There were a number of surprising, and notable, elements to Arsenal’s stunning result at the weekend.
Just how did the Gunners manage such a demanding performance over Liverpool?
Liverpool have looked very good in their last three fixtures against Arsenal. The results have been varied, but on each occasion we struggled to get to grips with their intense and fluid style.
Two of those games came at Anfield, with an infamous 5-1 defeat last year followed by this season’s fortuitous 2-2 draw. Last season also saw us win the FA Cup tie at Emirates Stadium, but the visitors enjoyed a fast start, which left us at sixes and sevens.
This time around it was Arsène Wenger’s men who set the pace.
Arsène Wenger went for a shape typical of 2015 so far, with Santi Cazorla in a central role close to Francis Coquelin. The big surprise was that Aaron Ramsey lined up on the right wing. More on that later.
Brendan Rodgers started with the 3-4-2-1 he has adopted since December, but fielded key midfielder Jordan Henderson in the right wingback role.
If you have ever seen Arsenal start a game with that much verve, enthusiasm, and determination, you must have been watching us for a long time. Even then, I doubt you have seen us press with the intensity and intelligence that we did against Liverpool in the first 15 minutes on Saturday afternoon.
It has occasionally been our downfall that we refuse to do anything but play out from the back, and Liverpool do the same.
For the first time possibly ever, Arsenal repeatedly won the ball in dangerous areas. The higher you win the ball, the more dangerous you are. And we created a number of chances with this approach early on.
When Liverpool had the ball in their own third, we cut off all passing options. Santi Cazorla offers us the ability to dribble through those tight spaces, but Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen don’t have that ability.
It is much more difficult than it looks to press the ball that high. If your positioning isn’t right, or the players aren’t on the same wavelength, you can close the man down but leave yourselves incredibly exposed. In the above example no less than three players (Héctor Bellerín, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil) forced Lucas to rush. Not only that, but they positioned themselves to cover any easy options.
Per Mertesacker stayed tight to Raheem Sterling for the entire half – when we pressed, Sterling was never a viable out-ball with Mertesacker behind him and never allowing him to turn. In this ‘scene’ Coquelin intelligently nicks the difficult pass Lucas has no choice but to play, and Cazorla eventually forced Simon Mignolet into a good save.
Perhaps most impressive was our ability to force Liverpool back, not only pressing them when they had the ball on the edge of their own box, but forcing it there from midfield areas.
Just over a minute after Cazorla’s opportunity, we forced a Liverpool throw-in near the halfway line all the way back to Kolo Touré. The former Arsenal man stumbled under the close attention of four of our players, and Aaron Ramsey went through.
Once again, we forced the ball to go where we wanted it, and where we could capitalise. Joe Allen and Emre Can were both pressured into playing the ball the only place they could.
In the eighth minute we did the very same on the left hand side of the pitch, with Bellerín pressuring Alberto Moreno and Ramsey eventually winning the ball, only for Olivier Giroud to be flagged offside.
Our high press was far less dominant after Liverpool had the big chance of the opening twenty minutes. Caught between two minds and probably a little tired, we were slightly more conservative and surrendered some of the initiative.
You have to be brave to press like we did, and the signs suggested it is an approach that Arsène Wenger’s increasingly adaptable side have been working on.
Never before have I seen Arsenal press in such a structured manner as the opening 15 minutes. When it works – as it did in the opening stages of Saturday’s game – it is exciting, effective, and frightens the life out of the opposition.
Key to Arsenal’s high press was Aaron Ramsey. A natural athlete and our driving force in the middle of the park, it was a shock to see him stationed on the right flank at 12:45 – what was Wenger thinking?
He was thinking something most of us wouldn’t have thought of. Ramsey pressed high up, putting Sakho under huge amounts of pressure. Liverpool were always looking to play from the back, and Ramsey’s hunger and stamina allowed us to constantly make sure none of those defenders had time on the ball.
Almost every opening created by our high press involved the Welshman.
This pictured scene here didn’t lead to a chance, but Ramsey again forced the ball across the pitch with his energy and intelligence. The second image shows how we managed to mark all three of the Liverpool centre-halves with Ramsey in that wide role, and eventually we stole the ball when surrounding Lucas after Can plays it into him.
On the other flank, Liverpool’s box-to-box midfielder, Jordan Henderson, played at right wingback.
Their answer to Ramsey, the decision to field him outside of his best role was far less inspired. Henderson was pinned back by Alexis Sánchez, and Liverpool surely would have fared better escaping our press with him in the place of either Allen or Henderson.
Ramsey and Henderson would’ve been a key head-to-head battle had Wenger and Rodgers not fielded them in slightly unfamiliar positions. The two decisions proved key, however, helping Arsenal press their opponents high up the pitch.
In Liverpool’s system the wingbacks are key to providing offensive width, but that does have the tendency to leave them stretched at the back if the opposition breaks quickly.
The way we played on Saturday allowed the visitors huge amounts of space providing they broke the first wave of pressing which, thankfully, they rarely achieved.
Liverpool’s big chance to take the lead saw the benefit of having such wide and offensive players coming from deep, especially against a team pressing high up the pitch.
As you can see, Lazar Marković exploits the huge gap between Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal to break free. On the other side, Bellerín is not as close to Per Mertesacker as he needed to be.
Alexis and Ramsey would usually track Henderson and Moreno respectively, but stationed so far up the pitch they didn’t get back quickly enough. The defence was stretched, and Arsenal can only thank Marković’s overhit pass. We should have been 1-0 down, despite our excellent start.
The fullbacks went largely unmentioned, and didn’t have much choice but to go out, but ideally the back four would be much closer together. Having such a high press left us exposed in situations like this.
Going the other way, it was our own wingback who managed to give us the lead in the 37th minute.
Having three centre-backs left Liverpool – as I mentioned in my match preview – susceptible to raking balls into the channels. When Özil found Ramsey, Sakho had to go with him. Moreno was left in an unnatural position, and allowed Bellerín to come inside and score.
Our young Spaniard was terrific, and his undercutting run was as superb as his composure in the Liverpool penalty area.
Sterling from Per
Per Mertesacker, before the game, was labelled as our weak link. Particularly up against the pacey Raheem Sterling.
Mertesacker helped our intense game by standing his ground. He was brave, willing to get very tight to Sterling, and as a result the (for now) Liverpool man didn’t get any joy out of the German.
Mertesacker still has a lot more to offer than people seem to realise.
Seeing it out
The second half saw a much more recognisable Arsenal. Liverpool switched to four at the back and tried to overload midfield with Henderson narrow and Can providing the width on the right, but Arsenal were sensible and resolute.
We have added so many strings to our bow, and implementing this sort of style is another one.
It takes a brave and intelligent team to play this aggressively, and Arsenal have never managed to master it in the past.
We can now sit deep and defend doggedly. If we start pressing high up the pitch with the same ferocity and awareness as Saturday afternoon, there are no limits for this team.
Arsenal looked different to ever before, and I loved it.