Arsenal traveled to Anfield to play Liverpool this past Wednesday in the Carabao Cup. Arsenal are experiencing some uncertainty over Unai Emery’s leadership. They are currently 5th in the Premier League, with only four wins of ten games on the year.
Liverpool remain at the top of the table in the Premier League, having not lost a match yet, and they look to be on their way to getting through the Champions League group stages. However, getting adequate rest is a focus for them, especially in a game like this one against Arsenal where winning the Carabao Cup is probably not their highest priority.
This article will provide a tactical analysis of both teams and certain changes that were made in the second half that helped Liverpool come back and win to move on in the tournament.
Liverpool set up their tactics in their traditional 4-3-3, playing a large group of younger players to go with some veteran experience such as James Milner, Adam Lallana, and Divock Origi. In their back four, Liverpool played with Joe Gomez and recent young signing Sepp Van den Berg at centre-back, along with Neco Williams coming out of Liverpool’s academy at right full-back and long-time Liverpool veteran Milner at left-back. Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Naby Keita acted as the central midfielders, with Lallana as the pivot. The trend of bringing in youth continued with Harvey Elliot at right-wing and Rhian Brewster at centre forward, and Origi filling out the lineup at left wing.
Arsenal played in a 4-4-1-1 that often resembled a 4-4-2 in defence in certain moments. Gabriel Martinelli acted as the 9 with Mesut Ozil directly behind him, Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as wingers, Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock as defensive midfielders, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac at full-back, and Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding at centre-back. Arsenal had their own young talent such as Martinelli and Saka as well.
Arsenal’s Defensive Scheme: Disrupting Liverpool’s Build Up
The way the game was played, Liverpool had more possession than Arsenal by a large margin (64.5% to 35.5%). However, because Liverpool often struggled to play through Arsenal’s midfield block, Liverpool was often caught in transition, which meant that Arsenal actually had the better chances in the game, with an xG of 3.85 to Liverpool’s 1.7.
Because Liverpool could often break Arsenal’s first line of pressure and progress up the pitch, much of the game was played with Arsenal defending in a midfield block. They used two forwards to take away Lallana so that Liverpool were forced to find another way to progress the ball.
In this picture, Arsenal’s two forwards are taking away Lallana through pendulum pressing, meaning that when the ball was played to one centre-back, the close forward would pressure while the other forward would cover Lallana, and when the ball was switched to the other centre-back they would also switch. This forced Liverpool to the wings for Arsenal to implement wide pressing traps. Liverpool opposed this and tried to progress in multiple ways. The primary and most effective way, which led to the first goal, was a counter-movement rotation in the wide area.
In this picture, Williams has the ball as the right full-back. Elliot checks to the ball wide, which forces Kolasinac, Arsenal’s left full-back, to step with him. This opens up space in behind Kolasinac for Chamberlain to run into from depth. Arsenal’s centre-backs cannot provide help because Brewster is pinning them inside. In the period leading up to this picture, also note that Liverpool had just circulated the ball from the left side, which meant that Arsenal’s forwards struggled to shift, and Arsenal lacked horizontal compactness in this picture, which makes Lallana an option here as well. Liverpool tried these counter-movement rotations multiple times, especially in the first half, on both sides of the field, with both Chamberlain and Keita making runs in behind when Liverpool’s forwards would check to the ball in the wide areas.
Another option that Liverpool used was to bring Lallana wide into the half-space to receive and build up; Keita and Milner also did this in certain moments.
When Lallana comes wide, he is free to receive, which provides three angles of penetration between Lallana, Van Den Berg, and Gomez. In terms of positioning, Chamberlain could actually come back between Arsenal’s forwards and centre-midfielders so that when Keita receives and plays a bounce pass to him, Chamberlain can receive and go forward. Also important to notice is Liverpool’s continued use of rotations: in the top left of the screen, Elliot comes down into the 10 position, and Williams will move higher up the field. This was effective against Arsenal’s focus on man-orientation in their defensive scheme.
Arsenal’s Tactics: Effectiveness in Transition
Over time, Liverpool began to struggle to maintain possession of the ball and would often give the ball away to Arsenal’s midfielders and forwards, which became very dangerous because of the space that Arsenal had to transition into. This led to two of Arsenal’s goals in the first half.
Here Arsenal is very well-organized defensively. They are both horizontally and vertically compact, clearly anticipating all close passing options. One forward is pressuring, the other forward is prepared to press the other centre-back to force them to the same side, and the closer centre midfielder is covering space and the passing lane to the forward. At the same time, Chamberlain makes a very poor decision by trying to play across three zones when Arsenal is anticipating it, and a much better decision would be to recycle possession to the centre backs.
