Liverpool and Arsenal came into the game as the only two teams in the league with 100% win records. Unfortunately for the North London club, they would yet again falter at Merseyside. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are unbeaten in now 42 games at Anfield. A run extending two years.
Despite all the new buzz around this season’s Arsenal, it’d be the same old same old at Anfield. Let’s see why this was through exploring the tactics imported by Unai Emery and Jurgen Klopp.
Emery interestingly chose to go with a 4-3-1-2 which we will breakdown later. Nicolas Pepe made his first start and would play a big part in Arsenal’s transition attack. Youth product Joe Willock made his third consecutive start despite Anfield being a huge test.
A very predictable lineup from Liverpool. The famed front three who claimed the European Championship lead the team, with Roberto Firmino coming into the game having scored eight goals in eight games against Arsenal.
Where Emery goes wrong
Arsenal succeeded in possession and dropped deep. As most would’ve expected. Arsenal wanted to hit Liverpool on the counter through the front two of Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe. In his first ever start for Arsenal, Pepe looked lively. He became the first player to dribble past Virgil van Dijk in 50 games. He also would make four shots, with two on target, through counter-attacking play. But this wasn’t where Emery would go wrong. As Arsenal would create chances and generally look dangerous, the game’s xG (expected goal) was kept close up until Joel Matip’s opening goal in the 41st minute which came through a corner.
Where Emery would go wrong would be in his defensive structure- using a 4-3-1-2 formation which was very surprising. Especially when considering how Emery used a 4-4-2 deep block against Barcelona in preseason and saw relative success with it. The midfield three would be pulled and stretched creating gaps for Liverpool’s attack to exploit. Liverpool attempted a staggering 259 passes in Arsenal’s attacking third.
Also, more importantly, completing 20 passes into Arsenal’s penalty box. Below is a graphic showing all of the home sides passes into the penalty box. Through analysis we can see that a lot of these passes are coming from the top of the box, the area defended by the midfield line.
Liverpool’s second goal would be directly from this area, as Firmino received the ball in space through a gap in the midfield line and created a chance for Salah.
Teams such as Manchester City and Fulham have attempted to pin Liverpool’s fullbacks back in their own half through tactics. This has been a successful approach yet Arsenal did not opt for this way of dealing with them. Instead, they didn’t try to deal with them at all.
Due to the fact that Arsenal defended so narrowly, this afforded Liverpool’s star fullback duo of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to do what they do best: attack. Their positioning and body positioning allowed them to stretch the midfield and defensive lines of Arsenal. When Liverpool were settled in possession they would rotate the ball side-to-side through Fabinho, looking for space on either flank for one of the fullbacks. Robertson made 30 passes in the attacking third, the most in the match. Second most in the match went to Trent with 28.
Wide forwards Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane would come inside when the ball went wide. Allowing for the fullbacks to occupy the wide space. Arsenal defending narrowly would give them free space to produce service. This was simply a significant problem as Trent Alexander-Arnold created the most chances in the match with six. He would terrorize the gunners left flank. Anytime he’d receive the ball in space you knew a cross was coming. He attempted the most crosses in the match with 13.
Buildup phases a deciding factor
Buildup phases has been a hot topic as of late in the world of football. However, in this game it was a significant talking point. Last week we detailed how Arsenal’s play during buildup phases significantly improved in contrast to last season. But Burnley’s relatively simple pressing scheme would still manage to cause problems. So interestingly Emery would continue to buildup from the goalkeeper during Arsenal’s buildup phases- despite Liverpool being incredibly effective at winning the ball during opposition buildup phases.
Jurgen Klopp’s pressing scheme during buildup phases is man-oriented. Each player is effectively positioned to cut off a passing lane. Forcing players only to move the ball backwards inviting pressure and creating a turnover. Due to this Arsenal would struggle to transition into Liverpool’s half. Arsenal attempted 217 passes in their own defensive third. In comparison only completing 64 in Liverpool’s attacking third.
Being pinned in their own half would only lead to problems. Klopp’s men created 19 chances to the away sides five. Arsenal’s shaky backline would be under constant pressure. Sokratis, Luiz, and Xhaka were all tied for the most blocks in the game with three each.
Southampton attempted to intensely press Liverpool the match day before. They created 51 ball recoveries which nearly tied Liverpool’s tally of 52. They were also able to create seven chances and four big chances which were more than the European Champions did. It was noticeably clear that Southampton, by pressing during the buildup phases, found a tactical edge.
Emery elected for Arsenal to drop into defensive shape during opposition buildup phases. This allowed for the ball to be waltzed into the gunner’s attacking third with little problems. After seeing the results of Southampton’s approach you could argue a more intensive pressing approach could have benefited Arsenal.
Going to a stronghold such as Anfield was never going to be easy. But the difference in performance from last season’s disaster in Merseyside can certainly be seen as a positive. Klopp tactically beat Emery but it was interesting that he decided to stick with principles of play rather than adjusting them for the opposition. You could argue that after seeing Arsenal’s first three games that he is attempting to set in stone some of these principles.
Chances were there for Arsenal to get something from this game but were certainly limited due to their lack of execution and end product.