Film Focus: Midfield Battle Will Be Key in Liverpool vs. Arsenal

Matt LadsonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2014

Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny  fights for the ball with Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, during their English Premier League soccer match, at the Emirates Stadium, in London, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. (AP Photo / Bogdan Maran)
Bogdan Maran/Associated Press

Liverpool host Arsenal at Anfield on Saturday, seeking their first home Premier League victory over the Gunners since 2007.

The Reds last tasted home success over Arsene Wenger's side in the Champions League quarter-final of 2008. Saturday's match will give us a good guide as to whether Brendan Rodgers can lead his side back to Europe's elite competition.

Both sides have key personnel missing with injury or suspension. Liverpool will continue with a makeshift defence in the absence of Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho and Jose Enrique; Arsenal are without the suspended Mathieu Flamini, and fellow midfielder Jack Wilshere is a doubt.

Liverpool, too, are without their go-to holding-midfielder, Lucas Leiva, while Joe Allen could make his first start of 2014 after returning from injury as a substitute in last week's draw at West Brom.


Corresponding Fixture

In the corresponding fixture between the sides in November, Arsenal were comfortable winners, 2-0.

At the time, Liverpool were using their 3-5-2 shape, and Jon Flanagan was handed his first start since April 2012 due to a late illness for Glen Johnson. Three at the back isn't an option for Rodgers this time as he only has two centre-backs fit and available.

With Flanagan and fellow wing-back Aly Cissokho unable to make any impression offensively, but also struggling with their defensive duties, Liverpool were completely over-run by Arsenal in midfield.

Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and in-form Aaron Ramsey, ably assisted by Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, completely controlled midfield and out-passed Steven Gerrard, Lucas and Jordan Henderson—who was playing in the more advanced role behind the two forwards.

In all honesty, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey, Ozil and Cazorla came out on top against Lucas, Gerrard, Henderson, Flanagan and Cissokho. Liverpool received their first wake-up call after an impressive opening few months of the season.



The midfield trio of Lucas, Gerrard and Henderson were completely outmanoeuvred by Arsenal's technically superior and more mobile players.

In the instance below, all three of Liverpool's midfield players are in position surrounding Ozil.


Yet two passes later, Ozil is in behind not only the midfield but also the defence.


Arsenal didn't get a shot off on that occasion but did within seconds after Cissokho plays the ball back into the danger area and first Henderson and then Gerrard are both dispossessed on the edge of their own box, resulting in Cazorla's shot on goal.


It was Cazorla who scored the opener, given the freedom of midfield to head against the post then follow up his own rebound.




Contain and Counter

More recently, Rodgers has spoken of learning from mistakes—such as his selection against Aston Villa, as reported by Andy Hunter in The Guardian.

Against Villa and in the Merseyside derby the following home match, Liverpool lined up with the same starting XI—but with a completely different mentality and shape to the team.

In the Villa draw they began with a more attacking 4-4-2, which left Gerrard and Henderson completely exposed in the middle and consequently over-run, much as they were at Arsenal.

In the derby, Coutinho moved central in the midfield triangle ahead of Gerrard and Henderson, with Suarez and Sturridge interchanging wide on the left.

Liverpool were comfortable in allowing Everton plenty of possession but picked off their opponents on the counter-attack at will.

This was something that almost proved fruitful at the Emirates too, when Liverpool countered and Suarez took a quick free-kick, which, sadly, referee Martin Atkinson brought back and ruled out what would have been the equalising goal.


Rodgers is likely to opt for a similar philosophy as he did against Everton, allowing Arsenal possession but remaining compact and looking to release Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge on the counter-attack, especially when the visitor's full-backs are caught high up the pitch.

It will be an intriguing tactical encounter at Anfield and one that will go some way to predicting the rest of the season for both sides.