Arsenal placed Liverpool’s top four aspirations in severe danger with a convincing three-goal triumph at the Emirates.
Arsene Wenger made three changes to the XI that narrowly defeated Newcastle at St. James Park, recalling Mesut Ozil to the attacking trio alongside Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey. Per Mertesacker and Hector Bellerin also returned to bolster the Gunners’ back-line.
Daniel Sturridge wasn’t fit to start at the Emirates, thus forcing Brendan Rodgers to select Lazar Markovic to join Philippe Coutinho behind Raheem Sterling. Kolo Toure replaced the suspended Martin Skrtel, while Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen protected a makeshift back three.
Arsenal scored three goals in the final 10 minutes of the opening half to secure maximum points, but this was solely about their improved workrate out of possession, and the maturity displayed to contain Liverpool’s threat in the second.
Surely this match was settled within the opening 45 minutes, but their was a distinct contrast in regards to the pattern displayed in last year’s fixtures, and the clash at Anfield earlier this season.
Last year, Liverpool’s energetic organized pressing, and lightning breaks humbled Arsene Wenger’s side. Meanwhile, the clash at Anfield this season saw the Reds easily bypass Arsenal’s disjointed pressing to dominate majority of the match.
Matches subsequent to the international break often result in fatigued sides failing to eclipse standard energy levels, but here, Arsenal rectified the pressing issues displayed at Anfield.
Likewise the main difference in the return fixture witnessed Arsenal dominating the match in terms of possession, pegging Rodgers’ men into their half – which technically benefitted the away side considering the space available for Markovic and Sterling to exploit in transition.
The main battle featured in midfield with the contrast in pressing playing a decisive theme in the opening half. As stated above, Arsenal’s pressing improved at the Emirates – at Anfield, the front three were instructed to press Liverpool’s defensive trio, while the midfield and defence sat off.
This time Arsenal remained compact and squeezed Liverpool into their half when they attempted to bypass the home side’s pressing. The home side’s press flustered Rodgers’ men, as they regularly conceding possession cheaply in central areas, thus resulting in immediate Arsenal attacks.
The tempo was sent in the opening 30 seconds when Allen conceded possession in his half, which ultimately led to Alexis firing an effort wide of the net. This was a recurring theme throughout the first half, as Liverpool failed to build plays from the back.
Liverpool was fortunate to be level following a sequence of errors in the opening 10 minutes.
3rd min: Francis Coquelin intercepted Lucas’ pass and instantly found Sanchez who played a ball into the box that Cazorla picked up, before lashing a low driven shot at Mignolet.
4th min: Giroud’s pressure on Toure forced the Ivorian to concede the ball to Ramsey, who motored into the box but fired a tame effort at Mignolet, before the Liverpool defender cleared his lines to prevent Cazorla from scoring an easy tap in.
10th min: Coquelin intercepted Sakho’s poor pass, thus leading to Ozil and Alexis combining, with the former’s cross finding Ramsey in the box, but he nodded the ball behind Cazorla at the edge of the box to thwart the play.
11th min: Slight pressure from Ozil led to Lucas giving the ball to Cazorla, but Ozil’s attempt to combine with Giroud saw the striker fail to successfully combine with the German’s wall pass.
Arsenal’s pressing was logical considering Liverpool’s inability to pass their way out of trouble, but it was equally their only method of attack due to Liverpool’s approach out of possession.
Liverpool dropped into their standard 5-4-1, with majority of their focus on stifling Coquelin and Cazorla.
Sterling tracked Coquelin’s movement when Arsenal tried to play from the back, and when the English international was out of position, Allen stepped forward to apply pressure. Cazorla dropped deeper to help his side move forward, but Lucas quickly closed down the Spaniard.
Arsenal may have found joy through quick transitions, but with Can or Jordan Henderson tightly marking Alexis, Ramsey out of position, and Giroud also outnumbered, their threat in possession was often stifled.
Equally, Liverpool also encountered difficulties in the final third. When the Reds occasionally bypassed Arsenal’s first stage of pressing, Sterling was often outnumbered, an unable to punish the home side with his pace.
Frankly, it was odd to see Rodgers’ side reluctant to loft balls into the channels considering the issues they encountered in the early stages of the match.
