Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal: Cazorla stays high up and exploits space between the lines
Arsenal started nervously but eventually got into their stride to record an impressive win over Liverpool.
Brendan Rodgers brought Daniel Agger straight back into the team after he was suspended for the draw against Manchester City, while Nuri Sahin was given his debut in midfield, in place of the injured Lucas Leiva.
Arsene Wenger kept his back four intact despite the return to fitness of Laurent Koscielny. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Gervinho on the right.
Liverpool dominated possession – 53% – but Arsenal were more penetrative with their passing, thanks to the positioning and use of the ball by Santi Cazorla between the lines.
Poor early start
The technical quality on show in the first 20 minutes or so was surprisingly poor – Liverpool got into decent positions in the final third but incisive balls were rare, and shots were constantly off target. They’d started better than Arsenal, however, who kept misplacing simple passes from defence. Carl Jenkinson was the main culprit – one suicidal ball across his own defence was particularly notable – but even Thomas Vermaelen, usually composed on the ball, hit one needless long straight pass out of play.
For this, Liverpool’s pressing must take some credit. Luis Suarez was particularly energetic in the way he started the pressure (for all of his disappointing moments in front of goal this season, few other strikers would be able to lead the pressing as well as he does), and he was backed up well by Fabio Borini and Raheem Sterling.
Without the ball
While Liverpool pressed heavily, Arsenal were more passive without the ball. They got into a very narrow shape with two clear banks of four, and Cazorla free to position himself where he wanted in order to launch counter-attacks, rather than helping defend. It was an approach similar to that favoured by Borussia Dortmund over the past couple of years – 4-2-3-1, but a solid 4-4-1-1 without the ball, and the central playmaker very close to the main central striker.
It was also notable how compact Arsenal were – the midfield stayed close to the centre-backs, so there was little space between the lines for the opposition to work in. This is something of a contrast from last year, when Alex Song (in theory their most defensive midfielder) became an additional playmaker and often moved high up the pitch, leaving space in between the lines.
Rotation or structure?
More importantly, it was a contrast from Liverpool’s system. Rodgers wanted a fluid central midfield three, at least partly because each of his three midfielders could play anywhere within the midfield zone. Joe Allen started as the deepest midfielder, but sometimes switched with Steven Gerrard and Sahin and found himself higher up the pitch. It would have been a different situation had Lucas been fit – he would have stayed deep and occupied a lateral zone in front of the back four.
And this situation was crucial in the outcome of the match. Liverpool’s fluidity works well on paper, but too often it meant they had a poor defensive shape. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but Sahin was probably used too early in his Liverpool career – he lacked an understanding with his midfield colleagues, and often looked as if he didn’t understand his role in the system, particularly defensively. That was obvious for Lukas Podolski’s opening goal, as he jogged back casually into the space where Cazorla had received the ball – between the lines, in the centre of the pitch.
This contrast was key in the nature of the passing. Liverpool’s were all broadly occupying the same zone and making themselves available for short, simple balls. With Cazorla higher up, they had more men in the centre of the pitch and saw more of the ball. Arsenal’s midfield had greater vertical depth and therefore incisive passes were more possible, particularly when Liverpool’s midfield pressed and moved high up the pitch, leaving Cazorla in space.
Cazorla would later score a fine goal after moving from a central position out to the left wing, into a position where no Liverpool player took responsibility for tracking him. That lateral movement is the most distinctive feature of his game, and it’s important he understands why he was so effective here – he stayed high up between the lines and didn’t drop into the midfield, as he did against Stoke, where he was trying to do the job Arteta does. Although in theory deployed centrally, he receives the ball more frequently in the ‘pockets’ of space in the channels, in a zone between the centre-back, full-back and central midfielder.
Other than that, the game was fairly simple. None of the wingers significantly got the better of their full-back, Olivier Giroud battled but couldn’t get past two centre-backs on his own, while Suarez was his usual all-action self, but kept failing with attempted dribbles.
There was no major progression in the tactical battle – naturally, Arsenal kept things the same, while Rodgers simply didn’t have the attacking options on the bench to change things. As he revealed after the game, he wouldn’t have let Andy Carroll leave for West Ham had he known no replacement was forthcoming, and Liverpool’s lack of attacking variety looks extremely concerning at this point.
Two differences here – the level of pressing, and the structure of the midfield. Liverpool pressed, Arsenal sat deeper. Liverpool had a fluid midfield triangle, Arsenal had a clear structure with two deep playmakers and a defined playmaker. Neither is necessarily ‘better’ than the other, but Arsenal took advantage of Liverpool’s tendency to leave space between the lines (because of the pressing and midfield rotation) and play in Cazorla. It was a neat tactical battle.
For Arsenal there’s much to be optimistic about. The combination of Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta was very good, with the former playing a powerful, driving midfield role, and the latter keeping things simple with good distribution. The defensive organisation also looks excellent, with three consecutive clean sheets.
Liverpool looked much poorer than in last week’s draw against Manchester City, although more time together should solve the problem with their midfield triangle.