Moments later, Arsenal has a 4v4 against Liverpool, and even though Liverpool’s players get back behind the ball, they are all looking at the player with the ball, ignoring Arsenal’s wide open player at the penalty spot. This can be a tendency in the chaos of a transition moment.
In this next example, Liverpool is building out of their own third against Arsenal’s man-orientation. Chamberlain is the free player who can receive the ball and attack Arsenal’s next line of defending, but play was very predictable. Liverpool slowly circulated the ball from goalkeeper to centre back to outside back to winger. When the central areas (the centre and half spaces) are not used in the build-up, it becomes much easier for the defending team, especially if the defending team is implementing wide pressing traps like Arsenal is. The intense pressure creates poor execution from Elliot, and Arsenal intercept the ball and create an easy 3rd goal as a result of their wide pressing trap and intense man-orientation. Although Arsenal’s forward players were not able to be on the ball very much in the first half, the athleticism of players such as Saka and Martinelli was very effective in creating chances against Liverpool’s backline.
Liverpool’s Comeback- Analysis of Tactical Changes
In the second half, Liverpool’s primary changes all centred around increasing their compactness and positioning players more centrally to provide more stability and connections in both offensive and defensive transition moments.
One of these changes was to bring right-winger Elliot into a deeper role, where Liverpool was in more of a 1-4-4-2 formation in their defensive phase.
Elliot is acting as a right midfielder here, and does so in certain moments in the second half. It seems that this is as a result of Kolasinac’s positioning, which was more inverted. This also seemed to have encouraged the compactness of Liverpool in both their defensive phase and in transitions, and it prevented Arsenal from playing through Liverpool’s midfield line in the defensive phase. This change would also help Liverpool with winning the second ball, as a more compact formation such as a 4-4-2 encourages good second ball positioning.
Klopp’s primary tactical change in the second half came after a poor mistake from Milner caused Arsenal’s 4th goal to bring the lead to 4-2: Curtis Jones was substituted onto the field to replace Keita, primarily to act as a double pivot with Lallana. This would provide more stability for Liverpool’s attack, and provide added protection in transition moments when Liverpool lost the ball.
In this picture, Liverpool has just lost the ball: in previous moments of losing the ball, Liverpool would have had only one player (Lallana) dealing with the central corridors. After Jones was substituted, he took up more positions as a defensive midfielder. Here, Jones and Lallana are both covering the central corridors and can, therefore, cover double the space, putting Arsenal outlet options in their cover shadow, which nullifies Arsenal’s transition moment.
A moment later, this is what leads to Liverpool’s 4th goal.
The double-pivot creates a more compact shape in the transition to defence, which is how Liverpool wins the ball back by intercepting a pass. The ball is then played forward, and a more compact shape is what creates stronger connections to progress in the transition to attack. Jones is able to receive facing Arsenal’s back four, and assists Origi’s goal.
However, Liverpool also made a crucial mistake with their more compact 4-4-2 shape, which caused Arsenal’s 5th goal.
Here, there is no pressure on the ball, which gives time for Matteo Guendouzi to penetrate centrally to Willock, who can turn and dribble at Liverpool’s backline. If Brewster stays connected with Lallana and comes inside, this pass could be easily prevented. Arsenal takes advantage of the positional mistake and scores.
To conclude this tactical analysis, although Liverpool did end up winning in penalty kicks, it could be argued that theirs was the better side in terms of their game plan and execution, and very good evidence for this is the fact that Arsenal finished with 3.85 xG while Liverpool finished with 1.7 xG. Clearly Arsenal had higher quality and quantity of goal-scoring opportunities. Their wide pressing traps generally caused Liverpool problems throughout the game, creating transition opportunities for Arsenal’s young, talented, and quick front players like Martinelli and Saka. Arsenal were highly effective when transitioning to attack, choosing to attack vertically rather than settling for empty possession and trying to play through Liverpool’s very difficult 4-3-3 block. Arsenal’s effectiveness in transitions is what created most of their goals and goal-scoring opportunities. Arsenal will not be happy with the result considering how they played, and the pressure may continue to mount on Emery and his Arsenal side. Meanwhile, Liverpool moves on in the Carabao Cup.
However, Liverpool was able to stay in the game because of their adjustments to provide more stability and connections in central areas in the second half, particularly with adding Jones as a second pivot to disrupt Arsenal’s counter-attacking effectiveness. Based on this analysis, the focus on taking command of the centre of the pitch in the second half was helpful in their ability to get themselves back into the game. Considering they played essentially none of their starting 11 and with a lot of young talent, Liverpool responded well to the adversity of being down multiple goals in multiple moments of the game, and they got the benefit of rest for their primary players for both League play and the Champions League.
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