Rather than persist with something that was proven to not work at Anfield, Arsene Wenger instead tried something different in an attempt to come away from one of this current Arsenal team’s bogey grounds with an unlikely victory.
Liverpool’s in-game adjustment and Arsenal’s impatience and reversion to something resembling their default playing style meant it didn’t work.
With the exception of the Abou Diaby inspired 2-0 win at the start of the 2012/13 season, all of Arsenal’s visits to Anfield since the 11/12 season have been categorized by the same broad pattern of play.
The opening 20 minutes usually see Liverpool well on top, before they take their foot off the pedal. Arsenal then look to feel their way into the game and take it from there. The outcome of the match generally hinges on how profligate Liverpool are during their early dominant spell.
Sometimes a rampant but blunt Liverpool miss lots of chances and it’s still 0-0 on 20 minutes, like in 2011/12 and 2014/15. Sometimes they’re brutally clinical and are 4-0 up, like in 13/14. Sometimes Arsenal have managed to land a counterpunch earlier than expected and are only 2-1 down after the early barrage, like in 2015/16.
At home, Liverpool’s best weapon against Arsenal the past three seasons has been their pressing game. Their precise, targeted, and co-ordinated movements as a unit have limited the space and time Arsenal players have on the ball and have pressured their visitors into making costly mistakes and conceding possession in dangerous areas.
Just like some managers switch up their usual gameplan and develop bespoke plans to counteract a deadly winger or scheming playmaker, Wenger came up with a plan to counteract Liverpool’s best weapon.
In past encounters, Liverpool have shut down Arsenal’s central build through midfield and suffocated any attempt The Gunners have made to play through their press. However, you can’t press a midfield if the opponent doesn’t conventionally use one.
Wenger had to try something different, because Arsenal going into this match and trying to play in ostensibly the same fashion as they have throughout this season would have left them at the mercy of how profligate Liverpool decided to be in front of goal.
The idea behind Saturday’s set-up, distinctly different to anything Arsenal have gone into a game with so far this season, was to bypass Liverpool’s press by having Mustafi and Koscielny go back to front and play direct balls to Olivier Giroud to win against Liverpool’s much-maligned defence.
When Arsenal lost the ball, they would look to fall back into a 4-1-4-1 shell, getting everyone in a cohesive, co-ordinated, structured shape behind the ball, waiting to intercept, before springing a counter. Klopp’s Liverpool have been frustrated many times by sides who play this way and have been unable to break down stern defences due to their lack of anything resembling an elite playmaker.
Francis Coquelin played as Arsenal’s deepest midfielder for only the 4th time this season. He had mixed reviews at home to PSG, and was an unmitigated disaster against Watford and Chelsea, but perhaps he’d stand a greater chance in a set-up where he would not be required on the ball and the gameplan dictated that the centre backs would instead be tasked with advancing it by pumping it long for Giroud. However, Coquelin-Xhaka in that configuration was another brand new central midfield partnership that was being trialed, in addition to the new gameplan.
A gameplan can only be as effective as the players are at implementing it. A gameplan and a team’s structure are compromised when someone is inattentive or makes a bad decision. A gameplan accounts for how you anticipate your opponent will play. If your opponent adjusts their own gameplan, you need to either work harder to make yours effective again, or change it.
Arsenal settled into the game well. However, after 5 minutes of Arsenal getting behind the ball when out of possession, Klopp looked to test Arsenal’s resolve and commitment to the gameplan by instructing his players to give Arsenal more of the ball. They did as they were told and Arsenal’s instinct to play passing football was too hard to suppress. They strayed from the gameplan they’d spent 12 days working on and instead reverted to something closer resembling what they’d worked on for the duration of their Arsenal careers. It played right into Liverpool’s hands.
In an ironic twist, it was Arsenal’s own midfield that was completely bypassed by a speculative punt upfield that led to Liverpool’s first goal. The failure of Coquelin, Granit Xhaka, or Alex Iwobi to organize and position themselves to challenge for the initial header or track back was thereafter compounded by Laurent Koscielny’s decision to move up and challenge for a ball he was never favourite to win. This left Bellerin, Mustafi, and Monreal retreating against three advancing Liverpool players.
Koscielny himself worked hard to sprint back into his position, but Coquelin and Iwobi showed little interest in tracking goalscorer Roberto Firmino, or Adam Lallana who was able to waltz into position on the penalty spot to tap in had Sadio Mané opted to cut it back rather than fizz it back post to Firmino.
There’s no excuse for this. You aren’t emotionally drained and 4-0 down. It’s still 0-0, you’ve been the better team so far, you’re very much in this game.
Arsenal could have responded to going a goal down by going back to their route one gameplan. Instead, they played right into Liverpool’s hands and attempted to pass their way through the press. This was doomed from the start given the shape Arsenal were playing, with Xhaka and Iwobi ahead of Coquelin in a 1-2 midfield. It may have worked better had Arsenal made an in-game adjustment and shifted Xhaka to the base of the midfield to receive the first pass out of defence, but instead they stuck with Coquelin. The ball was only passed forward to him three times all game. He himself then only completed nine forward passes. Arsenal never got going and were easily kept at bay by a Liverpool team who for all their energy and co-ordinated movements, were nothing special on the ball.
The one Arsenal player who deserves sympathy for Saturday is Giroud. In the first half, he was given no service in dangerous areas. Blame for Arsenal not being able to get anything going can’t be placed at his door when there were structural problems further back.
The idea that Giroud’s inclusion in the starting XI was just to spite Alexis Sanchez is nonsense. Had Alexis not been disciplined and his services been desired from the start at Anfield, he would have been used wide. Wenger knew that a style of play that involved getting the ball forward on the ground through the midfield minefield was always going to be an uphill battle against Liverpool’s press. Had he dropped Sanchez and played in an orthodox manner using Danny Welbeck, Lucas Perez, or Theo Walcott centrally, then and only then could you perhaps push the spite theory. As it was, the big man up top was the right way to go. Arsenal just didn’t use him correctly.
Arsenal’s relative improvement in the second half was sparked by removing their worst performer, bringing on Alexis, and biding their time until the first half of pressing took its toll on the ever-tiring Liverpool legs.
After Danny Welbeck’s goal, which surprisingly came on the counter against a team who were 2-0 up and cruising, Arsenal again looked threatening on the break. Two promising counters were shut down by Emre Can manhandling Alexis and showing absolutely no intention of playing the ball. He was only booked for one of these fouls. There was another incident also involving Joel Matip, where Can could have been shown anything from a second yellow to a straight red, but feigned injury and got away with no further action. Referee Bobby Madely instead opted to book Xhaka for dissent, which later rendered him unable to make the tactical foul as Lallana broke on the counter in the build-up to Liverpool’s third goal.
Arsenal lost this match because of their meek play between going 1-0 down and the half time whistle. They had a plan that could expose Liverpool’s soft-centred defence, yet chose not to use it as effectively as they could. They had a plan to maintain shape and be difficult to break down. However, when suckered in to play possession football, they ended up playing the exact game Liverpool wanted them to play and were easy prey. A season that promised so much and began with title aspirations is now an uphill battle to win another FA Cup and maintain Champions League football through a top four finish.