One of the biggest games of the first half of the season is knocking on the door and people are wondering if Arsenal are ready for it. Hosting the in-form Liverpool on Saturday will be the real test for Unai Emery’s side where they need to show off their improvement as a team. After a frustrating draw with Crystal Palace and quite a few defensive issues on the agenda, it’s going to be all or nothing for the Londoners. The Reds on the other side are still unbeaten in the league and sitting in the second place with 8 wins, 2 draws and 26 points with only the goal difference tearing them apart from Manchester City.
Although the Gunners are unbeaten in their last 8 Premier League games too, there is still a doubt that the team is about to stop Liverpool from getting the three points home. There is an enormous improvement since the start of the season but the problems at the back are still present and it seems like the Merseyside’s killer trio Salah – Mane – Firmino is not going to miss the chance and exploit every inch of free space left.
But how could Arsenal get control over the game and defend effectively enough to stop the Liverpool machine?
Unai Emery is going to be prepared
Unai Emery is known for his ability to explore every part of the opponent’s game. He is surely about to watch hundreds of videos of Liverpool’s style of play, address their strengths and weaknesses and make sure that the players get prepared too. He will dive into the game with a perfectly shaped structure and plan for action, although it could be unpredictable and make no sense to most of us.
The team needs to be disciplined and focused so it can counter press effectively during the first half. It is well known that the Reds put an immense pressure in the first 20-25 minutes of every game and the Arsenal players need to stop this if they want to have a chance at all. They could do it if they try to keep the possession as much as possible and bring the lines closer so there won’t be any space for the Liverpool players to operate in.
It is interesting, what is going to be the formation that the manager is about to choose? Is he going to stick to 4-2-3-1 or he is going to seek an off-beat move and count on getting the Jurgen Klopp’s side surprised?
Try the Napoli way
Napoli became the only team to defeat Liverpool this term in a 1-0 win in the Champions League group stage. Carlos Ancelotti went for a different formation than his preferred one and it turned out as a pretty successful move. The team used the 4-4-2 formation when out of possession making sure they are secure at the back. But also using the forwards Insigne and Milik to drop a little while the central midfielders push up and stop Liverpool from playing through the lines, which is where they are most dangerous at. And then, they had the wide pair bring support to the back line during the defensive transition.
When in possession, though, he switched to a three-man defence (3-4-2-1). This allowed his right-back to do diagonal runs whilst the left-back was sitting back in the half-space. They were trying to rotate the ball in the centre midfield so the right-back would be able to join the attack.
How could the 4-4-2 apply to the Arsenal? If Emery takes the risk to not play the captain Mesut Ozil (which I genuinely do not believe) the team could use Iwobi on the left and Mkhitaryan on the right. That’s only in case if the central midfield pair is back to basics with Torreira and Xhaka. And then you have Aubameyang and Lacazette in a two-man forward line which could work much better than having Auba out wide on the left.
When in possession, Bellerin could do his regular job and join the attack with runs on the right in more of a 3-5-2 formation. The team should start the attacks from the back and try to release the pressure put over the centre-backs with giving the ball to the sides, not trying to play inside as Liverpool’s midfielders will try to use the created spaces, get the possession and create goal scoring opportunities. The Arsenal could use long balls from one side to another so they can release the pressure and have time to fix their structure during the offensive transition.
The most common formation for the team is 4-3-3 with Mane, Firmino and Salah as the front-three. Against Napoli, Klopp had Wijnaldum, Milner and Keita (later Henderson) in the middle, with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold as full-backs and Van Dijk and Gomez in the central-defence. Something they regularly do this season is escaping the press with Andy Robertson going up the pitch and Mane dropping deeper to receive the ball. Liverpool usually puts speed into the free spaces and that leaves the opponents unable to react. They wait for the moment when they can use a high press to win the ball and do a fast offensive transition. Usually, when defending Salah and Mane stay in dead positions in the middle of the pitch where there are uncovered so when they win the ball they have a free area to operate in. That’s why the defender should always be at the back of the attacking players with for example Torreira and Xhaka delivering support while moving back.
What is going to help to the Arsenal’s players chasing their opponents closely is their improvement when it comes to covered distance per game. It’s their best season so far as they average a 114 km covered distance per 90 minutes, compared to 112km in 2017/18 and 110km in 2016/17.
There is no place for disorganization against Liverpool. Unai Emery should have all of their moves perfectly measured at least during the first half so they can get a chance to be creative against a more tired Liverpool side after the break. The players need to be aware that every little mistake during defensive actions will be properly used and transformed into a dangerous opportunity. So they need to be focused, disciplined and mentally strong.