Anfield hosted the game of the weekend, as Liverpool and Arsenal faced each other for the third round of Premier League 2019/20. The “Reds” started this game as the favourite side and confirmed the favouritism by extending their unbeaten streak at home to 42 games. On the other hand, the “Gunners”, who have been struggling to win against teams from the top six, (since January 2015 in 22 games against top six teams, eight draws and 11 defeats) ended up being easy prey to Liverpool. Jurgen’s Klopp team dominated the first half, (63% ball possession) while Arsenal tried to make an impact on the game with offensive transitions by using the pace and 1vs1 capacity of Nicolas Pépé and Aubameyang. Liverpool had difficulties to create goalscoring opportunities during the first half ending up scoring the opener from a set piece situation. In the second half, Liverpool confirmed their superiority while Arsenal never seemed to find a way to change the course of the game. This tactical analysis will explain the tactics used by Unai Emeri and how Liverpool took advantage of it. The analysis of this game will have as key points: Arsenal’s 4-3-1-2 strategy, Liverpool’s attacking style, and pressing style.
Liverpool’s formation offered no surprise, Klopp used the typical 4-3-3 with Fabinho as holding midfield and Henderson and Wijnaldum in the middle. Unai Emery surprised with a 4-3-1-2 formation, where Dani Ceballos was placed behind the attacking duo Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé and the midfield was left to Guendouzi, Xhaka and Willock.
Arsenal’s 4-3-1-2 strategy
Arsenal shaped in a narrow and compact 4-3-1-2 and Unai Emery’s strategy had two main objectives, the first: in a first stage, protect the insides zones by having the trio Guendouzi, Xhaka and Willock close to each other and close to the defensive line. With this Arsenal tried to nullify one of the most typical Liverpool’s moves, Firmino dropping between lines to receive the ball and open spaces for the inside runs of Mané and Salah. At a second stage, to defend in a low block with defensive and midfield lines close to each other and as a consequence reducing the depth space. Thus, Arsenal invited Liverpool to play from outside zones leaving a lot of free space on the flanks, which was explored by Liverpool’s full-backs.
Somehow this part of the strategy worked during the first half. Liverpool had difficulties to penetrate inside Arsenal’s block and the only solution to make the ball reaching the finishing zones was from crosses.
The second main point of Emery’s strategy was to explore the high positioning of Liverpool’s fullbacks with the fast offensive transitions by making use of Pépé’s and Aubameyang’s pace. Free of defensive tasks and being always references for the offensive transitions, the duo was a threat for Liverpool’s centre-backs. In fact, Arsenal managed to make use of it in the first half, having a couple of offensive transitions and with better decision making from the players involved they could have scored.
Below, one of the variants that Arsenal used to explore the offensive transition. The ball was recovered by Xhaka, Liverpool didn’t react to the ball loss and the Swiss player had enough time to find Aubameyang who dropped to receive the ball behind Liverpool’s midfield line.
After Xhaka’s pass, Liverpool had seven players behind the line of the ball, however, Aubameyang took the wrong decision. He should have tried to progress with the ball and attract one of the Liverpool’s centrebacks as van Dijk and Matip are making the run to close the space. Instead, he made a pass that was too long for Pépé’s run which got cleared by Adrián.
Another variant used by Arsenal to explore the offensive transitions was the progression with the ball. Willock broke Liverpool’s midfield with ball progression after a good combination with Ceballos, leaving Liverpool with the centre-backs in front of the line of the ball.
Willock passed the ball to Pépé and did an overlapping move to receive the ball in the space. Once again, Pépé took the wrong decision (shot). Arsenal had three players attacking the finishing zones against the two Liverpool’s centrebacks, in this situation an inside pass to Guendouzi to explore the space between Matip and van Dijk or a through pass to Willock would have been better options.
The third variant used by Arsenal to reach the final third were the long passes into the back of Liverpool’s defenders. Ball recovered in Arsenal’s half and immediately the players would use the long to find the strikers up front.
Xhaka’s long ball to Pépé left eight Liverpool’s players behind the line of the ball and van Dijk in a 1v1 situation with Pépé. The pass went a bit too wide which gave time to Liverpool to reorganize in the defensive organization.
Besides the offensive transition moments, Arsenal spent most of the 1st half in defensive organization. The “Gunners” performed only 188 passes (81% accuracy) and had 37% ball possession. In the second half and losing 2-0 since the 49th minute, a change in Arsenal’ style of play was expected – but it didn’t happen. Besides the fact the team registered more ball possession than in the first half (57%) and a higher number of passes 309 (90% accuracy), the team showed a lot of difficulties to play in the offensive organization and to connect the three offensive phases of the game: building up, creation and finishing. Only 43% of Arsenal’s ball possessions reached Liverpool’s half. Arsenal’s heatmap shows how the team behaved during the game in terms of positioning.
Liverpool’s attacking style
As referred in the first section, during all match Liverpool projected their fullbacks high on the pitch to make use of the space left by Arsenal’s narrow formation. This contributed to Liverpool’s high percentage of attacks through the flanks.
As Mané and Salah were positioned mostly in the inside zones both Liverpool’s fullbacks had the flanks for their own. Andrew Robertson and Alexander-Arnold spent most of the game in Arsenal’s half and were the most participative players in the offensive organization of the team. Together the fullbacks performed 22 of the 30 Liverpool’s crosses in the game, did more passes than any other Liverpool player 70 and 74 respectively and registered more touches than any other player on the pitch 98 (Robertson) and 108 (Alexander-Arnold), being the most of those touches in the opposition’s half. As the passing network graphs show, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were the most requested players to receive and perform passes in the offensive moment of the game. It is also possible to observed Liverpool’s high positioning on the pitch and Mane’s and Salah’s inside positions.
Liverpool is probably the best team in the world when it comes to pressing the opponent and recovering the ball in high areas. Liverpool pressed Arsenal’s short distribution from the keeper and also reacted very fast to the ball loss in high areas. This aggressive style of pressing resulted in 46 balls recovered from Liverpool in Arsenal’s half. In both examples below, it’s possible to identify Liverpool’s high pressing style, with the team reacting very fast to the ball loss and concentrating a high number of players on the side of the ball.
In the example above, Liverpool’s pressing style, three players pressed the ball zone while Henderson was positioned to cover if the trio that is pressing gets beaten. Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Robertson close to each other, formed successive covers.
It was a near-uncontested win from Liverpool, the Reds dominating the game from the first minute and the three points were never in debate. This result secluded Liverpool at the top of the table with nine points in three games, while Arsenal lost the first three points in Premier League.
Emery tried to surprise in this game using a formation that nobody would expect but the plan didn’t work out in the best way. Arsenal’s strategy to play so narrow and leave space to be explored by the two full-backs in better form in the league would come with risks. On the other hand, and besides the fact of being totally dominated by Liverpool, Arsenal had some good moments and situations to score during the game in offensive transitions. This game also reinforced the idea that against teams from the top six Arsenal has a lot of problems to play face to face and to discuss the game.