Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: Defensive frailties shown up again in big defeat

mustafi liv

For a while it looked like there might be a tactical battle developing. Liverpool had committed left-back Andy Robertson, high up the pitch, forcing Arsenal’s wildcard selection, Ainsley Maitland-Niles – chosen in part to track the Scotsman’s runs – back with him.

Liverpool had already created a couple of low value openings stemming from that side in the first ten minutes, and it looked like it’d be a matter of time till they punished Arsenal. However, Arsenal adjusted. They saw that they couldn’t press Liverpool so far up the pitch, so instead, they let the centre-backs have the ball. This meant that now Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren had to work a bit harder to find the space. Initially all they had to do was draw Arsenal towards them – towards the right side of the pitch – before switching it to the other side to Robertson (or Sadio Mane). However, on the first time that Arsenal really dropped off a bit, The Reds committed an error. The ball was given away by Lovren, Arsenal broke, and with Robertson so far up the pitch, Maintland-Niles stole free unmarked at the back-post.

“Arsenal…had the high formation,” Jürgen Klopp said of the match at the beginning. “And they knew where they have to defend us because we didn’t move that good in between the lines so we had not a lot of options. Dejan Lovren, ball right, everybody shouts him [but] nobody is moving anymore. Also he tries to play the ball in behind and we follow that ball, run a lot, lose it there, run a lot – it was not necessary. It was not Dejan’s fault, nobody moved. He has the ball but nobody wants it.”

After that, however, the match descended into farce; into the tactical battle we hoped wouldn’t develop but expected to develop: that of Liverpool attacking Arsenal’s (naive) backline at speed. Arsenal couldn’t cope* and fell behind 4-1 at half-time.

“I think we started well,” said Emery. “But after our goal, they pushed, and when they push here, they play with great determination and with players who can make a difference all over the pitch. They scored three quick goals and it was a difficult moment for us….Defensively we need to be stronger, to work. Our defensive moments in our box, it’s my responsibility and then we need the balance. We need to keep the balance in the middle. We lost today 5-1, we need to keep the balance in the middle, be serious and continue on Tuesday with a big match at the Emirates.”

Because Arsenal conceded so quickly, there was no question asked of what could have been if Arsenal had been able to hold on for longer. It felt like the floodgates were there to be burst open, and it was only a matter of time. True, some of the goals Arsenal allowed were through mistakes, but the biggest error was probably Emery believing Arsenal could go toe-to-toe with Liverpool up the pitch. Indeed, he seemed to suggest a more pragmatic approach was probably needed with his (almost throwaway) comments after the game: “Maybe we can do one balance, one mix between our draw (the 1-1 v Liverpool in November) and this result today,” and the reiteration of needing “to keep the balance in the middle.”

Emery chose to press up the pitch, using a 4-2-3-1 with Aaron Ramsey behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The likely compromise, the one which he was hinting at to shore up the centre of the pitch, would have been to drop Ramsey into a 4-3-3 and play 10-yards deeper.** Certainly, the personnel he selected seemed to have the counter-attacking ability to spring forward from deep positions, especially since Liverpool, as Klopp bemoaned slightly, “were a bit too open, a bit too wide in the formation.” Alex Iwobi, in particular, was Arsenal’s most dangerous player, especially when he attacked the outside of the right full-back, and Emery was quick to praise how “after some matches not playing very well, today he played 90 minutes with a good performance.” Ramsey also received some appreciation, this time from Klopp, for his movement and by forcing Liverpool to readjust after the break because he “was constantly in the half-spaces. [That] makes life a little bit uncomfortable with only two central midfielders, so we put in a third one and controlled that.”


With Emery proving he has the clear-headedness to reassess Arsenal’s style, he will be given some leeway in terms of getting the blame this humiliating result. It’s clear that he’s trying to build a different type of Arsenal and along the way, there will be bumps in the road. The issue is that the same shortcomings that afflicted the last five years of Arsene Wenger’s reign still prevail here. The playing style has marginally improved on last season if that, because the majority of Arsenal matches, even against teams lower down, are mainly dour affairs. It’s clear in those games, the team is trying to grapple with the demands of the system, which Emery in all honesty, seems to be amending on the fly.

Still, it’s been the saving grace of the season so far because these are necessary steps to get Arsenal into the modern age in terms of playing. All the top teams in the league have adopted some sort of positional play, and Emery, with his insistence of building out with a “2-2” shape, it is his way of implementing this approach. However, his ideas are not fully formed and that’s why you are seeing these jerky, half-performances. He admitted, at the end of last season in charge of PSG still, that he is still “learning and maturing. I am very fond of self-criticism. I still have a long way to go. Doing my best to manage the bad moments and defeats…[…]… I have to develop my ideas on the game a bit more. I love studying tactics. Looking for ways to get the team to play better. For us to play with less fear, and without the handbrake.”

It’s clear that he’s taken that experience with him to Arsenal. The goal now would be, as he says, is to make Arsenal more secure defensively, and that may now mean we get to see more of the high-pressing philosophy he is renown for. And also, to improve on the attack, which while over-performing xG, is relied on mainly to be clinical to get its goals. That suggests that his ideas are still not being transmitted as clearly; that while there have been flashes of good combination play, some good goals, it hasn’t permeated through the whole of the pitch. Indeed, as much as you need to defend better and have good defenders, being able to attack well is a form of that and perhaps that might have been the best, and easiest way, to defend against Liverpool.


*Shkodran Mustafi revealed he finds it harder to play against these types of attacks, and it’s little wonder then that he struggled:

“As a centre half, we’re a little bit bigger and not as quick as the strikers, and when the opponent is playing with a striker that likes to play a lot of short passes and run quickly down the channels, that’s a thing which for me is really difficult to defend against. It’s no longer one against one, it’s more and you’ve got to be comfortable in the back four and give quick information to your team-mate playing next you.

“When it goes through passes and there are quick one-twos, you can’t defend against it on your own. Until you give your team-mate that information, there’s always one or two seconds where you might lose your opponent and he goes through. That’s the most difficult style you have to play against as a defender.”

**Indeed, as Klopp reveals, many teams have chosen to counter-attack against Liverpool resulting partly in this 4-2-3-1 formation he used against Arsenal. Similarly, he says “a lot of teams saw that we were good at counter-pressing and realised they were overplaying.” Initially Arsernal also realised that, so were not scared to go long. Klopp says they forced Arsenal to do that, and interestingly, when they pressed, they used a 4-3-3 shape because they knew Arsenal would try to play. At the end of the game, The Gunners were forced to, and the second-goal came as a result of the Liverpool counter-pressing.  “The second goal was just brilliant defending,” said Klopp. “Sadio comes inside, puts the defender under pressure, wins the ball back then bam – Bobby (Firminho) goes more or less through the wall and scores that fantastic goal.”


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