Liverpool – Arsenal: Emery’s plan backfires as the Liverpool siege wears Arsenal down (3-1)
Unai Emery, already known for his tactical experiments in big games at Arsenal, once again attempted to pull a rabbit out of the hat in this weekend’s big-six clash. Instead, what he pulled out was, yet again, nothing. The application of an untried diamond system proved costly, albeit survivable thanks to Liverpool’s relatively cautious approach.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Despite the fact that his side has come under greater pressure than they would have liked at the start of this season – particularly with their seemingly higher line giving up more chances – Jürgen Klopp only made a couple of minor changes in midfield from the trio that faced Southampton a week ago; James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were replaced by Fabinho and Jordan Henderson.
Emery went hell for leather with his changes. Last week’s 4-2-3-1 setup was transformed into a 4-diamond-2 shape for this one, with Nicolas Pépé being given his full debut. In came Granit Xhaka at the base of the midfield, also, as Alexandre Lacazette and Reiss Nelson were the two sacrificed from the side that beat Burnley last weekend.
Immediate defensive issues for Arsenal
Of all the tactical adjustments Emery has made for big games in the past, this one seemed to leave Arsenal the most exposed of them all.
Unlike in compact diamonds where the midfield and attack work as a unit to pressure one side intensely, so to prevent opponents from exploiting the narrowness of their shape, Arsenal did no such thing. With the strikers too high, Dani Ceballos was left to cover so much ground in front of the base three. Too much, in fact, as he was constantly bypassed, with the strikers being relieved of any defensive responsibilities. Particularly out wide, where he would press in tandem with the deep midfielders but would subsequently be taken out due to the spare man in Fabinho being un-pressured.
Stretched midfield and attack show how easy it easy for Henderson to look up and find many different options.
Since Liverpool could work the ball across with ease, the Arsenal midfield was having to stretch themselves across more and more. So, even when play was slowed down one side, the trio were already leaving huge gaps between them in preparation for a long diagonal switch. Resultantly, none of them could actually step out and press onto deeper ball-holders as it would only leave exploitable gaps behind them.
Arsenal forced deeper and deeper
After a while, Mattéo Guendouzi started to pre-emptively drop into a right-wing-back position just to cover for Andrew Robertson’s width, but in doing so could not dissuade simple horizontal passes across the midfield. Ceballos eventually had to drop down a line as well just to help tighten the midfield line but this allowed for even greater Liverpool control on the ball.
Liverpool were running Arsenal ragged. As the passmap below shows, it was so simple for them to circulate the ball from fullback to fullback, especially thanks to Roberto Firmino, who was a real thorn in the Arsenal side. His dropping movements from the blind-side were unassailable and grew in danger throughout.
Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold were in good positions to cross constantly. The interesting thing was that their crossing positions proved to be quite cautious. They always delivered balls into the box from near the corner edge of it. Typically, this is a good angle as there’s more room to get it across the face of goal, but Arsenal’s stacked line of defenders were already very deep, meaning there was much less space to exploit.
A lot of these were nicely floated but never likely to test the opposition given the differences in aerial ability. Robertson’s drilled crosses from the same positions were of a much greater threat but were still lacking in terms of timing, as they came slightly too quick for the attacking trident.
The notable result of these mostly-unsuccessful crosses was Liverpool’s recuperation of the ball. Pretty much without fail, they would either claim the stray cross or trap Arsenal in the corner and force a turnover. Their ultra-aggressive counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. in these scenarios almost never saw their opponents escape – as the statistic below so emphatically illustrates – particularly as Ceballos was sometimes the player latching onto these, when he was the number ten supposed to be finding positions in which to offer ways out of these tight situations.
Arsenal were dispossessed in their own defensive third eight times in the first half. That’s the most by any team this season and the most by Arsenal this decade.— Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) August 24, 2019
His own exploits in this area of the pitch soon resulted in a mistake and a big chance for Mané, whose effort was well saved in the end by Bernd Leno.
