Liverpool v Arsenal: One big game, five big questions

Date published: Sunday 27th September 2020 10:09

Thiago could be the key for Liverpool, who perhaps should be worried by a pragmatic Arsenal.

Thiago-Alcantara-Football365 Liverpool

1) Will Arsenal’s high press unsettle Liverpool again?

In July’s 2-1 victory for Arsenal at the Emirates – the first of back-to-back triumphs over Liverpool (if you count the shoot-out win the Community Shield) – the hosts were supposedly ‘gifted’ the points thanks to two defensive errors. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker both gave away possession in their own third, leading directly to Arsenal goals.

But it is unfair to characterise these as unforced mistakes. Liverpool hesitated in possession then under-hit some passes because Arsenal’s high press successfully rattled them; Jurgen Klopp’s side have been so territorially dominant over the last two years they rarely have to defend against a high press, and had forgotten how to do so. For the first goal, Arsenal had gone man-to-man with every player surrounding Van Dijk, leading to a sloppy concession of the ball, and for the second Alexandre Lacazette nipped in superbly to steal the Alisson pass.

Arteta will do this again at Anfield, although perhaps picking the moments more carefully, and that could give us another surprise result. The tactical sophistication of Arteta’s off-the-ball shape probably protects against an open game, but there will be periods when Arsenal try to unsettle Liverpool’s rhythm. In these moments, the calming influence of Thiago Alcantara will be crucial.

 

2) Can Arteta’s vertical possession mimic Leeds United’s approach?

One thing that separates Arteta from his tutor Pep Guardiola is a belief in incisive, vertical possession football; he doesn’t like things to get stale, ensuring there are numerous runners on the shoulder of the last defender to create space in the final third. Given that Arsenal counter-attacked menacingly in the Community Shield, we can certainly anticipate more willing runners looking to exploit Liverpool’s ultra-high defensive line.

Leeds United caused chaos at Anfield in their opening day 4-3 defeat, when Marcelo Bielsa emptied central midfield to put four or five bodies on Liverpool’s line of defence to stretch the pitch as the ball pinged back and forth. Again, Arteta is more pragmatic than Bielsa and will not let things get quite so messy, but there is enough similarity in their approach to vertical possession to suggest Liverpool fans should be worried.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Willian will look to either pin Liverpool’s full-backs or pull Van Dijk and Joe Gomez into dangerous wide positions.

 

3) Will Saka and Tierney flourish down Liverpool’s right?

The most important battleground from an Arsenal perspective is on their left, where Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka (or Ainsley Maitland Niles) move to create Arteta’s hybrid 3-4-3/4-3-3 formation. The way they interact and shape-shift the Gunners’ formation – coupled with the role Aubameyang plays making diagonal runs from the left flank – has already confounded Fulham and West Ham this season.

When Arsenal are in possession, left centre-back Tierney moves out to the flank and begins to make forward runs – an early example of Chris Wilder influencing his fellow Premier League managers – while Saka or Maitland-Niles leave their left wing-back post for central midfield. It is a subtle shift but a crucial one; with Aubameyang moving across the two of them, they form a malleable triangle that can overwhelm the opposition.

Liverpool could be especially vulnerable considering how often Trent Alexander-Arnold is caught ahead of the play. Klopp’s narrow 4-3-3 leaves the right-back with too much to do when Liverpool are up against opponents willing to counter-attack predominantly down that side of the pitch, and it’s an issue that could be made worse by Jordan Henderson’s relative lack of mobility. Unless he shuts the trio down early in a move, he won’t be able to get back and help.

 

4) Will Klopp resort to the 4-2-3-1 that worked in the Community Shield?

Liverpool got back into the game at Wembley when Klopp brought Takumi Minamino off the bench for Neco Williams in the 59th minute, moving to a 4-2-3-1 with Mohamed Salah playing behind Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane and Minamino on the flanks. The front four pushed Arsenal back, simultaneously limiting their high press and weakening their ability to counter-attack.

Minamino’s equaliser came as a result of Salah dancing diagonally across the number ten space, a move he had tried several times before the 72nd-minute goal. Both Minamino and Firmino had also found joy in this central attacking midfield position as Klopp successfully pushed Arteta’s 3-4-3 into a 5-4-1 – leaving just two central midfielders to defend that fertile space.

Klopp is highly unlikely to start in that formation, but nevertheless it is a useful option for the Liverpool manager should the above points lead to some form of Arsenal dominance on Monday evening.

 

5) Is Mane versus Holding a worrying key battle for Arsenal?

Of course, there is always the possibility that a complex tactical battle will be undone by a simple head-to-head, and there is a clear mismatch on Liverpool’s left. Sadio Mane got his season up and running with a brace against Chelsea last weekend, and he will certainly fancy his chances of further success when standing up then shimmying past Arsenal’s right centre-back Rob Holding.

Holding hasn’t been directly responsible for a goal yet this season, although he has often looked ropey, either getting out-muscled by an attacker, getting out-jumped at the back post, or being caught too square on. He doesn’t have the agility to recover from being dribbled past, too flat-footed for an opponent as nimble and skilful as Mane.

With Arteta and Klopp being such astute tacticians, this will most likely to be a tense affair settled by one key moment. Mane versus Holding is the most likely source of penalty-box incident.

Alex Keble hosts a Premier League pre-match tactics show at twitch.tv/EPLtactics

 

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