Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool: Arsenal adapt well to Rodgers’ tactical decisions

November 4, 2013

The starting line-ups

Arsenal triumphed in a fast-paced and tactically interesting contest.

With Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini out, Arsene Wenger had no real selection dilemmas.

Brendan Rodgers continued with his 3-5-2 system, although was without both first-choice wing-backs, with Glen Johnson a late withdrawal – Jon Flanagan played instead.

Arsenal were the better side – just about keeping Liverpool’s front two quiet, and dominating both centrally and down the flanks in possession.

Sturridge-Suarez v Koscielny-Mertesacker

The crucial battle in this game was Liverpool’s front two against Arsenal’s centre-backs. Liverpool’s unusual formation (in Premier League terms, at least) is clearly designed to get Suarez and Sturridge playing high up the pitch, close together. The 3-5-2 means Liverpool can field two out-and-out strikers, without being overrun in the centre of midfield.

There’s a lack of creativity from deeper positions, however – Steven Gerrard was unusually quiet – and Liverpool tend to be dominated down the flanks with this formation, conceding too much pressure. They’re yet to keep a clean sheet with the 3-5-2, and Arsenal have scored in each of their Premier League matches this season.

Therefore, a rather simplified but fairly accurate overview of the game was this: if Arsenal could keep Suarez and Sturridge quiet, they would win the game.

Liverpool play direct

Liverpool played two long balls in the first couple of minutes – which is obviously not the type of football Brendan Rodgers usually requests, but it showed that Liverpool knew where their area of strength was. Arsenal rarely face two out-and-out strikers, especially the Emirates, and this was arguably Mertesacker and Koscielny’s biggest defensive test yet as a partnership.

Arsenal had two major solutions to the threat posed by Liverpool’s front two. First, Mikel Arteta played an extremely deep role in front of the defence, almost as a forward-playing centre-back at times. Flamini would have been a better player for this role, at least on paper, and Wenger would probably have fielded the duo together if possible. Arteta isn’t a natural in a role as defensive as this, but he remained in a deep position reliably, and Mertesacker was happy to pass on Suarez or Sturridge when they dropped into deeper roles.

Arteta’s interpretation of the role is reactive rather than proactive. He’s constantly darting across to make a challenge in front of the back four, and sometimes seems a yard behind the action – but he always seemed to rectify the situation with a well-timed challenge. He doesn’t have the natural positional sense of say, a Gilberto Silva in a role as defensive at this, but overall he performed well.

Second, Koscielny was at his most proactive. When playing alongside Mertesacker he’s a very forward-thinking defender who relentlessly closes down opponents when they drop into deeper positions. It wasn’t uncommon to see Koscielny closing down Suarez (or Sturridge) even if it meant moving 20 yards in front of Mertesacker. He absolutely had to win the challenges, of course, as he risked exposing Mertesacker two-against-one if Suarez dribbled past – although Arteta, again, did a good job of filling in.

And while Koscielny’s success rate wasn’t perfect, a key feature of the game was the poor dribbling statistics of Suarez and Sturridge. Had they consistently escaped Koscielny’s pressure, Liverpool would have been much more dangerous.

A particularly telling statistic, in terms of Arsenal’s defending, was that Koscielny attempted 11 tackles or interceptions in the game, and Mertesacker none. The German remained in a much deeper position and played a much calmer role – and while his lack of pace is frequently (and fairly) cited as a weakness, he consistently positions himself excellently so this shortcoming isn’t exposed.

Liverpool breaks

Liverpool were most dangerous when Jordan Henderson, fielded at the top of the midfield triangle, broke forward on the counter-attack to join the front two. There have been suggestions that Henderson would have been better off on the right, with a more creative player used as the number ten, but Rodgers’ decision to play Henderson centrally was understandable given his excellent display in this role against Arsenal last season, when his energy was crucial in Liverpool’s pressing.

Here, Aaron Ramsey played a reasonably advanced role and often left Arteta a little exposed, so Henderson could overwhelm the Spaniard on the break.

There were three promising moments in this respect. First, on six minutes when Suarez was penalised for a high foot, preventing Liverpool breaking three-on-three after a corner. Second, one nine minutes when Henderson won the ball from Santi Cazorla and drove forward into oceans of space, before delaying a decision and eventually shooting weakly. Third, when Liverpool broke from a free-kick and Bacary Sagna cynically hauled down Suarez – again Liverpool were attacking three-on-three, and were denied the opportunity to restart their move quickly by the referee.

When Liverpool broke quickly, they were dangerous, but when Arsenal got men behind the ball, they lacked incision from the midfielders.

Full-backs

Arsenal’s obvious area of strength was down the flanks, where the full-backs had plenty of space to scamper into – but when both Kieran Gibbs and Sagna advanced, it left Arsenal’s centre-backs exposed. Liverpool had to strike while Arsenal’s full-backs were unable to help.

