Sometimes in football, you lose because of things that your team did. Sometimes in football, you lose because of things your manager did. Sometimes in football, you lose because of things the opposition did. Sometimes in football, you lose because of things the opposing manager did.
Arsenal’s defeat to Liverpool on Saturday showcased that sometimes, you lose because of all four of those things.
The 3-1 defeat was a result that drew mixed reactions from Arsenal fans, with some praising the team for their endeavour, and for not capitulating visive the previous two visits, while some were angry at yet more individual errors costing Arsenal goals, and potentially points.
Yet the reality is simple: Arsenal are a long, long way behind Liverpool in every facet of football: squad building, tactical maturity, big-game mentality, away-game mentality, atmosphere and optimism. The Reds passed the Gunners sometime in the 2016/17 season and haven’t looked back. But there was some evidence on Saturday that the tide was starting to turn.
On a basic tactical level, Arsenal set up well in the first 35 minutes. Compact, organised and mature, coupled with a willingness to fight for balls in dispute, led to Arsenal being able to absorb pressure and respond.
An unusual approach showed tactical adaptability, there were signs of on-field leadership so badly lacking. A bit more coolness in front of goal and the Gunners probably would’ve been in front by the time Joel Matip opened the scoring.
The first goal preceded a period where, having been Liverpool’s equal for the majority of the game, Arsenal showed they have some catching up to do to truly challenge for the Premier League.
All three goals were errors – obvious or not – from the centre-backs, who really shouldn’t be starting together. Neither Sokratis – a slightly above average defender and slightly below average ball player (for a top six side) – or David Luiz – a 32-year old proactive defender in a team full of proactive defenders – probably should’ve been starting at all, and certainly not together.
Having two similarly-styled defenders, particularly when they are both average in the air and aggressive in positioning, is like holding a grenade with the pin pulled out.
Of course, Arsenal ultimately ran out of both time and money to bring in an elite central defender, but with Calum Chambers – a covering player – an option, Unai Emery needed to show more tactical maturity and name his defence based on roles, not reputation. It was a classic case of shoehorning in an area where you won’t get away with it.
In the end, Sokratis’ poor marking and Luiz’s poor decision making were the moments that cost Arsenal the game, and it’s clear an £8m outlay, nor an 18-year old for next year, represents a complete fix of Arsenal’s defence, if you can even call it that sometimes.
However, Unai Emery also showed some tactical naivety. The gravity of such a fixture represented a challenge for the Spaniard, and admittedly he didn’t have three of his best four defenders available.
But to choose the diamond 4-4-2 formation, allowing Liverpool’s most damaging creators – their fullbacks – time and space on the ball was a major tactical error. The use of the midfield diamond last year allowed Arsenal to counterpress effectively in big games, but only at home because they would dominate the ball.
At Anfield, Emery’s expectation that the same tactic would work when Liverpool were dominating both possession and territory was neglectful at best, and outright poor at worst. The theory of the diamond last year was to get the best out of Mesut Ozil and Arsenal’s two main strikers, yet only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started out of those three.
Emery also needed to take a more proactive approach after the 35thminute, as Liverpool started to restrict Arsenal’s ability to break. Arsenal’s counter attacks before this were making Liverpool slightly more conservative in attack, reducing the pressure the defence was under, but when this dried up, the team was having to absorb an unsustainable amount of pressure, resulting in sub-par centre backs making errors, a reaction should be easy to see coming. For such a proactive manager, it was baffling.
Liverpool, though, are a brilliant side, and a competitive 3-1 loss without Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney is enough of a result to take some positives into the derby next week, representing the hope that things will turn quickly.
After all, it did for Liverpool, who were brilliant on the flanks and in attack, representing a model for Arsenal to follow and adapt. Jurgen Klopp showed a sound tactical mind by dropping Fabinho 10 yards deeper in the second half to destroy Arsenal’s counter, and by funnelling every attack through Liverpool’s fullbacks (who attempted 24 crosses in the first half alone).
Mohammed Salah was brilliant: pacey, incisive and able to move from the periphery to centre stage in an instant. It’s why he’s a star, and why he’s significantly better than any option Arsenal have, anywhere on the pitch.
Overall though, it’s a result with more positives than Arsenal’s most recent trips to Anfield. The spirit and commitment shown by the players was heartening. The structure and tactics, despite being the wrong ones, were implemented well by the players.
Nicolas Pepe seems like a signing that will work, and Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi showed more promise, albeit in slightly unfamiliar roles.
Yet these positives do not overshadow the crux of Arsenal’s problem this season: coming from a long way back. The players, the tactics and the game-management were all still behind Liverpool, just not as far behind as it was. It was a contradictory result: one which showcased how far Arsenal have come in just a season, and one that showed just how far they have to go.