Liverpool – Arsenal: Five Star Liverpool Blow Arsenal Away (5-1)
Jurgen Klopp’s unbeaten league leaders pass yet another test as they hit Arsenal for five at Anfield. Unai Emery’s side took an early lead, but Liverpool’s aggressive response proved too much for Arsenal’s fragile defensive setup.
Tactical analysis by Josh Williams.
Liverpool approached the match as title favorites for the first time, after Manchester City’s recent loss to Leicester City. That was the holders’ third league defeat in four matches, which is quite incredible considering the team accumulated just two losses throughout the whole previous Premier League campaign.
Those recent setbacks led to Liverpool gaining seven points on last season’s champions, with Tottenham in second place, six points behind the leaders. Despite that lead at the top, Liverpool had a testing few days to come, playing Arsenal and Manchester City back-to-back.
The chase for a place in the top four remained in the balance for Arsenal, being two points behind direct rivals Chelsea. A negative swing this weekend could result in a five-point gap emerging, which is obviously concerning for Emery.
Arsenal have been in relatively inconsistent form, after drawing with Brighton, beating Burnley, and losing to Southampton in the last three league matches. However, Unai Emery’s side have been one of the few to cause Liverpool genuine problems, having secured a draw at The Emirates earlier in the season.
Jürgen Klopp made just one change to his side, with Jordan Henderson being displaced by Fabinho. This was somewhat surprising, as Xherdan Shaqiri kept his place, which is unusual considering the standard of the opponent.
In every other match against a top six team this season, Klopp has been reluctant to start Shaqiri for defensive reasons, instead preferring to opt for an extra central midfielder who can then cover the wide areas. Instead though, Klopp set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is favored at home this season to break down inferior defensive teams.
Unai Emery made four changes to his team, with Shkodran Mustafi, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles coming in. The personnel selected by Emery suggested a back three, but he instead opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation. Ramsey was deployed behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with Maitland-Niles and Iwobi on the flanks, and Granit Xhaka alongside Lucas Torreira in a central pairing.
Arsenal defending in their 4-4-1-1 formation against Liverpool’s free-flowing 4-2-3-1
To build or not to build from the back
One of the most evident things to look at in the early stages of the match was the differing approaches to building from the goalkeeper.
Arsenal seemed reluctant initially, which is understandable given Liverpool’s pressing capabilities, especially at Anfield, as the pitch is much tighter. Arsenal’s goalkeeper Bernd Leno preferred to hit long, aerial passes, in order to bypass Liverpool’s advanced players waiting to press. This resulted in a lack of opportunity for Liverpool to press high up the field and thus negated one of their main strengths.
Interestingly, Liverpool set up to press Arsenal from the goalkeeper in a 4-3-3 formation, with Shaqiri taking up one of the typical three midfield slots. If Arsenal managed to get the ball on Liverpool’s half, that shape would alter, allowing Liverpool to be incredibly fluid and versatile throughout the match.
Unlike Arsenal, Liverpool did try to build from the back and play through defense from Alisson. On numerous occasions, however, Liverpool negligently gave the ball away, inviting Arsenal to capitalize on their mistakes.
Arsenal accepted that invitation on the eleventh minute, as the ball was hit long by Dejan Lovren after the team initially tried to build from the back. Lovren chose to go direct due to a lack of options in midfield, and the ball immediately came back after the subsequent header was won by Arsenal’s fullback Sead Kolašinac. The ball then landed at Iwobi’s feet, who played a one-two with Ramsey and drove forward to the edge of the box, hitting a wonderful low cross towards the back post for Maitland-Niles to finish.
Arsenal Allow Access
Once Arsenal took a surprising lead, Liverpool’s response was that of a team hungry to be crowned champions at the end of the campaign. Three minutes after Arsenal scored, Roberto Firmino equalized.
Firmino received the ball considerably far from goal at the halfway line. After beating Torreira, he somehow had immediate access to Arsenal’s back four. The Brazilian then fed Mohamed Salah who had moved into the right channel, and he was tackled by Xhaka after entering the box. That tackle then pinballed around Arsenal’s defenders, past Leno and into the path of Firmino to finish, who had continued his run after playing Salah through.
