ANALYSIS How Unai Emery got Arsenal’s tactics terribly wrong at Anfield and the changes made by Liverpool this season


This early in the season it can be difficult to say with any certainty which sides will perform best over the course of the whole season.
With that said, fans of Liverpool and Arsenal will have been pleased to see that their respective sides were sitting at the top of the Premier League table after two matches on six points each. Liverpool fans especially will have enjoyed seeing Manchester City, their rivals for silverware this season, stutter to a draw against Tottenham last weekend.
The narratives around Liverpool and Arsenal approaching this game, however, were very different. Liverpool had already beaten Norwich and Southampton as well as competing in cup matches against Manchester City and Chelsea. Their victories did not feel as compelling as they may have otherwise with a large focus being put on the defensive instability on show so far.


Jurgen Klopp and Unai Emery went head-to-head at Anfield on Saturday
Last term saw Liverpool lose out on the league title on the last day of the season and win the Champions League. This success was built not only on their ruthless and incisive attacking unit but on a rock-solid defensive block. So far this season a lot has been made of Liverpool apparently defending with a higher defensive line and with their opponents playing through balls behind this defensive line it looks as thought the Liverpool defenders are being caught out of position. These through balls, however, are only being played because there is a lack of effective pressure on the opposition midfield from the Liverpool midfield. This allows the other team to find passes with time and space. Given the threat and pace of this Arsenal attack, if their midfielders were able to enjoy comfortable possession then it promised to be a long afternoon for the Liverpool defenders.
Arsenal had so far beaten Newcastle and Burnley, although the narrative surrounding their performances has largely mirrored that of Liverpool with defensive issues concerning the fan base. Summer additions Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pepe have added creativity and even more pace in the attacking phase but there are still glaring gaps in the Arsenal defensive block that can be exploited. These gaps were addressed by Spanish coach Unai Emery with his team selection.
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Liverpool lined up in their normal 4-3-3 structure, with the biggest decision for coach Jurgen Klopp concerning who would partner Virgil van Dijk in the centre of the defence. In the end he chose to start the match with Joel Matip. The midfield three was the other contentious point for Liverpool fans and with Naby Keita still not match fit and Alec Oxlade-Chamberlain feeling his way back to full fitness, he chose to go with Fabinho as the ‘6’ and Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum as the ‘8’s.
Arsenal on the other hand lined up in a 4-3-1-2 shape with a diamond in midfield. The game plan from Emery was evident as he looked to leave the lightning quick due of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe high and isolated against Van Dijk and Matip in order to play quickly in transition. As we would see, however, this left the wide areas free for Liverpool to exploit.
Liverpool full-backs exploit space
From the opening moments of the match it was clear that the two players at the side of their midfield diamond, Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock, were narrow in their positioning. That meant that the wide areas were free and the Liverpool full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right and Andrew Robertson on the left, were free to move into advanced positions almost at will. Throughout the game the space that was left in the wide areas was a key factor in deciding the tactical battle, with Liverpool primarily attacking down the wide areas in the first half.

The above moment was captured in the first couple of minutes of the match and it became immediately clear that Liverpool were going to enjoy a lot of space and freedom in their attacking phase. I have highlighted the positioning of the four midfielders for Arsenal who made up the diamond. You can see that they have been dragged over to the ball near side of the pitch. Roberto Firmino identified the space and has dropped into the gap between the lines of the diamond. This makes it very easy for Alexander-Arnold to drive the pass through to him. From that point it takes two more passes to safely progress the ball to the opposite side where Robertson can move forward to access space.
Once again, I have captured a moment from the first half that shows the way that Liverpool were able to dominate the match and force Arsenal back by accessing the space wide. This time the configuration of the midfield diamond of Arsenal is slightly different with David Luiz having vacated his position in the defensive line and Granit Xhaka having dropped back to fill the hole. As with the previous example though you can clearly see how narrow and ineffective the diamond is.
As the play above breaks down and Liverpool look to recycle the ball, Robertson makes a strong forward run from a deeper area. As the ball is played out to Robertson he receives with momentum and space and can drive to the edge of the penalty area before an Arsenal defender engages him.
Time and time again in this match we saw Robertson – and to a lesser extent Alexander-Arnold – able to pick up the ball with space and time to drive Liverpool forward. It felt strange that Emery failed to tweak his tactical model in order to negate this threat.
Liverpool aggressively press

