Breaking Down the Arsenal vs. Liverpool Tactical Battles

Sam PilgerContributing Football WriterNovember 4, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02:  Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal and Per Mertesacker of Arsenal celebrate victory at the final whistle during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on November 2, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Arsenal won the tactical battle against Liverpool on Saturday an hour before kick-off when Brendan Rogers handed in his team sheet revealing he was sticking with his 3-5-2 formation.

Since Luis Suarez's return in September, Rogers has used this formation, and in the four games before their trip to North London, it had brought him 10 out of 12 points.

While Liverpool had looked both solid in defence and prolific in attack in these games, it should be stressed they were against Newcastle, West Brom and the Premier League’s two bottom clubs, Sunderland and Crystal Palace, who between them have two wins from 20 games this season.

It was always going to be an act of supreme folly for Liverpool to continue to use this 3-5-2 formation against the country’s most in-form side and the Premier League leaders Arsenal.

In the first half, Liverpool’s three-man defence was simply swamped by Arsenal’s runners from midfield.

Central defenders like to play up against forwards, but with just Olivier Giroud up front,  it meant two Liverpool defenders were constantly unsure where they should be.

Arsenal playing a 4-2-3-1 formation had a seemingly constant supply of midfielders swarming around an uncertain Liverpool back line.

Another problem of playing just three at the back is it can leave teams exposed in the wide areas, with just one player stationed out there rather than the usual two. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02: A dejected Steven Gerrard of Liverpool looks to the big screen after they conceded a second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on November 2, 2013 in London, Engla
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

This can be hidden and compensated for against lesser teams, but against good full-backs like Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, you can suddenly become vulnerable.

It was by exploiting this weakness along the right flank that Arsenal took the lead after 19 minutes through Santi Cazorla.

Mikel Arteta played the ball into the space on the right for Sagna to sprint onto and deliver a cross that Cazorla met with a header that came back off the post before he put the ball away with a volley.

Liverpool’s five-man midfield also runs the risk of being too flat and not responsive enough, so when Cazorla makes his run in to the penalty area for this goal, there are four Liverpool players near him, but no one tracks back with him. 

In the first half, Mikel Arteta played a vital role in front of the Arsenal defence by both shielding them and actively cutting off the supply line to Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

It was a major reason why a strike force that had scored 10 goals between them in their previous five starts failed to trouble the scoreboard at the Emirates.

The only real chance Liverpool created came from an Arsenal mistake when Cazorla slipped in possession to allow Jordan Henderson to run into the area, but he scuffed his shot wide.

At half-time, Brendan Rogers was astute enough to see how Arsenal were dominating his side and ditched his 3-5-2 formation. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02: Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal clashes with Lucas Leiva of Liverpool  during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on November 2, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The Liverpool manager brought on Philippe Coutinho, took off his left-wing back Aly Cissokho and moved Mamadou Sakho to left-back, so his side were now set up in a more traditional 4-4-2 formation.

 As Rogers told the Liverpool Echo on Saturday:

There is a weakness in every system you play and the one in the system we’ve employed this year is that space on the side. Arsenal are a team with good mobility and movement and exploited that. At 1-0 [down] I felt for us to have a better opportunity in the game I would need to tactically change it about.

We brought on Philippe Coutinho and made the field a little bit narrower while retaining our two up front because that allows us to maintain that goal threat. It gave us the opportunity to control the game more with the ball.

According to the BBC’s Match of the Day programme, in the first half, Arsenal had 60 percent possession of the ball compared to Liverpool’s 40, and made 336 passes compared to Liverpool’s 220 passes.

In the second half, Rogers’ tactical changes saw Liverpool reassert themselves and gain a slight statistical advantage, claiming 51 percent possession, and making more passes than Arsenal, 291 to 276.

However, while this provided Liverpool with more chances—Suarez coming closest with an effort that glanced against the post—crucially, it didn’t translate into goals, and Arsenal doubled their lead in the second half when Aaron Ramsey scored with a long-range strike. 

It bodes well for Arsenal that they can put on such an accomplished display and keep a clean sheet without the midfield talents of Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini. 

There is a confidence coursing through the Emirates now, and when the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was asked after this win over Liverpool if his side could now win the Premier League, he didn’t shy away from the issue, and as reported by The Guardian, said, “It’s a kind of...people start to say... ‘Oh maybe’.”

Maybe Arsenal can win the Premier League, but we will have an even better idea after they face the reigning champions Manchester United at Old Trafford this weekend.