Talking Tactics: How Arsenal Can Attack Liverpool’s 3-4-3

March 31, 2015

Preface: What is Liverpool’s 3-4-3

Following a string of poor results, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers opted to switch to a 3-4-3 formation (which really plays like a 3-4-2-1 at times) with four flat midfielders. A 1-0 loss to Basel in the Champions league, where the Swiss club deployed a 3-4-3 as much out of necessity rather than desire, was the apparent inspiration for Rodgers shift in formation. So what makes the 3-4-3 special? Well, nothing really. Simply, it deploys three center backs, four midfielders (which in Liverpool’s case lineup in a mostly flat line, as opposed to a diamond), and three players in-front of the flat four. Though Rodgers has tinkered with his formation, he has favored playing Sturridge centrally, Couthino wide left, and Lallana wide right in his front three. His flat four often features Sterling furthest right, Henderson and Allen in the middle, and Moreno furthest left.  At center-back, Skrtel plays in the middle (who will be suspended for their game with Arsenal), Sakho on the left, and Can on the right.

Liverpool went on a 13-game unbeaten streak following the shift and subsequent gelling of this formation. Why has it had success? Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho have provided excellent distribution from the back, Jordan Henderson has sat deepest and occupied the role Steven Gerrard used to inhabit, and Liverpool’s wing-backs have been extremely aggressive in joining the attack and overwhelming the opposition with numbers around the box. When allowed easy possession, Liverpool build from the back forward and dictate the pace of play.

The Swansea and Manchester United Blueprint

After a string of quality results and impressive performances, Liverpool’s formation began to show cracks in a 1-0 win against Swansea. Gary Monks side largely stymied Liverpool’s attack and dominated most of the game, while not taking advantage of their opportunities to score. Liverpool eventually found of the winner off a deflected clearance. In their most recent game against Manchester United, Liverpool were strangely enough largely second best until the sending off of Stevan Gerrard, which seemed to energize the side and give them some fight. Despite the admirable effort, Manchester United, like Swansea before them, dominated most of the game and exploited key areas of the pitch.

How did they do it? Employing a 3-4-3 formation with a largely flat midfield has a few obvious flaws. First, its success depends on, among other things, distribution from the back three forward. This had been a success in previous results but Swansea and Manchester United pressed Liverpool’s back three and forced them into turnovers. The lack of cohesion at the back disrupts the midfielder’s flow and cuts off the supply going forward. Effective pressing also keeps Liverpool’s wing-backs from bombing forward in attack. Second, a back three and flat four leaves loads of space for the opposition to exploit on the wings of the defense and between Liverpool’s backline and midfield. Juan Mata’s master-class against Liverpool saw him exploit this space. Simply put, press them high, win the ball in midfield in dangerous areas, exploit the enormous amount of open space in the middle and out wide. If Liverpool are not allowed to steadily build from the back and enjoy the comfort that provides, their stability cracks along with the effectiveness of the 3-4-3.

Press from the front, Ozil, Coq Block

This season, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have favored a more cautious approach against the big teams. The Gunners have chosen to concede possession in favor of defensive stability. While I’m not advocating for a full scale deviation from that game plan, its important Arsenal do not allow Liverpool to ease into their possession and tactical setup. Swansea and Manchester United showed that opponents must take the game to Liverpool and force them into errors. A front three of Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck (or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain if healthy) is ideal for employing a high press from the start. The front three must close down Liverpool’s backline and give them no way out. The speed of Alexis, Welbeck, or Ox is also vital in exploiting the available space in the wide areas. Great pressing teams press from the front all the way to the back. As Juan Mata showed, one doesn’t have to be a speedster to beat this Liverpool back three. It’s about timing and anticipating ahead of your opponent, knowing where the space will be before it opens up so when that pressing pays off with a turnover, the player is already in position to attack.

