Last Saturday, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool hosted Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal in one of the major top six clashes of the season. The last time the two sides met was on the opening day of the season when Liverpool took the Emirates by storm, finding themselves 4-1 up before eventually being pegged back to a final score of 4-3, and Klopp’s great form in the big games continued on in similar fashion, avoiding any defeat to any of the top six sides so far this season (playing 9, winning 5, drawing 4), so it was clear which team were the favourites heading into this tie.
So it was little surprise that Liverpool came out on top in this fixture, putting aside the Gunners rather comfortably, but there were many questions raised over Wenger’s approach and, in particular, his team selection; German star Mesut Özil was absent through illness but more shockingly Alexis Sánchez dropped to the bench, a decision which aroused much suspicion at the time due to recent reports regarding the pair’s relationship, but one which Wenger attributed to tactical reasons, choosing Giroud as the solo striker in order to win the aerial battles, in spite of recent reports from the Mirror suggesting that there had been issues between the Chilean and the manager behind the scenes. On top of this, the boss reintroduced fan-favourite Danny Welbeck into the side with Alex Iwobi keeping his starting spot along with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As for the home side, Klopp’s eleven was without one of their key central-midfielders in Jordan Henderson, in a lineup which saw Emre Can fill the holding role in their three-man midfield, along with Ragnar Klavan partnering Joël Matip as the two centre-halves.
How each side set up
From the beginning, it was clear that Arsenal’s plan was to sit off Liverpool when they could and fielding a five-man midfield highlights exactly that. Iwobi dropped deeper into a central position in an attempt to prevent vertical entries, something that was a major issue in their 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, but there were still underlying flaws with the side’s execution of this; the gap between the line of defence and midfield still offered a lot of roaming space for Liverpool’s attackers, allowing them more time and freedom in-between the lines. What’s more, despite a narrow shape, the positioning of Liverpool’s full-backs offered more opportunities to stretch the Arsenal formation. It also meant that both the full-backs and the interiors were able to attack from wider areas and furthermore attack those central areas in the gaps, enabling the home side to outnumber Arsenal defender’s across their backline.
What is also evident from this image, which depicted Liverpool’s shape throughout the half in these positions quite well, was the way the home side built play in the first phase. Often a combination of the two midfielders and/or a full-back would drop deep to form a temporary back four in order to circulate the ball in search of space in behind. This gave license to either full-back to remain high and wide, making them a further threat whilst the remaining interior(s) offered in half space so to try and break the line. What was also noticeably dangerous from the front three was that they almost opened up the space in-between the lines themselves. The front line of Coutinho-Firmino-Mané pinning themselves right onto the Arsenal back four forced them back, and their constant movement across the visitor’s backline drew the defenders in and out of position, which then created space for passes and attacking runs inside.
In contrast to this, off the ball, Liverpool formed a 4-2-3-1 shape in an attempt to close out Arsenal attacks from the first phase of play. Their narrow shape offered two banks of midfielders which meant any vertical entries into the Arsenal midfielders occupying those spaces left them immediately surrounded and subsequently forced into an error. With Firmino also covering the remaining centre-half’s shadow, the ball-holding player is then made to play it wide where the compact five-man midfield shifted over in order to close the spaces through the middle, making it incredibly tough to break down. However, Arsenal’s failure to open spaces in central areas was not helped by the contributions of Francis Coquelin. Although occupying a space between the lines meant the midfield had to keep a close eye on him, his inability to offer for the ball made Arsenal’s passage of play much more predictable than in the second half when Chamberlain accepted this responsibility with Granit Xhaka also. Instead, Arsenal may have found it easier to build play if one of the two interiors dropped deeper out of the lines to receive, whilst the winger on the opposite side to the ball then filled that space inside.
The first half…
One of the key differences between Liverpool vs. the top 6 and Liverpool vs. everyone else is possession. Klopp’s sides seem to benefit from the Gegenpressing Klopp brought to the side, and the team has thrived in these big games from exploiting sides on the ball as they close quickly and are able to successful get numbers forward quickly in order to outnumber opponents on the attack. This was just the case in the example below as the Liverpool attackers effectively pressed Coquelin forcing a mistake and enabling them to counter and create a dangerous attacking position from themselves.
Additionally, something that helped Liverpool when pressing was the lack of intensity from Arsenal’s play. As has been the case in a lot of their recent matches, Arsenal took a while to pick up the pace and that played heavily into Liverpool’s favour. In this clip, all of the Arsenal players slow down off the ball, aside from the runner Monreal which allows Lallana to force a long pass which is less likely to come off than the short one Welbeck could’ve offered himself to in this situation, which would’ve caused potentially more trouble as it would’ve drawn out the defender marking him.
However, this form of offence has its downsides. In particular, it means Liverpool often committed too many men forward, this also being the case in the build-up phase, which allowed the away side to outnumber Liverpool in certain circumstances. In the screenshot below, Arsenal’s plan to win the second/third balls in central areas worked to perfection as they outnumbered the Liverpool defenders in a 6v5 attack which eventually led to a corner for the away side. It showed signs of weakness against a slow and poor Arsenal side. This weakness of Liverpool’s is something that lower sides, who concede a lot of the possession against the reds, are able to punish.
