Liverpool – Arsenal: Angel Gabriel, Saliba The Savior (1-1)

Arsenal, again, are top of the tree for Christmas— and their central defenders are at the heart of the latest chapter in that tale. Even if scores of yesteryear were not on the cards, the horrors of Anfield annihilation flashed before their eyes in phases of this contest. But, in the end, the stabilizers in the spine of the visitors allowed them to return to the capital city with a point.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

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The Premier League schedule offered one more Christmas cracker before the big day of this festive season. Whose support would be celebrating a premature present of the spot at the top of the table?

Liverpool are illustrating last season was not the new norm. Trent Alexander-Arnold and the signings to rebuild the midfield have fixed faults in the squad, inspiring their return to the top four. A different discussion is now center stage about whether this latest concoction of controlled chaos can go all the way. The hosts dearly desired a league victory at Anfield at the third attempt against a ‘Big Six’ club.

Old iterations of Arsenal have been too liberal on trips to their opponents. This version has a stingier sensibility to break with that past. It is the second year in a row the outfit are first in the standings at this point in the campaign, and the end of many miserable records has bestowed them that privilege. Would they be victorious on this ground in the Premier League for the first time in over a decade?

Jürgen Klopp had stirred up a rousing reaction to the 0-0 draw against Manchester United with a 5-1 rout of West Ham United to move into the semi-final of the Carabao Cup. He made five alterations to the team he picked in midweek. Alisson was between the posts while Alexander-Arnold and Ibrahima Konaté sat on the right of defense. Curtis Jones continued in the middle of the park in place of Ryan Gravenberch. Darwin Núñez dropped to the bench, and Cody Gakpo operated as the central forward.

West Ham had knocked Arsenal out of the Carabao Cup, so the guests had enjoyed six days of rest. Arteta picked the same players that shut down Brighton during their last outing. William Saliba would travel to play at this stadium for the first time in his career, standing next to Gabriel Magalhães at the back. Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ben White flanked this standard pair. Declan Rice, Kai Havertz, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel Jesus, and Bukayo Saka completed the starting eleven.

Safe and simple

Klopp had requested the fans at Anfield to be ready for this fixture, but his men were second best at the outset. Within five minutes of kickoff, they had fallen behind. High pressure bothered Gakpo, whose layoff pass trailed away to Gabriel. He fed Havertz, and Konaté obstructed the midfielder to concede a set-piece. Ødegaard whipped a delivery into the penalty area, where Gabriel broke through the oppositional offside trap to head home past a stranded Alisson, who was standing off his goal line.

9th minute: pressing sequence from Arsenal. Saka was dropping to cover Tsimikas but abandons the movement to converge with Ødegaard on Jones while Jesus comes closer to van Dijk. Havertz had marked the inverted Alexander-Arnold, recognized Jones was holding onto the ball, and jumped to press Endo. Jones’ pass was loose, but an unclean interception allows Alisson to recover possession.

Arsenal had suffocated Brighton with their insistence on short passes from the back. In this case, the intensity and height of the press dialed back in respect of the hosts, who kept 57% of the possession in the opening 20 minutes. Yet, they were the brighter collective, responding to rotations in Liverpool’s buildup. Since Kostas Tsimikas pushed high, Saka marked him. Jesus split to the left towards Virgil van Dijk, and Zinchenko jumped into the midfield as Arsenal sought to stay tight in their marking.

Meanwhile, Arteta’s men refrained from risk on the ball. Their opponents organized in an asymmetric 4-4-2 shape. Gakpo and Salah could close down the central defenders from the front. Alexander-Arnold jumped behind Salah onto the right of the midfield while Díaz was his equivalent on the left. Endo covered centrally at the back as Konaté shifted out wide. Rather than inviting the press with short passes, long balls from Raya to Havertz were the primary platform to keep in forward motion.

Liverpool level the playing field

Once the visitors began to piece together longer spells of possession, they did not lose sight of the theme of aversion to risk. Ødegaard did not operate in the right halfspace, tilting next to Rice. Saka’s strengths in separation from his marker to roll inside do not rely on the help of his captain, but that decision deprived him of support to forge further inroads. Neither were White and Saka always in tandem. The timing of typical combinations to release the winger sometimes became too hesitant.

The absence of ball circulation between Saliba and White, the proximity of Ødegaard to Rice, and Havertz’s positioning ahead of Martinelli are indicative of Arsenal’s approach to ball possession.

Numbers leaned more to the left, but the absence of movement ahead of and around the ball limited the threat. Arsenal could not maintain the momentum and had not turned open situations into as many chances as they may have. Liverpool leveraged more of their share of the ball successfully and looked to service one man above all. His single-mindedness within the final third soon hauled the hosts level.

Alexander-Arnold dropped back between the central defenders, turned on the ball, and sprayed it diagonally to the wide right channel. The flight of the pass caught out Zinchenko, and Salah received to go directly against the fullback. This isolation blatantly favored the Egyptian and produced an expected outcome. He cut onto his left foot, shifted inside his opposite man, cracking an effort high and past David Raya into the back of the net. It was all square again just before the half hour mark.

45 + 3rd minute: defensive sequence from Arsenal. Alexander-Arnold, more frequently in a deep central position at the end of the first half, appears in this area of the pitch and passes to Endo. Ødegaard reads the pressing trigger and realizes he can run through to the playmaker. A misplaced pass goes astray, and Rice leads a transition. However, Arsenal seldom stressed him quickly enough.

Stabilization through the shakiness

The start of the second half was a spectacle that echoed back to the past. Arsenal were guilty of giveaways as soon as they had regained control of the possession and in areas close to their box: poison against the counterpressure of the hosts. To his irritation, Klopp saw his men pull the trigger without firing at the target. The most regretful moment was the strike from Alexander-Arnold in the 72nd minute. Zinchenko and Ødegaard tangled each other in knots at the rebound from a corner, a flood of five red shirts streamed at Rice on the counter, and the fullback slammed the crossbar.

Nevertheless, the guests did not crumble. Saliba, Rice, and Gabriel represent calm in the eye of the storm. Arsenal also began to build better during the last half hour of the clash. If Liverpool pressed aggressively, Rice rotated ballside with the right timing to act as a link between White and Ødegaard. Switches released the wingers into space behind, but a lack of commitment from runners to crash the box and dart across the face of the goal hinted at a sense of satisfaction with a stalemate. 1-1 it ended.

83rd minute: offensive sequence from Arsenal. Rice drops between White and Saliba, so Salah cuts from the right to isolate the defensive midfielder from Saliba once he receives a lateral pass. Núñez also attempts to increase ball pressure. Ødegaard drops toward the ball but his hook movement is too slow to separate from Ryan Gravenberch. Rice changes the picture with a carry and accesses White.


Arsenal are a point ahead of Aston Villa and Liverpool— and six clear of the champions. The camp will know all too well that being ‘winter champions’ counts for little at the final reckoning, but it is a strong signal that the last season was not a flash in the pan. And Arteta can envisage marginal gains to earn. The fitness of Rice, Gabriel, and Saliba can sustain a standard of stability and maturity. And if the offense can click continually, the possibilities excite. West Ham United await at the Emirates.

The three points were there for the taking for Liverpool, but they should still be content with this display. The shock to the system of an early deficit did not stunt their spirit, while the intensity and aggression at the start of the second half was the latest showing of how their identity under Klopp has come back in force. As AFCON approaches, one concern lingers. How will the offense cope without Salah? Cuteness and precision to execute in the final third in his absence should solidify their stake.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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