The Weekend's Best Tactics: Arsenal v Liverpool

Saturday’s clash at the Emirates saw Brendan Rodgers’ 3-5-2 formation exposed as Arsenal exploited the Reds’ defensive frailties.

I suppose in a way it’s unfair to say Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger’s tactics this weekend were the best, considering that the French manager sets his team up to play exactly the same way week in week out but, nonetheless, against Liverpool his system was spot on.

It is also important to note that it was not only Wenger’s tactics that won the Gunners all three points but, synonymously, it was Rodgers’ tactics that lost Liverpool all three points – against lesser quality opposition his formation and system has been successful but it was exposed as illusory and naive at the weekend.

Wenger set up his team as he normally does (since the start of the year at least) opting with a 4-2-3-1, packing the midfield where Arsenal oftentimes tend to dominate the opposition.

Rodgers’ five across the midfield ought to have, in theory, been capable of matching the Gunners for possession but for the majority of the game Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, and Lucas were outrun by the home side – it wasn’t until Philippe Coutinho and Victor Moses came on in the second half that Liverpool started to enjoy more possession and control in the game but, by that point it was way too late.

Santi Cazorla’s 19th minutes opener was a sensational individual effort – the Spaniard followed up on the rebound from his own header off the post – and then Aaron Ramsey’s 59th minute goal effectively put the game to bed for Rodgers’ side. It was another fantastic goal from the Welshman, his tenth of the season now, but it was a goal he shouldn’t have been allowed to score – he was given so much time and space to strike it as Kolo Toure completely dropped off.

This was the case all game – Liverpool’s three at the back, Toure especially, dropped off and just ball-watched, allowing Arsenal’s midfielders to come into dangerous areas and attack the space. It’s ironic almost that before the game all the talk had been about the damage Liverpool’s strikers could do to the Gunners but the Gunners’ defence and goalkeeper stood up to the test of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge who both had quiet and ineffectual games.

Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey had very good performances – between the pair of them, the Spaniard operating as a defensive anchorman and the Welshman as a complete box-to-box midfielder, they made 13 tackles and attempted 17 (76.4% success rate), made 2 key interceptions, won 66% of their aerial duels and completed 100% of their attempted clearances. Arteta was operating his usually high standard of pass completion (94.3%) and Ramsey working just ahead of him operated an 82% completion rate.

In the defensive third, they completed together 21 out of 21 passes (100% accuracy).

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Jordan Henderson worked at a 90% completion rate, Gerrard a 87% rate and Lucas an 87% rate but, crucially, the two wingbacks Aly Cissokho and Flanagan were way below that level – between them they completed just 64.3% of their passes which in effect mean Liverpool were completely overrun on the flanks.

If you’re going to play a 3-5-2, the two widemen need to be on top of their game – they need to provide cover at the back and support going forward and neither one of the two didn’t either one of those things on Saturday.

Arsene Wenger’s best tactical decision all weekend was in his substitutions – many managers, including the Frenchman himself often, at 2-0 up will keep the system the same – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? But, Wenger was wise to the fact that a goal from Liverpool at any point in the last half hour would have given them the impetus and momentum to go for a second and put the game in real jeopardy for the Gunners.

The boss brought on Nacho Monreal around ten minutes after Ramsey’s goal and then Carl Jenkinson ten minutes from time – this meant Arsenal had four fullbacks, one in front of the other on either flank – there was no way Liverpool’s subs Moses and Coutinho were going to be allowed any free reign in the second half and the last stages of the game. He completely shut up shop and Arsenal saw out the result for the last quarter and even half an hour.

Arsenal last season from March onwards tended to play with this new philosophy of ‘have what we hold’ – at 1-0 up they’d start to protect their lead instead of chasing a second or third and it saw them go on an unbeaten run of 10 games at the end of the season. They did exactly that on Saturday – Wenger knew either of the SAS had the quality and capability to make it 2-2 or even 3-2 if the Gunners switched off but, his substitutions in effect reminded the other 9 players on the pitch what their job description was. They were taking nothing for granted and leaving nothing to chance.

images: © Matt and Kim Rudge, © Ronnie Macdonald

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