Two minutes later, Firmino scored another to give the home side the lead. Ramsey received the ball in the middle of the park and passed backwards to Torreira, who took a poor touch. His rushed pass was intercepted by Sadio Mané. The ball was then gathered by Firmino, who again had immediate access, with Salah alongside him and only Mustafi and Sokratis to beat. Firmino used Salah as a decoy, beat both defenders with his right foot and finished with his left.
The 4-4-2 shape deployed by Emery meant that if the ball was lost when trying to build an attack, Arsenal would then immediately have Aubameyang, Ramsey, Maitland-Niles and Iwobi positioned too far away from the ball to help out with defensive cover. This left Xhaka and Torreira to deal with too much, and resulted in Arsenal’s back four being consistently exposed. Altogether, Arsenal’s system allowed Liverpool was simply too much, and this persisted throughout the match.
Liverpool’s Chaotic 4-2-3-1 formation
As the half progressed, the match descended into relative chaos, reminiscent of the Liverpool that Klopp managed last season. Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 is a lot more attacking, direct and hectic than the more controlled 4-3-3 that Klopp has previously preferred in ‘big matches’ this season. This is because the shape forces Liverpool to be top-heavy, with less players situated in central midfield, and instead occupying higher positions. This advanced positioning allows those players to be fed quicker, which can also result in those quick passes being intercepted or misplaced, ultimately leading to a fast-paced contest. Just what you want with Mané, Firmino and Salah up top.
When Emery’s side managed to bypass Liverpool’s press, Liverpool had similar problems to Arsenal in terms of allowing access. Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum were required to cover a lot of ground in order to protect their back four and did a lot better than Xhaka and Torreira.
Overall, both teams faced problems whenever their midfield pairing was isolated, but Liverpool’s active pressing and added compactness forced it to be a more prominent issue for the away side.
Liverpool then added another two goals before half-time. A poorly delivered corner was cleared by Aubameyang, but that ball was then hit diagonally by Andrew Robertson towards Salah. Salah was played onside by Arsenal’s uneven defensive line, and he used his first touch to assist Mané who scored the third.
Then, Salah won and scored a penalty on the stroke of half-time. Alisson quickly hit an impressive pass to Firmino after a failed Arsenal attack, and he once again had immediate access to Arsenal’s defense. Firmino then carried the ball inside from the right flank, fed Salah who ran in behind, and Sokratis fouled the Egyptian in a desperate attempt to recover.
Arsenal are the first visitors to Anfield to concede four goals in the first half since Arsenal (in February 2014).— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) December 29, 2018
Emery Left Deflated
As the match progressed into the latter stages and Roberto Firmino added a fifth from the penalty spot after a foul on Lovren, the competitive edge was completely lost. In many matches this season, Emery has enforced an inspired tactical change to alter the course of the proceedings. Being behind three goals at half-time against the unbeaten league leaders was simply a too big mountain to climb, however.
Emery did make three substitutes throughout the half, but they were ineffectual. Laurent Koscielny took the place of Mustafi at half-time which was perhaps due to injury, Alexandre Lacazette came on for Aubameyang which is like-for-like, and Mattéo Guendouzi came on for Kolašinac with ten minutes to go. These dull alterations hinted at a lack of options for the Arsenal manager to change things, and perhaps a lack of belief that the score line could be recovered.
After Mané’s substitution for Jordan Henderson, Liverpool had formed a more conservative 4-4-1-1 formation when Arsenal had the ball. This often turned into a 4-5-1 shape, with Firmino dropping back into midfield, leaving Salah as the most advanced player to be utilized when counterattacking. Liverpool were then able to control the remainder of the match, with Arsenal struggling to play through Liverpool’s packed midfield area. The only thing noteworthy being another penalty kick for Liverpool, which Firmino converted.
Scoring five goals, Liverpool ran out deserved winners after their attack proved too much for Arsenal’s fragile defense. Arsenal took an early lead by punishing Liverpool’s attempts to play out from the back, but it did not prove to be a sign of things to come.
The shape employed by Unai Emery did not provide enough defensive assurance for the limited and aging players in his back four, and they struggled to cope with Liverpool’s offensive approach and formation. Despite scoring twice from the penalty spot and once from a set-piece, Liverpool’s overall play deserved the three points.
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