The 3-1 defeat to Liverpool on Saturday left me unsure how to feel. Clearly, I was not the only one. A quick browse of social media showed some people claiming signs of progress, whilst others arguing that the same weaknesses came to the fore again. Instead of madness from Mustafi, it was Luiz lunacy. A quickfire Mohammed Salah double after half-time saw the Arsenal side retreat into their shell, undoubtedly with fears of another 5-1 type of humiliation on the cards. This article shall analyse whether the performance was “same old Arsenal”, or whether there were shoots of promise emerging from the defeat.
Previously Unai Emery had experimented with a mixture of 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 3-4-1-2, and I fully expected him to stick to one of these formations. Typically, he favours pragmatism. However, much of this appeared to be thrown out the window in a bizarre team selection that left me asking serious questions- even Jurgen Klopp seemed shocked by the choice of formation. Emery opted for a midfield diamond in front of a back four, leaving the pacey Pepe and Aubameyang up front to try and launch counter-attacks and exploit the space left by Liverpool’s attacking full-backs. Having called for five defenders in my preview, the selection really worried me. Unfortunately, I was right to be worried.
Giving up width?
Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin cannot come back from injury fast enough. In their stead, Unai Emery decided to hand a start to Nacho Monreal over Sead Kolasinac, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles starting at right-back. Monreal has been a great servant for the club, having joined in January 2013, but it is clear that he is well past his best. Both he and Luiz on the left side of Arsenal’s defence suffered a torrid afternoon at Salah’s hands. Equally, Maitland-Niles is not, nor has he ever been, a right-back. Going forward he is fantastic, but he remains defensively suspect. At present, Arsenal cannot play a back four against quality width. To compound this error, the midfield offered no defensive support, against a side who play a 4-3-3 with overlapping full-backs. The result of this was almost inevitable. Wide overloads left Liverpool’s front three able to move inside and overwhelm Arsenal’s defence. Emery tried to expose Liverpool’s perceived weaknesses with his system choice, but he seemingly forgot the need to nullify their greatest threats.
Whilst playing a back four was risky, playing a narrow midfield diamond was suicidal. Outside midfielders Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi were both largely bypassed, whilst Ceballos struggled to get on the ball. Equally, the lack of width, as well as lack of full-back support, meant that a wide “out ball” wasn’t an option. I understand that the point of the formation was to try and dominate the midfield, but it failed miserably and left the defence severely exposed. Asking Joe Willock to play in this game, as inexperienced as he is was, I thought, a step too far. In fact, he was the best Arsenal midfielder on show, brave on the ball and tenacious off it. It’s early days but if he carries on, he will go straight to the top. Honestly, I felt sorry for all four midfielders who were clearly the victim of a poor system-choice.
Alongside Joe Willock, Nicolas Pepe was another Arsenal player who came out of this game with some credibility. He and Aubameyang had the Liverpool centre-back terrified of their pace and were it not for a poor shot, his efforts would have been rewarded with a goal in the 34th minute. It was a baptism of fire for the Ivorian, who will very quickly realise that opportunities such as the one he had must be taken at this level. His tears at the final whistle suggest that may have already. His pace and talent are undeniable, and he certainly offers Arsenal another dimension in attack. If he can work on his end product, he could be one of the best in the league.
Despite the positives, it was the case that individual mistakes cost us. Again. We all knew that David Luiz was going to have moments of idiocy, although I think that it’s safe to say that we didn’t expect them this early into the season. There can be no excuses for the penalty, although his decision-making for the third goal was, in my opinion, made upon his recognition of Arsenal’s general lack of pace in defence. Either way, both were mistakes which cost Arsenal goals. It is easy to say that had Pepe scored in the first half the game would have been different, but the truth is no-one can have expected us not to concede at Anfield.
Liverpool away was always going to be a tough game. Over the first 80 minutes, they showed why they are European champions and ultimately won quite comfortably. I could understand what Emery was trying to do with his team selection, but also could point out far more problems to his tactics than solutions. MOTD Commentator Jonathan Pearce claimed that Arsenal will win nothing with the current defence, yet it is worth noting that at least the full-backs, and possibly a centre-back, will be different by next season.
Having failed to sign Dayot Upamecano from RB Leipzig, and with Rob Holding still injured, David Luiz was always going to be little more than a stop-gap. This is especially the case with William Saliba returning from loan next summer. I optimistically predicted a 2-2 draw, but I clearly overestimated the progress which we had made. However, with Pepe looking dangerous and youth proving promising, this feels as if it will be another transition year for us.
The Liverpool side we faced must surely be close to Emery’s final vision, with an elite front three and a high-press system. For them, it took a world-class defender to transform their side into title challengers. It seems to me like Arsenal are getting closer, but are still a couple of quality defenders away from anything similar. No-one likes losing, but losing in the manner we did gives me some hope for the rest of the season, especially for the Tottenham game next weekend. Top four is ours to lose.