Arsenal vs Liverpool: A Tactical Analysis

November 4, 2013 in Premier League by Ballsy Banter

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This weekend, Arsenal met Liverpool in one of the biggest games of the season so far. It would have been unthinkable to label this game as thus a year ago, but things have changed; Arsenal have emerged as title contenders with fluid, attacking football, while Liverpool are embracing Brendan Rodgers’ ideas, as the duo of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge are in the form of their lives.

Arsenal started in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Mathieu Flamini was out with a groin injury, so Arséne Wenger started Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey as the two holding midfielders. Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil and Tomáš Rosický played as the three attacking midfielders behind the striker, Olivier Giroud.

Liverpool started in a 3-5-2 formation. Glen Johnson was out with an injury, so Brendan Rodgers started Jon Flanagan as the right wing-back. Otherwise, the team was unchanged from their win against West Bromwich Albion a week ago.

Football - FA Premier League - Arsenal FC v Liverpool FC

Arséne Wenger has been using Arsenal’s wide attacking midfielders in a unique way this season. With the absence of such quick wide attackers as Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski, Wenger seems to have given up on having his width provided by his midfielders. This is now the job of the full-backs. Rather than using his wide attacking midfielders as wingers, they play mostly in front of the opposition’s box, and they are the ones who keep the ball moving around the opposition’s defence.

The key in such play is to have players who can exploit space effectively. Space will be scarce in front of the opposition’s defence, and a split second can make the difference between looking sharp and attractive, or totally aimless with your passing. Özil, Rosicky and Cazorla all had excellent games; Özil completed 86% of his passes, Cazorla completed 80% of his passes, while Rosický completed 85% of his passes.

However, they were aided by Liverpool’s formation. Playing in 3-5-2 against a side playing with both full-backs and wide attacking midfielders is problematic, as on each side, you have a wing-back playing against the two wide players of the opposition. To balance this issue, the midfield trio has to drift from one side to the other to cover space in wide areas. Such horizontal movement makes it very hard to cover all the space in the middle as well. This is fine against teams that are slow in their passing, but Arsenal are not one of those. As Brendan Rodgers admitted after the game, Arsenal took advantage of the space that Liverpool left unattended in midfield.

The second Arsenal goal was a good example of Liverpool’s problems in midfield. In the 59th minute, both Gerrard and Henderson were drawn to the left to close down Özil and Rosický. Henderson didn’t drop in front of the defence, and Ramsey took advantage of the space by scoring with an eye-catching long range effort.



Before Arsenal’s second goal: Liverpool prevent to congest
the space in front of the defence.

Liverpool’s midfield was stretched in pressing as well. As Henderson and Gerrard were pushing high to prevent Arteta and Ramsey from bringing the ball out, Lucas and the defenders didn’t push up with them. As a result, a large hole appeared in the midfield. If any of the Arsenal attacking midfielders came deep to help with bringing out the ball, Arsenal had all the tools to exploit this space. This was exactly what happened before Arsenal’s first goal. Arteta received the ball behind Henderson and Gerrard and played a ball behind the Liverpool defence to Sagna, who crossed into the box. Cazorla arrived to give Arsenal the lead, as none of the Liverpool midfielders tracked his run.


Before Arsenal’s first goal: Liverpool are stretched as a result of pressing.

Liverpool were trying to break quickly and catch their opponents on the break - a good strategy against Arsenal, as both Crystal Palace and Dortmund were able to threaten Arsenal with counter-attacks in recent weeks.  Neither Arteta nor Mertesacker is the quickest, while Ramsey gets caught too high at times. It made sense to use the pace of Liverpool’s forwards against them. However, Arsenal pressed Liverpool very high. Whenever Arsenal lost the ball, they closed down the Liverpool player in possession, and the closest, most obvious passing options to him. Arsenal made 8 tackles, and intercepted 7 passes in Liverpool’s half. Most of the time, Liverpool failed to launch quick counter-attacks.

When Liverpool were able to play out the ball, they tried to spread out horizontally, and involve the wing-backs in the build-up. Spreading horizontally ensured that Sturridge and Suárez were left one-on-one with the defenders as many times as possible. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the service they have received from the wing-backs was poor. It is fair to say that Gibbs and Sagna had the better of their counterparts.


Aly Cissokho’s passes.



Joe Flanagan’s passes in the first half.
The wing-backs struggled both with playing out of defence,
and providing the final ball.

At half-time, Brendan Rodgers took off Aly Cissokho and Philippe Coutinho was introduced. Liverpool switched to a 4-4-2 formation. Henderson played on the right side of midfield, Coutinho played on the left, with Gerrard and Lucas in the middle, with Martin Škrtel playing as left-back. The Liverpool midfield played in a narrow shape to deny space from the Arsenal midfielders. At the same time, Liverpool tried to exploit Arsenal’s pressing by playing balls behind them for the strikers to run onto. Arsenal reacted quickly, and dropped deeper.

In the 68th minute, Victor Moses was introduced in place of Jon Flanagan, and Liverpool switched to a 3-4-3, with Moses playing on the right side of the forward line. Arséne Wenger reacted with defensive substitutions, bringing on Nacho Monreal, Thomas Vermaelen and Carl Jenkinson, and Arsenal went on to keep a clean sheet.

After the game, Brendan Rodgers admitted that Arsenal were the better team, and that Liverpool are not on their level yet. Arsenal have won this game because they were able to capitalise on Liverpool’s weaknesses. At the same time, Liverpool didn’t come up with anything that would have forced Arsenal to change their tactics significantly.

In the end, Arsenal were deserved winners, and sit five points clear at the top of the Premier League table.


Ábel Lőrincz writes about football tactics at Football Stats and Tactics (