Last week in this column we covered the Arsenal vs Burnley match and one of the most interesting tactical aspects of that match was the inability of Arsenal to play out from the back. During this match they struggled again with the insistence from Emery that the two central defenders split to positions level with the edge of the six-yard box. This essentially allows the opposition to press much higher than if your central defenders were positioned on a higher line.
Whilst Manchester City, for example, play out in a similar style they do so efficiently and look to play vertical passes that bypass the opposition press. There were times in this match that Arsenal had five-six passes before they even came close to bypassing the first line of pressure from Liverpool.
Here we see Arsenal looking to play out. Initially the ball goes to the edge of the penalty area but it is immediately played back to the goalkeeper as Sadio Mane is pressing from behind. The Senegalese forward then continues his run to press the goalkeeper as the ball is played back. From this point Arsenal struggled to find the space and time to access passing lanes in order to play through the press. The ball was moved out to Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the wide area before he tries to force a pass and loses possession.

This image perfectly captures the issues that Arsenal had when trying to play progressively. Not including their goalkeeper, Arsenal have seven players within 20 yards of their own goal. This compact shape just encouraged Liverpool to press them more aggressively and as Arsenal tried to find an angle to pass through, we saw their opponents commit four players to press with Jordan Henderson moving forward in support.
Eventually Dani Ceballos, in possession, tried to break the press with an angled pass. That pass, however, was cut off by Mane in the heart of the penalty area.
As discussed briefly above, the entire attacking game model for Arsenal seemed to hinge on them playing the ball forward quickly in order to allow Aubameyang and Pepe to isolate the Liverpool central defenders. This was negated throughout the game by their slow and ineffective attempts to play out from the back.
Liverpool’s positional switches
Having watched all of Liverpool’s matches so far this season, it has been interesting to note the differences between last season and this from Klopp and his men. One of the biggest changes has seen the use of certain players in different positional slots as they look to control the game more effectively than they did last season. These variances mainly surround the two full-back’s and the two ‘8’s in the centre of the midfield.
While in this match, as we have already seen, Robertson from left-back was constantly looking to move high we have seen the two full-backs occupy more inverted positions this season for Liverpool as they sit on almost the same line as the ‘6’ at the base of the midfield. This then encourages the two ‘8’s to move forward. Indeed, at times we have seen Henderson making runs from the centre out to the wide space as Alexander-Arnold comes narrow and controls the centre.

You see this in action above with Alexander-Arnold positioned inside and receiving the ball from Henderson. Last season we would have almost always seen Mohamed Salah positioned in the shaded area labelled 2 in these situations. The fullback would then occupy the wide space. As Salah is wide though we saw Nacho Monreal, the Arsenal left-back, isolated wide against the Egyptian over and over again. Alexander-Arnold could then dictate and control the play from his narrower position. This addition of the full-back moving narrow also overloaded the midfield diamond for Arsenal and created advantages for Liverpool centrally.
This time the ball progresses from Alexander-Arnold out to Salah, who is in space out on the right-hand side. As the ball is played through in this way we see Henderson making a vertical run out to the wide space and he is tracked by Guendouzi in the Arsenal midfield. This forward run from Henderson empties the space centrally and allows Alexander-Arnold to move inside to control this space. Salah is also able to drive inside through this vacated space.
Conclusion

It is difficult to come away from this match without believing that Unai Emery got his game model horribly wrong against this Liverpool team. The entire setup appeared to hinge on whether Arsenal could score first and then sit back and try to deny Liverpool space. Instead the home team dominated the match and managed to negate the threat of the quick Arsenal attack. Liverpool dominated through their use of space, their aggressive work without the ball and their clever occupation of space. Yes, it is still early in the season but they are already showing the mark of potential champions.

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