EFL Cup 2021/22: Why the 0-0 draw tells us more about Liverpool and Arsenal than you’d think – tactical analysis
The EFL Cup semifinal first leg between Liverpool and Arsenal was far from an entertaining game to watch and definitely far from both teams’ best displays so far. The goalless draw puts all the pressure on the second leg performance as their Wembley chances will be decided in that one game.
Liverpool were the dominant team and had all the chances to win after Cedric Soares got injured early on and Granit Xhaka saw red, which forced Mikel Arteta into changing his strategy. But a combination of the Reds’ lack of good finishing and Arsenal’s defensive re-organisation resulted in a disappointment for Jürgen Klopp’s side and a sigh of relief for Arteta.
While the game wasn’t full of innovative tactical decisions and lacked goals, it underlined a few important aspects of their performance that might turn crucial in the long term.
In this tactical analysis, we explain the three things that we learned from that game and how it brought up some questions about the teams’ versatility and their future ventures.
Klopp tried to compensate for some of his key players’ absence by opting for many of his regular starters, something he doesn’t usually do in cup games. Alisson covered the goal with Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold in defence. Their only issue seemed the lack of speed in certain positions which could’ve been exploited by Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli and Eddie Nketiah.
James Milner, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson covered the midfield, while Takumi Minamino and Diogo Jota supported Roberto Firmino in attack in the absence of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Arteta’s squad, on the other side, looked much more limited, despite the presence of a few of his regular starters too. He opted for Aaron Ramsdale instead of Bernd Leno who plays in the side competitions and relied on Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Magalhães, Ben White and Cedric Soares defensively.
The Portuguese picked up an injury early on and the manager was left with no suitable options for the right-back position. He opted for Calum Chambers, which at first looked like he might switch to a three at the back but that didn’t happen and Chambers tried to support the team from the flank.
In the absence of Thomas Partey, the midfield consisted of Granit Xhaka and Sambi Lokonga with Martinelli and Bukayo Saka as wingers. Nketiah and Alexandre Lacazette were upfront. That didn’t last for long with Xhaka seeing red in the 24th minute, forcing Arteta to substitute Nketiah for Rob Holding, looking for defensive stability. That saw Martinelli and Bukayo Saka drop to the midfield line with only Lacazette having to stay in a more advanced position.
Liverpool might be too dependent on Salah and Mane
Many questions were raised whether Liverpool will look as threatening without Salah and Mane in attack as they are with them. With the two key players joining their teams for the AFCON tournament, