By Michael Cox
Tactically, Arsenal’s trip to Liverpool at the weekend was an important test. It was a very different battle from the previous two league games against Sunderland (who attempted to soak up pressure before counter-attacking) and Stoke (whose gameplan is based around territory rather than possession).
Liverpool were different: they wanted to compete in midfield, intended to dominate possession and took the game to Arsenal. Therefore, a different approach was required – Arsenal accepted they would spend periods sitting in their own half without the ball.
For the record, the possession battle was evenly-matched while the game was still goalless. In the first half hour – until Lukas Podolski put Arsenal ahead – Liverpool completed 135 passes, while Arsenal completed 139 – a difference so small it is irrelevant.
But, as the cliché goes, goals change games. When Arsenal went 1-0 up after a goal scored on the break, they became more defensive, and Liverpool saw more of the ball – completing 338 passes to Arsenal’s 274.
This was the first time Arsenal had been ahead this season, of course, and having dominated possession heavily against both Sunderland (70 per cent) and Stoke (67 per cent), we now got a glimpse of Arsenal’s ability to play reactive football.
The performance can be broken down into two distinct parts. First, there was the defensive shape, and it’s important to note the difference in Arsenal’s formation between this match and the two previous games.
Taking a 4-2-3-1 formation as standard, Arsenal now possess the ability to move the central playmaker (Santi Cazorla) and the two wide players (at Anfield, No 15 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and No 9 Lukas Podolski) up or down accordingly.
Therefore, against Sunderland the formation was more like a 4-2-1-3 – the wide players moved high up the pitch, and Cazorla (No 19) came deep to collect the ball from midfield.
At Anfield, Cazorla played further up the pitch and the wide players were much deeper, forming a second bank of four behind the ball, and it was a 4-4-1-1 for long periods.
AVERAGE POSITION: Sunderland (h), Liverpool (a) - home team in white
Arsenal defended particularly narrow – denying Liverpool space to play quick passes through the centre of the pitch.
This was a completely different approach to the fixture at Stoke, when the full backs had to prevent crosses coming in from the flanks, so the majority of ‘recoveries’ – when Arsenal players won back loose balls – were in very central positions at Anfield, compared to wider zones at the Britannia.
DEFENSIVE RECOVERIES: Stoke (a), Liverpool (a)
Arsenal were also very compact. Whereas last season Alex Song became increasingly focused on moving up the pitch and leaving space in behind, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby sat deep, close to the centre backs, denying Liverpool space between the lines.
The second part involved the actual counter-attacking, and here Cazorla’s advanced positioning was particularly useful. He stayed high up the pitch, close to Olivier Giroud, which meant Arsenal could get the ball towards him quickly and break two-versus-two against the Liverpool backline.
Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain sprinted forward to provide support down the wings, and Diaby provided an extra midfield runner. The slickness of the moves – for Podolski’s goal and for Giroud’s missed chance towards the end of the first half in particular – was highly impressive. This was vintage Arsenal, hitting the opposition with pace while their defence was unbalanced.
Of course, as the olés from the travelling support demonstrated near full-time, possession football wasn’t abandoned. But this was tiki-taka to kill the game – for most of the match, Arsenal’s attacking was quick, purposeful and direct.
The Arsenal of 2012/13 will be adept on the counter-attack. Now, an improvement against more negative sides is required.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source