But as the first half wore on, space opened up in central areas for Coutinho to exploit.
Liverpool’s best chance saw the Brazilian receive a pass from Allen between the lines and he slid a pass to an unmarked Markovic who was free on goal, but his heavy pass across goal evaded Sterling. Sterling received a glorious opportunity shortly afterwards – following Markovic intercepting a loose Cazorla pass in Arsenal’s zone – but the England international frantically dragged his shot wide of the net.
Liverpool retained possession well for lengthy spells during the latter stages of the first half but Arsenal dropped off into two banks of four, and the Reds didn’t offer penetration in their passes, nor did they field runners capable of breaking lines in tight spaces.
Nevertheless, the key man in the first half was Ozil. Where both sides encountered issues creating chances in the opening half, the German’s movement and tactical awareness played an integral role in Arsenal’s goals.
While the movement from Arsenal’s attacking players was often static throughout, Ozil glided laterally across the pitch to receive the ball in pockets of space before moving his side forward with quick combination passes.
With Cazorla and Coquelin marked out of the match when they dropped into deep positions, Ozil also attempted to move into this zone to influence the match. Lucas quickly stepped to the German, but his lovely diagonal to Ramsey in the 36th minute, ignited the move for Bellerin’s opener.
Subsequently, Coquelin recovered a tame Sakho clearance and the Arsenal midfielder found Ozil between the lines, thus forcing the French defender to commit a foul on the German at the edge of the box. Ozil converted an exceptional free-kick past Mignolet, but more importantly the two goals within a three minute span highlighted the German’s intelligence to vary his movement to help Arsenal maximize their territorial dominance.
Rodgers react, but Arsenal shuts game down
Rodgers made one alteration at half time, introducing Daniel Sturridge for Markovic, as Liverpool moved to a 4-1-4-1. Coutinho moved to a deeper position alongside Allen, while Sterling moved to the left flank, and Henderson was on the right ahead of Can.
In recent memory, Arsenal have handled these situations poorly, often searching for more goals and leaving space for the opposition to exploit on the counter, or conceding late and being forced to desperately preserve their lead in the latter stages. Wenger’s side, though, dropped off in the second half and played on the counter attack, opposed to maintaining their high pressure with attempts of winning the ball in advanced zones. But Besides a Giroud header from point blank range – which stemmed from a delicate Ozil cross into the box – or Danny Welbeck’s powerful surge down the left, Arsenal didn’t test Mignolet until stoppage time.
It was fairly logical to play on the counter, but Arsenal lacked players with pace to punish the Reds, therefore Sakho and Can’s athleticism often bailed Liverpool out of trouble.
The Reds, however, enjoyed majority of possession in the second half, and improved with Sturridge upfront. Sturridge used his strength to hold up the ball and bring his teammates into play, but his trickery also saw the English international push Liverpool forward from deeper positions.
Coutinho slightly improved as well in a deep central position, while Sterling kept Bellerin quiet – although the right back had no incentive to push forward in the second half, he was quite lively in the first half running beyond Coutinho several times – and got the better of the Arsenal defender on several occasions before winning a penalty with 15 minutes remaining.
However, while Liverpool improved slightly in the second half, they were unable to get into legitimate goal scoring positions due to Arsenal’s organized shape, cohesive defending and their reluctance to push men forward in a naive manner.
This was an impressive Arsenal performance at the Emirates which saw the Gunners fluster Liverpool with aggressive high pressing before big money signings Alexis and Ozil played significant roles in three first half goals. Yet, the most important feat was the maturity and discipline displayed in the second half to limit spaces and defend deep.
Considering Liverpool’s success in the initial fixture at Anfield, Rodgers’ team selection was fair, but the Reds’ sloppy passing in the opening minutes set the tone for the match. Liverpool’s reluctance to dump balls into space for Sterling, opposed to playing short passes to bypass Arsenal’s pressing still remains peculiar, yet poor decision-making from Sterling and Markovic were also decisive.
Although an attack spearheaded by Sterling can terrorize inferior Premier League opposition, this was another example of Liverpool lacking killer instinct in the final third against top-sides, and a reliable replacement for Sturridge.