Liverpool and Arsenal played to entertaining draw at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger was forced into forming a make-shift centre-back partnership of Gabriel and Calum Chambers, as first choice defenders Per Mertesacker (illness) and Laurent Koscielny (back issue) unavailable. Wenger persisted with the same front six that started a week prior at Selhurst Park.
Brendan Rodgers tinkered with the system that earned Liverpool two wins to start the season, moving to a compact 4-3-3. Roberto Firmino made his official Premier League debut from the right, while Emre Can and Lucas Leiva joined James Milner in midfield.
The abundance of attacking players in the starting XI combined with shaky back-lines suggested that there would be goals at the Emirates, but this action-packed, open affair shockingly concluded with neither side converting their chances. The Reds were dominant in the opening half, but as they tired Arsenal gained territorial dominance but were vulnerable in transition – put simply, it was a game of two distinct halves.
The most interesting story line heading into the match surrounded Rodgers XI. Liverpool kick-started their campaign with two unconvincing displays – albeit claiming maximum points – and with Jordan Henderson unavailable due to a foot injury, the opportunity to include a defensive-minded midfielder was a logical move.
Here, Rodgers moved to a 4-3-3, moving Milner and Emre Can as shuttlers ahead of Lucas. This was significant due to the risk of being overrun in midfield with Henderson and Milner started ahead of the back four, as neither player is a legitimate ball winner.
The 4-3-3’s defensive base shape is a 4-5-1, and Liverpool’s midfield band remained narrow and compact, improving the overall structure of the side. Rodgers was expected to alter his side’s approach against Arsenal’s fluid attack, and the move to a 4-3-3 suited the side, improving their natural balance and defensive solidity.
Liverpool’s quick start
Considering the several new additions to Rodgers’ squad combined with the Reds’ poor displays thus far, their energetic start came as a surprise. Surely, Rodgers most impressive win against Arsenal followed this template, but here, the lack of familiarity within the squad suggested that the home side would dictate the opening period.
However, within the opening five minutes, Liverpool exploited Arsenal’s inexperienced make-shift back four and their fullback’s advanced positioning. Can was free to charge into left half-space before pulling back the ball for Benteke, but the Belgian slashed his shot wide. A similar move occurred a few minutes later, as Milner played in the Liverpool striker in right half-space, resulting in Coutinho firing the subsequent pullback off the cross-bar.
It’s key to note that Arsenal scored a lovely goal that was wrongly disallowed, yet shortly afterwards Lucas dispossessed Alexis, and clever work from the two Brazilian’s placed Benteke into right half-space, but Petr Cech made a key save. Oddly, Arsenal started poorly, with the Reds dominating half-spaces between both advanced full-backs, but once again, their profligacy in the final third proved costly.
Arsenal’s poor passing
Equally, the additional component to Arsenal’s difficulty in the opening half, and Liverpool’s dominance, involved the former’s poor passing in their half and the final third.
Much credit should be awarded to Lucas who negated Ozil’s threat between the lines and blocked off passes into Giroud. Wenger’s side found it difficult to break past Liverpool’s narrow 4-5-1 – Can and Milner closed down Arsenal’s midfield duo when they received possession, depriving the Gunners a genuine link between midfield and attack.
Essentially, teams bypass midfield pressure through service from the back-line, but the inexperienced Arsenal centre-backs proved inadequate options. Chambers, in particular, enjoyed a dreadful half, conceding possession three times to Coutinho alone.
Liverpool’s midfield quintet was also influential via collective pressing, as they harried Arsenal’s duo when they attempted to play short passes through central areas. One incident in the opening half witnessed Lucas, Milner, Can, and Coutinho harry Coquelin and Cazorla, which forced the former to make a desperate last-ditch tackle to halt Benteke’s surge into the box.
At times, Arsenal produce their best football when they play quick combination passes amongst each other, but Wenger’s men failed to gain a rhythm due to Liverpool’s pressing, Lucas’ positioning, and incompetent passing out of their half.
As expected, Liverpool were unable to maintain their pressing over the course of 90 minutes, thus reverting back to a narrow 4-5-1 deep in their half. Therefore, the Gunners were free to monopolize possession in the box, and penetrate wide areas to create chances.