On top of this, arguably the best example of this from the match had to be Arsenal’s only goal through Danny Welbeck. With the referee having shrugged off a penalty shout down Arsenal’s end, the away side broke quickly with little need for many passes, and a mixture of poor decision making and the presence of Alexis Sánchez on the ball allowed for him and Welbeck to get the better of Joël Matip; instead of closing the space that Welbeck had beaten Clyne to on the inside, Matip remains static in order to anticipate any infield run that the winger may decide to make, but in spotting the gap, Alexis is able to pick out Welbeck who makes easy work of a tight angle…
Liverpool’s midfielders attacking space and creating space
What often caused Arsenal so much trouble in the opening half was the movement of Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana. The freedom they were given to roam and drag players in and out of position always enabled Liverpool to exploit space that they had no right exploiting in the first place, and thanks to the lack of defensive awareness of players like Alex Iwobi who was required to make defensive contributions often, these interiors were able to cause danger for the Arsenal defence.
As soon as Liverpool players found inroads into the centre or even couldn’t, the attackers off the ball made numerous runs to draw out Arsenal players across the midfield and defence. Here we see Wijnaldum instinctively force Iwobi wide to allow Coutinho more time on the ball, and also Lallana immediately pulls Koscielny across.
This was also the case in the build up to the 2nd goal of the game – Wijnaldum initially drags Iwobi out to a position slightly higher up the pitch, at which point he is then able to leave his marker and attack the space left behind since Iwobi was ball-watching. Because Bellerín doesn’t focus on the space left behind, instead deciding to pair up with Chamberlain on Milner, the whole defensive line has to shift over to cover the run made by Wijnaldum. This meant Liverpool could quite easily shift the ball from left to right, exploiting the space Mané was left occupying who made no mistake in finishing, either.
Liverpool’s dangerous frontline
Throughout the game, the front three of Liverpool’s attack caused Arsenal trouble time and time again. At every possible moment in possession, three Liverpool attackers would make forward runs or attempt to pin back the Arsenal defenders so to open up more space in-between the lines, allowing for more time on the ball and better decision making in the final third. It was an area Liverpool were easily able to exploit since Mustafi was often culprit to being drawn out of position in an attempt to defend in 1v1 situations, and in this case Mané positioning himself just away from the two runners opened up a space for Coutinho to run into.
Liverpool were able to capitalise on a similar 3v3 situation in the first half for their first goal; Koscielny’s loss of the aerial duel and the quick reactions of the awaiting attackers meant Liverpool had created a dangerous 3v3 situation just from a goal kick, which they had essentially forced moments before (Xhaka’s miscued pass going out).
The second half…
Arsenal’s counter-pressing, ball retention and Alexis Sánchez
The second half saw a much different game compared to the first in most respects. Although Liverpool’s overall approach remained to be to counter-attack Arsenal, the introduction of their Chilean superstar Alexis Sánchez seemed to have a very positive effect on proceedings, it was something for the Liverpool backline to worry about. What’s more, how Arsenal positioned themselves in build-up play and how they counter-pressing in a 4-3-3 shape was much more efficient than how they previously posed (in a 4-5-1). It meant that the midfield could pressure opponents quickly following turnovers quickly and regain possession.
We see a further example of the effective counter-pressing achieved by this shape here as well. The interiors allows for instant 3v1/3v2s across the final third as the winger and full-back would combine whilst one of the interiors would be there to support and/or progress the ball, much like what Liverpool did in the first half.
Arsenal’s build-up play:
What was equally impressive about this 4-3-3 shape that we only saw glimpses of in the first half was how much more effective Chamberlain proved to be compared to Coquelin when dropping in to receive from deeper areas. Coquelin would usually sit between the lines when building from the first phase, but as portrayed by the image below, Chamberlain drops in to offer himself for the ball. It is also worth noting that because Alexis is now occupying the wide left position, Monreal can drop deeper to circulate play instead of having the front three ineffectively push to backline in a way that could not match Liverpool’s attempts to do so down the other end. And now because Chamberlain is also dropping deeper, Liverpool’s midfield line are more wary of his movements, enabling Iwobi to better exploit the gaps in-between the lines, which is much easier to do against this less rigid diamond shape that Liverpool demonstrated in the still below:
We see Iwobi here receiving the ball from Mustafi and beating the line of midfield. With the added pace of Arsenal’s substituted frontline, the Liverpool defenders had to stay narrow to close any potential spaces, which allowed for the right flank to be exploited on a number of occasions, with Bellerín getting into some dangerous attacking positions.
It was also clear that the intensity of Arsenal’s play was much better than the intensity of their play in the first half. With slow and sluggish movement in the first half, the hosts found it easy to beat Arsenal in every area of the pitch, but it appeared to be quite the opposite for a lot of the second half. Again, we see two Arsenal midfielders linking to break the line of midfield, this time creating another chance for Lucas Pérez up front.
Overall, it’s a fair assessment to say that Liverpool were much the better side of the two and that their game plan as a whole was much more successful than that of Arsenal’s whether it was indeed forced by happenings behind the scenes or not.
As portrayed by these turnover maps so brilliantly created by 11tegen11, Liverpool made their best chances through high pressing in the middle of the pitch, whilst Arsenal’s highest xG chances came from much deeper positions where Liverpool had overcommitted:
And these xG map also confirms quite clearly that Liverpool managed to create the better chances and subsequently were the better of the two sides:
but as Michael Caley‘s following tweet shows, this match was maybe more of a game of two halves in essence…
Photo Credit: Getty Images