On matchday three, Arsenal took a trip to Anfield as they looked to take points from Liverpool, who were on an 11-game winning streak in the Premier League and hadn’t lost at Anfield since April 2017.
The two sides are the only Premier League teams to have two wins from two, so this encounter would damage at least one of the sides 100% start to the season. Arsenal have really struggled against Liverpool at Anfield in recent years with the previous three encounters having an aggregate result of 12-2 in Liverpool’s favour. The Gunners were again beaten convincingly as Liverpool once again came out on top, this time in a 3-1 victory.
This tactical analysis will look at how Liverpool adapted to Arsenal’s surprise diamond midfield shape and how they were able to win all three points.
The home side started in their usual 4-3-3 shape. Joël Matip partnered Virgil van Dijk at the heart of the defence with Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson occupying either full-back roles. Fabinho played the holding role with Jordan Henderson on his right and Georginio Wijnaldum on his left. The front three was the magnificent trio of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah. These three players combined have scored 10 goals in their last five matches against Arsenal and this game was only going to add to that.
Unai Emery’s Arsenal opted for a surprise 4-3-1-2 formation, with a diamond shape in the midfield to try and limit the space available for Liverpool in the middle of the park. This diamond was also used so that short and quick combinations are easier for Arsenal to do as they looked to bypass Liverpool’s midfield press. It was the first start for Arsenal’s new record signing Nicolas Pépé as he partnered Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front. The two strikers played very wide as they looked to use their pace to get in behind Liverpool’s high line.
Arsenal’s diamond gameplan
Liverpool started the game at a very high tempo as they looked to press Arsenal high up the pitch and win the ball back in dangerous areas. It was clear to see from the first whistle that Arsenal’s diamond midfield was extremely compact, leaving lots of time and space in wide areas for Liverpool’s adventurous full-backs to exploit.
Despite the quality of Alexander Arnold and Robertson, Arsenal’s game plan was to congest the midfield and allow the space out wide for Liverpool’s fullbacks. This was a very brave tactic from Emery and for large portions of the first half it was very effective as Arsenal’s centre back pairing of David Luiz and Sokratis Papastathopoulos were able to head clear any crosses into the middle.
Emery also used this tactic to invite Liverpool’s two full-backs forward, leaving space in wide areas of the Liverpool defence for Arsenal’s two wide strikers to exploit. Arsenal played 28 long balls in the first half and many of them were into the wide spaces behind Liverpool’s defence as they looked to use the pace of their two strikers.
Liverpool’s compact high press
Arsenal once again always tried to play out from the back as they wanted to beat Liverpool’s aggressive high press. If successful they would bypass the Liverpool midfield and leave Pépé and Aubameyang in a 2v2 situation against Liverpool’s high defensive line. However, Liverpool are one of the best pressing teams in the world and so Arsenal found it very difficult to beat the press.
From Arsenal’s goal kicks, the Liverpool full-backs would press the opposition fullbacks, while Liverpool’s wingers try and provide cross shadow for Arsenal’s midfielder.
Most of the time that Arsenal attempted to play from the back, Liverpool forced the mistake as they pressed as a compact unit with their high defensive line that they have been using so far this season. Liverpool’s high defensive line makes them much more compact and therefore harder to play through as more players can press the opposition. Even though Arsenal knew this, they still opted to play from the back as they knew that if they beat the press they can get their two rapid strikers in a 2v2 situation against Van Dijk and Matip.
There were two occasions where Arsenal did manage to beat Liverpool’s press and on one occasion Aubameyang was able to receive the ball in behind the midfield line. Arsenal consequently had Aubameyang and Pépé in a 2v2 situation against Matip and Van Dijk but were unable to take advantage of it.
Despite having 61% of possession in the first half, Liverpool only managed two shots on target and failed to really trouble Bernd Leno in goal. Unai Emery’s compact system seemed to be working with Pépé and Aubameyang also getting some joy on the counter-attacks. However, Matip broke the deadlock in the 41st minute from a well-worked corner, that involved Van Dijk making an early run to occupy Mattéo Guendouzi and Sokratis before Matip used the space created by Van Dijk to make a late run and head the ball past Leno.
Liverpool’s second-half adjustment
Liverpool started the second half with a slightly different shape and tactics with Henderson playing closer to Salah.
This was a tactical change by Jürgen Klopp to help create space inside as Henderson would often make a bursting decoy run in behind the Arsenal defence to take Arsenal’s midfielders away and create space inside.
Liverpool didn’t create many chances in the first half and this was mainly because they crossed the ball in the air too much which is exactly what Arsenal wanted them to do. However, in the second half, Liverpool changed their approach and began playing passes from wide into the feet of the three forwards. This was now possible because of the space created by the runs of Jordan Henderson on the right-hand side.
In the second half, Liverpool crossed the ball just three times compared to the 24 that they crossed in the first half. Just four minutes into the second half this new approach led to a penalty after Alexander Arnold found Firmino’s feet. Firmino then played a fantastic first-time pass into the path of Salah whose shirt was being pulled by Luiz. The penalty was given, and Salah whipped the ball into the top corner making it 2-0.
Arsenal really struggled to keep possession of the ball during this 15-minute spell as Liverpool pressed so aggressively, using their high defensive line to suffocate Arsenal. It was then wave after wave of Liverpool attacks. Firmino started to receive the ball in between the lines and looked to combine with the two wingers.
In the 58th minute, Fabinho found the feet of Salah who was being tightly marked by David Luiz. Instead of standing off the Egyptian and forcing him to go backwards, David Luiz recklessly dived in trying to take the ball from Salah’s feet from behind. Salah cleverly took one touch to entice Luiz before quickly accelerating away from him. Luiz couldn’t foul him because he was already on a yellow card and so Salah could sprint away and tuck the ball into the bottom corner, 3-0.
Liverpool slowing down the tempo
At 3-0 Liverpool tried to control the game and slow the tempo down by keeping easy possession of the ball and often playing the ‘safe pass’ instead of trying to continue to break Arsenal down. However, they started to do this around about the 70th minute which proved to be too early. Liverpool’s players started to become a bit static because each pass was taking longer than before.
Liverpool replaced Firmino and Mane with Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin which meant that the press from the front became slightly disorientated allowing Arsenal to beat the press on several occasions. Therefore around the 80th minute, Liverpool dropped off Arsenal into a mid-low block and were happy to allow them easy possession of the ball around the halfway line. They managed to limit Arsenal to very few chances as they limited the space in between the midfield and defensive lines.
However, Arsenal did score a consolation goal after Liverpool’s defensive line were slow to push up after Arnold’s clearance. This left a big gap in between the midfield and defensive lines and Torreira capitalised for the second time and set the result to 3-1.
Liverpool will certainly be satisfied with the result and even more the performance, especially that 20-minute spell after halftime where their fluid movement and quick interchange simply pulled Arsenal apart. That’s three wins from three and a place at the top of the league for them.
Arsenal will be disappointed by the result as that’s yet another defeat away from home to a top-six side. However, there were plenty of positives to take from the game as for large parts of the first half they frustrated the European Champions and could have snatched a goal through Pépé, whose individual performance definitely caught the eye of many.
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