Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool: Xhaka, Torreira typify Arsenal graft and intensity

Arsenal FC v Liverpool FC - Premier League

For the second match running, Unai Emery was begrudgingly forced to admit that a draw might have been the best result. “At the end, I think 1-1 [against Liverpool] is a good result for how we did in the 90 minutes after 1-0 when we are losing, and it’s the reason we are happy 50 per cent” he said.

Unlike against Crystal Palace however, Arsenal were probably the better team, and edged it because, for once, Emery was able to add pressing from the front to their performance.

Of course, Arsenal have been running harder this season, yet games under Emery have tended to be an exercise of playing out, of creating painstakingly meticulous patterns from the back.  “Each game we know what we do,” said Granit Xhaka. “We know well the opposition, where they are good and where they are not. He [Emery] is important. He helps us, not only me but all the players, with the small things. The tactical things. You can see that on the pitch.” 

However, pressing has been the one thing, perhaps, which has been lacking from Arsenal matches since he has joined; that collective and intense hounding of opponents which he promised upon his arrival. Against Liverpool, the team delivered what felt like a more complete representation of his philosophy. “I think we are getting the balance in intensity,” Emery said. “[Against Liverpool] we needed to push a lot and I think when the supporters are enjoying with the players, I think also the players give their all in their performance and their desire.”

The systems

This game, actually, was typified by the spirit and determination of Lucas Torreira and Xhaka who set the tone for Arsenal’s performance. Indeed, they had to be at the top of the game because Emery, with the system that he chose, demanded a lot from them.

Arsenal began the game with a 4-2-3-1, looking to press Liverpool’s centre-backs, and stop them from passing the ball into midfield. This meant that Lacazette and Ozil would engage Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk, often leaving Fabinho, in the holding midfield role, unmarked. The Gunners seemed happy with that; perhaps it was part of their pressing trap, but Ozil and Lacazette would do that if they felt that they had created an effective shield from passing it through. Indeed, they did that for the most part such that the Liverpool centre-backs were compelled to bypass the middle at times and go direct.

arsenal lfc
Arsenal press 16’ minutes

If the pass did get through, however, The Gunners were tigerish in insuring that Liverpool had no time on the ball. Xhaka and Torreira in a sense, were outnumbered in the middle, 2v3, yet played with such spirit and intensity that they were never exposed. The attacking players in front helped as well in that regards, by adjusting their positioning to where their opponents were to stop the potential overloads. On 16’ minutes there is a great example of this, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moves wide initially to press Wijnaldum then passes him on to Xhaka. Torreira is the free man, marking the area in the middle, and when ball gets through to Fabinho, presses him aggressively and wins the ball back.

(above: arsenal’s shape when pressing, and then where they were vulnerable dropping back into their own half. Liverpool scored in an almost similar way, dissected below by BT Sport)

Liverpool on the other hand, also looked to press up the pitch but only on goal kicks. When the centre-backs had the ball, the forwards were happy to drop off and as a team, were more concerned with stopping Arsenal getting it through to the attacking players. The Gunners had a bit of joy especially  attacking the left-flank, with Mesut Ozil tending the drop off just behind Wijnaldum and finding pockets to play passes. As such Jürgen Klopp changed the system in the second-half, moving James Milner to the right and playing a 4-2-3-1 with Salah up front.

Klopp said: “It was intense, very intense. It is clear Arsenal are in a very good moment. We made life a bit too easy for them in the first half, formation-wise I was not happy at how compact we were and stuff like that. When we had the ball it was good, we were a threat, we were in behind. The start was like ‘Wow, Arsenal are there’ but then the first attack we had, everyone knew ‘OK, they are not too bad as well!’ It was then a pretty open game. That’s OK.”

“Second half we changed formation a bit and it helped us today…[..]…because first half we were not compact enough, the three in midfield had to do too much and then the one time we don’t close the half-space [in the second-half], they play the ball through and could score the goal.”

The goals

There were two type of attacks Arsenal defended well: on the counter, and when they pressed high up the pitch. But as the goal from Milner showed, The Gunners were less adept at stopping Liverpool’s attacks when they were forced to drop back into their own half. Rio Ferdinand and Martin Keown offered great insight for BT Sport as to why Arsenal conceded, saying modern defending is all about being on the “front-foot“, and perhaps Arsenal were caught between two stalls when they tried to stop the goal. Indeed, it was almost identical to the offside goal that Mane scored in the first-half (see second part of streamable video above), with a late run from midfield catching Arsenal by surprise; whilst they were also unsure of who should pick up the full-back – because for both chances it was from that position that the final ball was delivered – as the central-midfielders had also split wide to stretch Arsenal. Klopp: “It was actually a brilliant attack. It’s what you do in the training ground – you bring one player and you keep one player between the centre-halves, slightly offside and then the other player takes the ball. It’s a pity it didn’t count.”

great insight and breakdown of the two goals by Martin Keown and Rio Ferdinand

For Arsenal’s equaliser, Emery had thrown all his attackers off, though surprisingly had replaced Aubameyang with Ramsey. At one point, that saw a subtle reshuffle moving Ozil to right midfield, and Xhaka following him to that side, swapping places with Torreira (perhaps Emery realises now the two linking up is key for Arsenal, as possibly, as Lacazette revealed himself with Torreira “working on the type of balls he likes”). Arsenal scored through sheer determination, overloading the frontline, which in the end, the Liverpool centre-backs has no answer for because, as Keown and Ferdinand had explained for BT Sport, they are not used to defending against two strikers. Danny Welbeck  roamed from his left wing position and Lacazette used that confusion to get behind and earn a well deserved point for Arsenal.

For about 10 minutes, before the lead up to Arsenal’s goal and just after Aaron Ramsey entered the field, Xhaka moved towards the right following Ozil. The adjustment wasn’t significant in itself, but perhaps it helps to shed a little bit of light on Emery’s thinking, or indeed the players’ if it was themselves who decided to shift across.

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