Now was the ideal time for Bellerin and Monreal to surge forward, and the full-backs delivered positive crosses into the box. Movement from wide areas led to Alexis hitting the post, and a Bellerin cross resulted in Giroud squandering a glorious opportunity to nick a winner in the six-yard box.
Giroud benefitted from the shift in dominance, as he was subdued in the first half due to lack of service in the final third – Lucas’ influence also played a factor. The Frenchman wouldn’t be deemed a prolific finisher, but his superb link-up play virtually makes him an additional playmaker – hence, why he improved once his teammates received space to play passes into him and charge forward.
It’s unsurprising to see Giroud involved in Arsenal’s best moves during their 20-minute spell of dominance, and though he missed a key chance to put the Gunners ahead, it was odd to see the Frenchman replaced for Theo Walcott.
Liverpool swift attacks
With the Gunners pushing men forward, there was ample space for Rodgers’ men to exploit on the counter. Liverpool broke quickly in the first half, but most moves involved the Reds pressing higher up the pitch to win possession.
Contrastingly, Gomez, and substitute Alberto Moreno, won the ball in their own half before charging forward into Arsenal’s half on the counter. The former’s opportunity witnessed Milner fire a shot directly at Cech, while the latter’s poor decision-making saw him overrun the ball opposed to playing in the unmarked Can.
Nevertheless, the away side’s additional method of attack in the final quarter of the match was strictly direct. Lucas located Coutinho between the lines, and the Brazilian evaded a few challenges from deep to test Cech from distance – the Liverpool attacker also skipped past Bellerin to test the Arsenal keeper. Then a simple Mignolet punt resulted in Benteke winning an aerial duel and subsequently combining with Firmino to fire a wayward shot over the net.
Wenger’s late direct attempt
While Rodgers appeared content with the result in the final half hour, Wenger made attacking alterations to introduce pace in the final third. Walcott replaced Giroud upfront, whereas Coquelin was sacrificed for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, pushing Ramsey alongside Cazorla upfront.
The risky change deprived Arsenal of a natural ball-winner, yet the introduction of Chamberlain would have benefited Giroud upfront. Liverpool’s deep defensive line prevented the Walcott from running behind the opposition’s back-line, but Oxlade-Chamberlain merited why he’s due for a starting role, particularly in home games.
Ramsey’s driving runs from midfield did present a chance that nearly fooled Mignolet, but it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who forced the Belgian into several saves, foiling a weak area in Joe Gomez. Perhaps a pairing of Ramsey and Cazorla left Arsenal susceptible to quick counters, but the Gunners lacked powerful deep runners throughout the match, and Chamberlain’s inclusion improved the balance in the final third and the likelihood of a winner.
Most goal-less draws are quickly classified as dull encounters, but this fixture was fairly open and entertaining despite the poor finishing throughout. Liverpool will feel unlucky not to put the match out of sight in the first, yet Arsenal moved into better positions in the second, and should have executed.
“Performance-wise I was very happy with how we worked. First half in particular we created chances and should have been in front. In the second half you always expect pressure,” said Rodgers.
“Our performance level has grown over time, our defensive organization is good against big teams.”
Rodgers displayed his tactical awareness and flexibility with the inclusion of Can and Lucas in midfield, thus leading to Liverpool’s best performance of the season. They pressed and harried superbly in central zones, maintained a narrow shape when required to do so, and constantly exploited Arsenal’s make-shift back four when they swiftly broke on the counter – inevitably all that was missing was the all-important goal to classify this as a remarkable away display.
The same can’t be said for Wenger, as Arsenal’s entire set-up was peculiar. From the full-backs maintaining advanced positions, to not providing another holding midfield to help Coquelin protect the back four, the home side’s display was appalling. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s direct running from the right was beneficial, but this served as further evidence that Wenger must identify his preferred attacking quartet sooner rather than later.
It appears Rodgers finally has a team that fits his stylistic preference – in regards to funds available – and his decision to move to a 4-3-3 highlights that while he can make mistakes, his side still remains tactically flexible. More so, this could be the Liverpool manager’s approach in big games until Daniel Sturridge returns to the XI.