournemouth), Ben White (vs Bournemouth), William Saliba (vs Burnley), Leandro Trossard (vs Burnley), Kai Havertz (vs Brentford) and Declan Rice (vs Luton).
No team has been as ruthless with their headed chances on target as Arsenal, with 11 of their 18 finding the net (61.1%). Forest (9 of 18), Spurs (7 of 14) and Villa (5 of 10) all average 50% of their headed shots on target going in.
Four of Arsenal’s headed goals have been from corners, which is hardly surprising considering where the majority of them end up. Due to their preference for inswingers – 144 out of their 145 crossed corners in the Premier League this season have been swung in – if an Arsenal player makes the first contact from an attacking corner, they will likely have a good chance of scoring as they’ll be fairly close to goal.
You can see from the aerial duel map below how many of their headers in the opposition box are close to goal, not just from corners but also from set-pieces and open-play crosses.
Compare that to Liverpool, who are generally better in the air than Arsenal – winning 57.2% of aerial duels across the pitch compared to Arteta’s men winning 48.8% – but when they contest balls in the opposition’s area, they mostly do so further away from goal. Not all of these will be from corners, but for comparison, just 48 of Liverpool’s 134 crossed corners in the league have been inswingers (85 outswingers). They have scored four goals from corners in the Premier League in 2023-24, but none have been headers.
Liverpool overpowered Chelsea on Wednesday night in a performance that will have made anyone doubting their title credentials sit up and take notice. When Dominik Szoboszlai put them 3-0 up as he headed home a cross from the sublime Conor Bradley, it was a significant moment. Not just because it somewhat cemented the outcome of the game, but it also doubled Liverpool’s headed goal tally in the Premier League for the season.
Remarkably, it was just their second goal via a header in their 22 league games in 2023-24, after Mohamed Salah scored against Brentford in November.
For anyone asking: “What about Luis Díaz’s goal at Luton?”, that didn’t count as a header as it actually came off the Colombian’s shoulder.
Only Sheffield United, Burnley and Crystal Palace (all one) have scored fewer than Liverpool’s two headers in the Premier League this season, but it has not been for a lack of trying by Klopp’s side. Only Luton (57), West Ham (55) and Everton (54) have attempted more headed shots (excluding blocks) than Liverpool’s 53. Arsenal have only attempted 49, though have hit the target with 18, whereas their opponents on Sunday have tested the opposition goalkeeper just 13 times.
That said, Liverpool have only conceded four headed goals this season in the Premier League. Just six teams (including Arsenal – three) have conceded fewer.
That’s also not to say Liverpool can’t hurt Arsenal using their noggins. They may have only scored one headed goal in the league prior to Wednesday, and just three in all competitions before last weekend, but that total has more than doubled in the last week. Three of Liverpool’s five goals against Norwich City in the FA Cup fourth round last Sunday were headers (Curtis Jones, Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Gravenberch), while, as mentioned, Szoboszlai added another against Chelsea in midweek.
That makes it four headed goals in the two games since Klopp announced that he is leaving at the end of the season. It somewhat feels like that scene from The Simpsons where the music teacher leaves the classroom and the school band play “the forbidden music” of Pop Goes the Weasel.
We jest, of course. Klopp clearly hasn’t been telling his players not to score headed goals, but just imagine how many they would have scored overall if they’d been more ruthless in the air. Liverpool may not have bothered the net with many headers so far, but they have scored the joint-most goals overall in the Premier League this season (51) along with Manchester City.
Of course, this means Liverpool are far deadlier with their feet. They have scored 25 right-footed goals in the Premier League compared to Arsenal’s 19, and 20 left-footed goals to the Gunners’ 13.
You can see from the graphics below how much more effective Arsenal have been when it comes to headers on target. Finding the corners more often has been key, while Liverpool’s have predominantly been quite central and close to the goalkeeper.
Another curious thing about these contrasting numbers is how they compare to recent seasons. It certainly doesn’t follow any trend as far as Liverpool are concerned.
In full seasons since Klopp arrived at Anfield in 2015, his team haven’t scored fewer than 12 headed goals in a league campaign, so would need to score another 10 in their final 16 games this season just to match their lowest return in that time. In fact, they scored 18 in the 2018-19 season and 19 the following campaign when they won the league.
Just last season, which was largely one to forget for Liverpool, they recorded 13 headed Premier League goals, one more than Arsenal’s 12.
In 2021-22, only seven teams scored fewer than Arsenal’s seven headed goals in the Premier League, while the season before that only four teams scored fewer than their six. It is clearly an area Arteta has targeted for improvement in the last year or two, and so far, it has been working.
Will it be a difference maker on Sunday? Time will tell, but if these numbers give any indication then expect Liverpool to be doing everything in their power to keep the ball on the floor as much as possible.
Yes, it does feel strange saying that about an opponent of Arsenal, but here we are.