Given the space Liverpool afforded Swansea and Manchester United, Mesut Ozil will be a key man in masterminding Arsenal’s approach. The Gunners most recent game against Newcastle showcases what an important player Ozil is for the side. He is the eyes, ears, and brain of the team. His absence against Newcastle saw Arsenal miss their tactical leader and the side often picked the wrong pass or rushed into attacks before totally sputtering out in the second half and retreating into their own end to see out the win. Ozil pulls all the strings and if Liverpool leave the same amount of space open as they did against Manchester United, Ozil will punish them with the killer ball.

Apart from Ozil, Francis Coquelin’s ability to break up play and force interceptions will be a key attribute. Simply put, if Arsenal can nick the ball from Liverpool anywhere on the pitch, space is everywhere. No Arsenal player is better at taking the ball off the opposition than Coquelin. Stats wise, he has been the Premier League’s best defensive midfielder in 2015. This calendar year, he has 95 tackles or interceptions, the next closest player is Daley Blind with 63. Coquelin is averaging 3.6 tackles per game, 3.1 interceptions per game, and 3.1 areal duels won per game. Ozil makes Arsenal tick going forward while Coquelin allows everyone the opportunity to tick.

Conclusion

The formula to beat Liverpool’s 3-4-3 formation has been laid down by their last two opponents: press them high, they’ll make errors, Arsenal will exploit those errors with all of the available space around the back three affording them room to operate. However, this method is somewhat antithetic to how the Gunners have been achieving results up to this point. Tactics and game plans must be adaptable and malleable. Wenger’s critics have often accused him of being stubborn tactically, of only wanting to win his way. Arsenal’s evolution in style in the latter half of this season serves as an answer to those critics and hopefully foreshadows another progression against Liverpool. Arsenal have all the tools to beat the back three and the blueprint is there, all that’s left is to execute.


Comments

  1. Zwi - April 1, 2015 at 13:26

    Very good article Joe, enjoyed your tactical analysis. Just to add a little something, related to Jane Cavendish’s post last week on this platform. If we do employ a high press game plan, besides starting the players upfront who help us in that regard (Welbeck, Ox if fit, Alexis, etc.), what do you think about who starts at the back? I figure Wenger will still go with Bellerin and Monreal as fullbacks, but Jane wrote about how Gabriel’s inclusion actually enhances our pressing game last week. I personally thought it was a very interesting observation. What are your thoughts on that? Would you start the Brazillian ahead of the German for this weekend?

    Side note: another blogger on a different platform said that Walcott’s pace allows us to press further up the pitch, which I thought doesn’t make sense since Walcott is very much a passenger without the ball (whereas Ox/Welbeck/Alexis actually do press the ball upfront). Would you agree with this blogger?

    Reply
    • Joe Mateo - April 1, 2015 at 13:53

      I would start Gabriel provided Wenger believes he is fully ready for a game of this magnitude/a high pressure game, and that he is fully able to communicate with all his defenders. I think he’s definitely more skilled in closing down than Per and better at forcing interceptions. So I would start him. Theo’s pace would be great if he was actually interested in closing down or anything related to the defensive side of the game, don’t think we can risk starting him given the way he’s played of late.

      Reply
  2. Hasib Ahmed - March 31, 2015 at 14:29

    Very sound analysis, thoroughly enjoyed reading. I will go with 4-2-3-1, Ozil can keep Henderson and Allen busy. Ramsey and Coquelin have to have a spot on game while Sanchez and Ox/ Welbeck/ Theo can utilize there speed. There defense is vulnerable.

    Reply
    • Joe - March 31, 2015 at 14:51

      If they choose to continue with a back 3, think we could get a lot of joy with Skrtel out and Ozil back. Should be tons of space to exploit. Wonder if Theo would get a start if Welbeck/Ox aren’t fit or if Ozil will push out wide

      Reply
  3. Richard - March 31, 2015 at 13:42

    The main concern here is that our 12:45 results are poor and we seem to do poorly in early kick off times. Having said that we are in good form and on a decent run I take us to win 2-1

    Reply
    • Joe - March 31, 2015 at 14:11

      Honestly, it was just as much about who we played in those early kickoffs last year rather than what time it was at. Wouldn’t be surprised if Rodgers tweaks the formation too

      Reply

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