3 Tactical Areas Arsenal Can Improve In The Liverpool Rematch
By Mac Johnson
Arsenal had a pretty torrid time against Liverpool this Monday. The Reds relentless pressing made a mockery of Arsenal’s deep-lying block, and the Gunners shot themselves in the foot, with a lack of creativity rendering them incapable of creating chances without completely exposing their backline to the Liverpool front three.
We have the opportunity to change all of that tomorrow. It’s going to be a seriously uphill battle, but it was an uphill battle when we beat them in July, and again when we beat them in August in the Community Shield. The chance to make it three wins out of four against a team currently considered one of the best in the world, is far too great to pass up.
In order to beat Liverpool, we must do so systematically. Every movement, every action, every area of space on the field, must centre around closing down their weaknesses, and maximizing our strengths. And there are three tactical changes that can help do that.
Start a creative midfielder
Dani Ceballos had a pretty stunning 30 minute cameo once he was subbed on against Liverpool. His creativity, ability to move, turn, and twist around defenders, and especially his eye for the key pass caused the Liverpool backline no end of problems. They play an exceptionally high line, and the space behind is very open when it can be found.
We struggled creatively this past weekend, and I believe Ceballos can do enough defensive work to cover for the likely absence of Mohamed Elneny as a result, given his improved creative impetus. His attacking movement will also free up space for whoever starts on the right of the front three to have increased freedom of movement, instead of constantly dropping deep a-la Willian.
We were also completely suffocated by the Liverpool press, and Ceballos is the best man to break it. Liverpool’s midfield, Fabinho aside, aren’t defensively spectacular. Rather, they rely on positioning, speed, and tactical intensity to force opponents into mistakes. Ceballos is our best bet to avoid those mistakes, but even if he doesn’t start, we need creativity through the midfield. Emile Smith-Rowe is an outside option to take this role, and possibly even an unlikely recall to action for Mesut Ozil, who, despite his obvious decline in creative attributes, is still capable of performing against a weakened Liverpool side at this level.
Pick a system
Arteta has Arsenal set up in a hybrid formation, that flip-flops between a 4-3-3 in possession, and a 3-4-3 out of it. Players are tasked with covering certain areas of space, rather than man-marking players. But that can lead to certain issues against better teams if his instructions aren’t followed to the letter.
Hector Bellerin fell asleep on both of Liverpool’s first two goals, getting sucked into the inside to defend a cross, rather then marking the back-post runner specifically. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kieran TIerney switched spots one too many times, leading to holes that were eagerly filled by Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Granit Xhaka and David Luiz got caught pressing high too often, leading to gaps behind the backline.
These are all changes with a tactical influence. Take David Luiz. As the central unit in a back-three, he has the right and duty to join the midfield, acting as a “stopper,” and using his natural aggression to snuff out attacks. As a partner in a back-four, he must stay back at all times. There was clearly some confusion on his end, as he did a whole lot of both.
For this clash, and especially considering the less-experienced rotation likely to be making an appearance, Arteta should try to stick with one system as much as possible, so that the players can go into this match with minds clear and unconfused.
Lock Down the Full-backs
This is the key to defeating Liverpool, hard stop. TAA and Robertson controlled the game this past Monday, and our wing-backs struggled consistently to deal with them. Part of that comes down to tactics, but they’re also two exceptional players who are completely key to Liverpool’s success.
Although it's unlikely both will start, whatever system Klopp implements there will be a reliance on the full-backs to provide a relentless attacking outlet.
Both times we’ve beaten them recently, and especially in July, we were able to nullify that threat rather well. Trent was forced to drift inside to look for chances, which played into our hands, and Robertson was entirely quiet. But the same cannot be said for Monday’s game. So what do we have to change?
First off, the midfield must be the first line of defence when it comes to dealing with Liverpool’s front three. They should break up the action at the top of the box, where Mane and Salah are most prevalent. That will require our attack to run the hard yards, and drop deeper defensively, but that’s certainly doable.
That change will allow our wing-backs to focus entirely on their Liverpool counterparts. As proven by our previous meetings, they’re not mistake-free players. We just need to put them under enough pressure to force those mistakes.
Second off, our centre-backs will play the biggest role. Assuming Arteta sticks with a back-three, they must not overextend themselves, in or out of possession. Their ability to deal with crosses, especially to the opposite post, will be key in nullifying Liverpool’s high-flying duo. I’m hopeful William Saliba can get the opportunity to be one of those centre-backs. I think he’ll make a good run of it.
Now even if Arteta makes those changes, it’s going to be an uphill battle. But Arsenal can make the climb. They just need a little tactical boost to lighten the load.