Gibbs and Sagna attacked responsibly – one was usually cautious and in position to assist the centre-backs if passing moves broke down. Nevertheless, they had ample opportunity to get forward and take advantage of the space, and Sagna provided the crucial cross for Cazorla’s opener. Crossing has been an prominent part of Arsenal’s gameplan recently – they’ve scored from crosses or cut-backs against Norwich, Napoli, Dortmund and Crystal Palace in recent weeks.

Sagna was one of Arsenal’s better performers, and consistently won individual battles against Cissokho – who was beaten for pace on the goal, was later booked for a foul on Sagna, and was withdrawn at half-time.

You can also partly blame Liverpool’s system for the concession – as Mamadou Sakho moved out of the defence they remained two-against-one with Giroud in the centre, but Flanagan’s advanced positioning meant he wasn’t able to get back goalside of Cazorla, who found a pocket of space – a proper right-back (in a back four) would probably have been covering.

Arsenal possession play

Arsenal started by using both Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky narrow. Although this is both players’ natural style and ensured Arsenal dominated the centre of the pitch, it meant that Liverpool found it easy to press and win the ball. The away side had lots of players in central positions, and when they wanted to press, they didn’t have to cover a large distance – Arsenal might have been better off stretching the play more.

Liverpool switched to a back four for the second half, while Arsenal sat deeper

However, once Liverpool’s pressing dropped after about 15 minutes, Arsenal’s passing in the midfield zone was extremely slick. Mesut Ozil was relatively quiet, but Lucas Leiva was particularly keen to stick to him, and therefore unable to stop Arsenal’s other attacking players. Liverpool’s midfield zone seemed rather disorganised, with Gerrard and Lucas often bypassed too easily.

For long periods – especially once ahead – Arsenal took advantage of the fact Liverpool’s three-versus-one against Giroud meant Arsenal had more men in deeper positions. Arsenal always had a free player, effectively nine-against-seven across the rest of the pitch – and while they didn’t relentlessly threaten Mignolet, they calmed the tempo of the game and retained control.

On a related note, it was surprising that one Liverpool’s wide centre-backs didn’t move forward when Liverpool had the ball – they stayed in position, three-against-one with Giroud, and Liverpool lacked numbers higher up the pitch. One of the back three should have advanced, which would have enabled the relevant wing-back to push on, too.

Liverpool change shape

Rodgers changed his system after the break, moving to a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 with Cissokho taken off and Coutinho on down the left flank. This was a logical change with Liverpool needing to get back into the game, and Coutinho was fielded in a very narrow left-sided role, moving inside into his favoured number ten position.

This potentially made Liverpool’s strike duo even more dangerous, but although Coutinho found space by darting inside between the lines, his attempted through-balls were consistently overhit. On his return from injury, this was a fine demonstration of the concept of ‘match sharpness’ – the Brazilian simply wasn’t on his game, and that made Liverpool’s gameplan ineffective.

Wenger was more animated than usual, and repeatedly urged his midfield to drop back and be more compact. This was a particular problem, with Arteta frequently left stranded in front of the defence, and overworked as a result. Ramsey’s advanced positioning was to blame, but the Welshman more than compensated for his relative lack of defensive support with his excellent goal. From then, he played more cautiously and the wide players protected the full-backs.

Subs

The substitutions were interesting – Rodgers brought on Victor Moses for Flanagan, and moved Henderson to right-back. He scampered forward to hit a dangerous cross into the box, prompting Wenger to bring on Nacho Monreal in his familiar role as a late defensive winger, up against Henderson. A right-midfielder at right-back was playing against a left-back at left-midfield.

Thomas Vermaelen replaced Gibbs because of injury, and then Carl Jenkinson replaced Cazorla. Arsenal ended the game with two full-backs in the wide positions, summing up how keen Wenger was to protect his defence. Denied the opportunity to break directly at Arsenal’s  centre-backs, Liverpool were less threatening.

Conclusion

Wenger will be pleased Arsenal managed to stop Suarez and Sturridge from scoring, which was Arsenal’s major task. Koscielny’s aggressive positioning and Arteta’s role in front of the back four were particularly important in this regard.

Going forward, Arsenal weren’t at their best – but they passed the ball slickly and were aware of the need to push the full-backs forward, taking advantage of Liverpool’s weakness out wide. They were too open at the start of the second half, but Wenger urged his side back into a good defensive shape.

Rodgers’ side were eventually well beaten, but it’s hard to fault many of his decisions. It was understandable to start with the 3-5-2 given its recent success, and the decision to keep Henderson central made sense considering his performance in this game last year. His forward charges from the top of midfield allowed Liverpool to break dangerously.

It was also a logical early decision to revert to the 4-4-2 with Coutinho coming inside off the flank – he was dangerous, if frustratingly ineffective with his passing. Moving Henderson to right-back, in order to accommodate another attacker also made sense, with Liverpool having a good spell of late pressure.


Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool: Arsenal adapt well to Rodgers’ tactical decisions

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