In any case, the lack of variety in Liverpool’s crossing attempts was preventing them from really testing the away side. Not once did the hosts try to get to the byline and pull it back – which might have been more successful given how much space Arsenal left in front of their defensive line, as can be seen in this map of Liverpool’s passes from within Zone 14. Zone 14 is a coaching term that refers to the part of the pitch just in front of the opponent’s box. Completing passes in this area of the pitch is a sign of territorial dominance and is usually associated with a good performance.
Arsenal’s plan in possession
However, the reasons for such a cautious approach made more sense when Arsenal managed to work their way through the wide press.
Typically, once Arsenal regained possession, they would go long into Nicolas Pépé – who did a fantastic job of holding up the ball and testing his opponents one-versus-one. He completed seven out of ten dribbles, with half of them coming in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.
Anyhow, when they could move it on from deep, they had plenty of space to work with. Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum were usually very high in support of the press, meaning Fabinho was often an isolated figure in deep midfield. So, whenever Arsenal escaped, they could find Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the deeper positioned of the two attackers, with ease.
This exact scenario panned out when Granit Xhaka hassled Mané off the ball and was quickly free of any pressure. An easy pass into Aubameyang to the side of Fabinho allowed him to set off and attempt to play in Pépé’s central run. Although Adrián was first to it, he made a complete mess of his clearance, with it running back to Aubameyang whose effort narrowly missed from a long way out.
Buildup situation to Aubameyang’s chance where Liverpool’s center, past the counterpress, is vulnerable.
Klopp’s side appeared very nervous in these moments. As Arsenal cleared out a corner and Henderson was forced to retreat, Pépé’s looming pressure resulted in a sloppy error setting the Ivorian in one-on-one against Robertson. Having side-stepped brilliantly inside past the Scot, he had the goal at his mercy, but could not set himself well enough against the pace of the ball to curl it in the direction he wanted to. What came of the chance was a powerless shot directly at Adrián. It was nonetheless the best opportunity of the match, to this point.
Liverpool finally burst Arsenal’s bubble
Something had to give. After forty minutes of relentless pressure and box bombardments, the home side finally got their just desserts. Xhaka initially hoofed clear a cross into a deeper area leading to a corner. From that set piece, Joël Matip was able to find the back of the net as Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Guendouzi were too preoccupied with stopping Virgil van Dijk from getting his head to it.
Second half throws up similar frustrations for the visitors
The second half was essentially a worn-out version of the first. Both sides’ fitness levels were ebbing away whilst still pertaining to the same setups. Even Emery, who tends to make snap changes when things do not go so well, was coy in his decision-making process.
Clearly, he should not have been because Liverpool punished Arsenal for their lack of compactness. Following another easy switch of play, the midfield three were stretched right across the back-four. With this in mind, Firmino’s positioning just deep of the defense ensured he was an open target for Alexander-Arnold. The right-back fizzed a pass into feet as the Brazilian sharply laid it through the channel first time for Salah’s run. As he sped through, David Luiz’s tug of the shirt was deemed a foul and resulted in a penalty which the Egyptian finished emphatically.
Salah was soon at the double when Liverpool played through Arsenal’s press with ease again after Xhaka was slow to get up to the always-available Fabinho. His first-time ball through the center, in the space the Swiss man occupies, found Salah, who turned Luiz with ease and burnt up the turf to enter the box and slot beautifully into the far corner.
As Arsenal were given more chances to hold possession in Liverpool’s half, we saw the major weak points of their plan, if there was a plan. The attacking line were all too flat and Ceballos and Willock were simply not doing enough to connect play through the middle. The majority of the attacks began down the right with Ainsley Maitland-Niles – and only Ainsley-Maitland-Niles – helping to support Pépé against four Liverpool players.
Emery’s tactical changes were fairly catastrophic in truth, despite some excellent last-ditch defending helping to soothe the first half fears. The second half was an onslaught, though, and one which had been coming for a while. It was a surprise the score line was so low in the end.
The most important thing for Klopp, however, was that his men ensured top spot for another week with a third win. They are now the only side in this Premier League season with a perfect record.
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