Match date: 14 August 2016
A tough match for both sides to start the new season, but certainly more so for Arsenal who entered the match without either Mertesacker or Koscielny at centre back, leaving Calum Chambers and Rob Holding to fill in. Along with that, Wenger opted to leave Granit Xhaka on the bench with a midfield three of Coquelin and Eleney behind Ramsey in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1.
For Liverpool, who had a first and relatively ‘successful’ preseason under Klopp, came into the game with a few question marks in the starting XI, but were certainly in much better shape than the Gunners and got off to a flying start as Klopp wanted and is necessary for Liverpool if they want to push for a top four finish.
Arsenal Attack Out Wide, Press Well
Despite having around five players that will not consistently get into their starting XI throughout the season, Arsenal started the game fairly well as they put Liverpool’s midfield and back four under a good amount of pressure early on. There were a few different things to look at, with the first being Aaron Ramsey’s runs. The Welsh international was playing just behind Alexis and was consistently making runs into the channels, but also beyond the Liverpool back four. He had a good chance with less than ten minutes played after making a run into the penalty area and another after Alberto Moreno headed the ball into his path. This was a big part of Arsenal’s first half dominance, but a lot of Ramsey’s freedom came from Jordan Henderson’s indiscipline in the holding role that he was deployed, presumably only because Can was on the bench. Henderson was overall okay in his role, but at times pressed too high and allowed Ramsey to run off of him out wide. Below is a good example when Ramsey peeled off Henderson.
A lot of Arsenal’s attacks came in the wide areas which was because of Liverpool’s narrow 4-3-3 mid-block. There were few times when Chambers or Holding were on the ball that Arsenal were able to get by Liverpool’s compact front three and midfield and get the ball directly into Coquelin, Elneny, or Ramsey. As Liverpool screened the central passing lanes, however, it allowed Arsenal to attack in the wide areas through Monreal, Bellerin, Walcott, and Iwobi.
Liverpool were vulnerable in these areas, especially with Walcott isolated against Moreno. The Liverpool left back has caught a lot of criticism with his rash decision making and positioning and this game would not do him any favours with Liverpool supporters as he gave away a penalty and was caught too high on a few occasions, only to be exploited once by Walcott.
Generally, Arsenal’s best attacking play in the first half was due to Liverpool’s sloppy passing and Arsenal’s very good pressing in the middle of the field. While Arsenal struggled at times to build from the back and bypass Liverpool’s midfield to launch attacks, they were consistently able to win the ball back from Liverpool.
This came down to a few different things; Liverpool simply looked sluggish and their attacking players’ communication and movement seemed a half second off, but because Arsenal were overloading the wide areas, in particular, when they lost the ball, they were quickly able to win the ball back and launch quick attacks as Liverpool were caught transitioning from defense to attack and causing destabilisation in their defensive structure. An obvious example of this is the game’s opening goal, when Liverpool won the ball back at the edge of their area. At this point, Moreno already began to move forward, while Liverpool’s out ball was to Adam Lallana who was just inside the middle third of the field, but isolated against Coquelin, with no passing option. Once Arsenal won the ball back, Moreno was caught too high and Arsenal took advantage.
This is not to say that Liverpool were particularly good defending on the right either. A perfect example was Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal when he got past two Liverpool players, but the issues were similar to those mentioned above; Liverpool’s front three and midfield allowed for the ball to be moved out wide and the runs of Ramsey were generally to the left side of Arsenal’s attack (he came from the side on both of his chances). Arsenal’s attacks in the wide areas were different. On the left, they looked to overload that area with Ramsey, Alexis, Iwobi, and Monreal working together in a right space to try to unlock Liverpool, while on the left side the plan seemed to be to isolate Walcott against Moreno, as mentioned above. Below is Arsenal’s passing down each side.
The second half was a much different match overall. The first notable change was Liverpool’s willingness to press higher up the pitch and really put Chambers and Holding under pressure when they had the ball, while forcing them into deeper positions to receive from Cech and act as depth for their midfielders, rather than simply limiting the two Arsenal centre backs’ passing options into midfield. This meant that Arsenal were forced to go long and, without Giroud, Liverpool’s centre backs and midfield were comfortable in winning the ball back. Below is a good example from very early on in the second half with Chambers on the ball having received a pass from Monreal, who was pressed by Mane.
Once Liverpool got on the ball, they were much more patient and Arsenal were already deeper based on Liverpool’s pressing, which allowed Liverpool players more time on the ball without Arsenal’s ability to press as quickly. This allowed Liverpool to build up their attacks with much more structure in their build up play, getting the ball in Arsenal’s final third, and allowing freedom to Coutinho, Firmino, Mane, Wijnaldum, and Lallana. From this we saw Arsenal continually look unbalanced as those five Liverpool players began to overload the middle of the field. Liverpool’s second and third goals both involved good build up play, but also a player showing into the space between the Arsenal back four and midfield (Coutinho in the second goal, Wijnaldum in the third), and a runner beyond the ball in the final third (Wijnaldum in the second, less so Clyne in the third).
Liverpool’s fourth goal was almost entirely down to Mane’s individual ability, but it started with Liverpool’s high positioning on Cech’s goal kick, forcing him long. Lovren won the header, Wijnaldum won the second ball, and Lallana played a ball down the line to Mane.
Arsene Wenger made all three substitutions in eight minutes with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, and new signing Xhaka coming on. In that time, Mane and Oxlade-Chamberlain scored making the score 4-2, and with that scoreline, it forced Arsenal to get forward and pinned Liverpool back a bit, but the away side maintained decent shape with their 4-3-3 collapsing into a 4-1-4-1 and forced Arsenal into wide areas. Emre Can was brought on soon after Arsenal’s second goal, which pushed Henderson further forward and gave Liverpool a bit more balance as they dropped deeper.
It can mostly be put down to a coincidence that Arsenal showed better after the substitutions; again with Liverpool up 4-1, Arsenal were always going to push to get more goals and try to get something out of the game. Obviously, Xhaka and Cazorla are overall more quality players to have on the field, but their introductions were not direct causation for Arsenal’s final push.
Liverpool were able to kill the game off in some respects.Origi was brought on and offered Liverpool both a strong player that was able to hold the ball up and someone to get in behind the Arsenal back four. With that, Liverpool were able to keep the ball well, assisted by Arsenal’s seemingly unwillingness to really press the ball.
After the match, Lallana revealed that Klopp instructed his team to get on the ball more, which can account for their patience in the second half, and to show more energy in their pressing, which was shown when they pressed Arsenal higher up the pitch.
Wenger’s side were passive in the second half; they struggled when Liverpool had the ball in their own half, whereas in Liverpool’s half, they looked more willing to take chances to press the ball. When Arsenal pressed high, they got chances and rewards from it.
An interesting note: five of the seven goals were scored by former Southampton players in Walcott, Lallana, Mane, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Chambers.
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