EFL CUP 2019/20: Liverpool vs Arsenal – Tactical Analysis
The midweek EFL Cup fixture was the best chance for Unai Emery to revive some of the pride that he has lost over his reign in Arsenal. It looked as if the fixture had been handed over on his plate by Jürgen Klopp when he announced his starting XI but who knew Klopp had other ideas. Arsenal have been at the end of high scoring matches in the EFL Cup a few times. Most prominent being the 5-7 win at Reading in 2012. Arsenal blew away its lead twice to lose away to the young Liverpool side via penalties.
Klopp started the game with his usual 4-3-3 formation injecting in the young guns. Everyone expected Klopp would rotate his squad but to everyone’s surprise, he fielded almost the same XI, he did against MK Dons. Caoimhín Kelleher donned the Liverpool jersey for the second time. Neco Williams was handed the debut in front of the home crowd. It was a huge night for the young Williams. He put on a stellar show by providing the assist for the most important goal for Liverpool. He troubled the opposition through his constant runs up the field. Surely, a night to remember for the youngster who was at the end of two Liverpool goals. Joe Gomez and van den Berg were the centre-back pair. The veteran James Milner had a below-par night giving away the ball for the fourth Arsenal goal.
Adam Lallana took on Fabinho’s role and had a poor outing. He could not provide the defensive cover that Liverpool badly needed. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain troubled the opposition with his constant change in position and clever runs behind Joe Willock. Naby Keïta formed the midfield trio. The frontline consisted of Harvey Eliott, Rhian Brewster, and Divock Origi. Divock Origi produced an enormous performance and scored the last-minute equalizer.
Emery tinkered with his formation and went with 4-4-1-1 with Mesut Özil slotted behind the striker. The inclusion of Özil was a breath of fresh air for the Arsenal fans. He was the missing piece Arsenal badly needed, creating chances by interchanging passes in the final third. Gabriel Martinelli’s brace takes him to the top of the chart of highest-scoring teens in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Joe Willock and Lucas Torreira were the double pivot with Willock sitting deeper to Torreira. Emery rotated the back four and the goalkeeper which he usually does in cup games.
Arsenal could not trouble Liverpool’s inexperienced backline with its pressing. They pressed in patches lead by Martinelli. Arsenal allowed 11.19 passes per defensive action (PPDA) with its average being 10.47 for the season. Arsenal’s third goal came from a high press by the left-back, Sead Kolašinac. Arsenal could have taken more advantage of the young defence of Liverpool but they failed to do so.
The absence of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, and Sadio Mané meant Liverpool’s pressing wasn’t as aggressive as these three does up the field.
This image clearly depicts Liverpool’s pressing. Though they pressed in numbers on occasion, they were not as aggressive as the regular three frontmen. They maintained shape allowing the Arsenal defenders reluctantly pass the ball among themselves. This wouldn’t have been visible with the likes of Firmino, Salah, Mané or Henderson on the field.
The ‘midfield’ conundrum
Starting with Willock and Torreira in the midfield meant Emery came out with an attacking approach. Willock sat deeper of the two and acted as a defensive midfielder which was disastrous. Throughout the game, there was a lack of communication within the two in the midfield as well as with the defenders. On numerous occasions, Arsenal’s midfield shape looked a perfect treat for the opposition.
In this situation, Milner drifts inside and attracts both Willock and Torreira. Their body orientation makes them completely blindsided of the Liverpool players free. Milner had a completely free passing lane on the right. A simple pass to Brewster or Chamberlian could have troubled Arsenal.
This was one such occasion where Willock and Torreira left too much space for Lallana to operate. Willock tried to mark Keïta’s run and Torreira sat deep to help the defenders which left the gap in midfield. Just before Chamberlain’s run Rob Holding urged Torreira to closely mark Chamberlain, which he failed to do and left Chamberlain open to run the channel. Fortunately for Arsenal, Chamberlain’s first touch was poor and couldn’t trouble Emiliano Martínez.
Liverpool’s first goal came from a lack of communication between Willock, Holding, and Kolašinac. Kolašinac moved up to mark Elliott, completely leaving space behind for a Liverpool midfielder to attack. Williams produced a Trent Alexander-Arnold- esque – pass for Chamberlain who attacked the free space. Chamberlain whipped in a low cross in the box which resulted in an own-goal.
Willock was slow to react to the situation and could not mark Chamberlain in time. Holding was also slow to react and was in two minds to disrupt the defensive shape. Though Holding was not too much at fault, the lack of game time of both the centre-backs was visible. Holding did not have confidence in Mustafi to block Brewster’s run, which comes from playing together regularly at a competitive stage. It resulted in him being in two minds in either blocking the passing lane or maintaining the shape so that Brewster isn’t free. It made him react slowly to the situation. Chamberlain was in a good position till then.
Liverpool’s most of the attack came from the right-hand side in the first half, taking advantage of the communication gap between the three Arsenal players.
If Arsenal had problems in midfield, Liverpool had their own set of problems. Lallana as a defensive midfielder did not click for the hosts. Lallana was left out of position on multiple occasions which was never the case for Fabinho. Fabinho maintained a position in which he could always win the second ball or tackle the opposition trying to get away from his shackles.
On one such occasion, Lallana maintained a position in between Willock and Torreira but ahead of them. Lallana focusses on Bellerin who had the ball at the moment. A quick pass to Torreira may have left a lot of space behind for the two midfielders to attack. Lallana’s body orientation also made it difficult for him to turn around in case of a quick pass to Torreira.
Kolašinac’s positional issue
The first goal Arsenal conceded Kolašinac was mostly at fault along with Willock. Kolašinac has the habit of moving forward to mark an opponent leaving behind space for the opposition midfielder to attack. This happens a lot with him.
Another aspect of his game he developed in Arsenal is his constant movement infield when it’s not required. Arsenal’s midfield has been left open on numerous occasions this season. When there is free space in the midfield region, he tries to attack the space and leave behind massive space in the left flank.
In this picture, Kolašinac tries to vie for the ball with Curtis Jones and is unaware of Elliott at the hindsight of him. He mistimes his jump and loses the aerial duel. The ball falls in the path of Elliott. Elliott is too slow on the ball, Kolašinac recovers back in time and saves him and his team of another misfortune.
A game that reflects the score-line 5-5 is understood to have too many defensive flaws. Both the teams were weak in the midfield defensively. They failed to track the opposition runners behind them. Willock and Lallana were disastrous as defensive midfielders for their respective teams. Willock’s stunner doesn’t elude the fact that he had a horrendous game in the middle of the park along with Torreira.
Emery’s chance of revival against an inexperience squad goes begging. Özil’s inclusion against a young Liverpool side seemed to have done the trick for Emery. Özil created many chances and produced passes inside the opponent box which is hardly the situation with Arsenal nowadays.
Klopp would be happy to see the game through with such an inexperienced squad. Williams had a massive game. He constantly threatened the left flank of Arsenal with daunting runs. Klopp would surely love the Alexander-Arnold – esque – pass that he made to Chamberlain for the first goal.
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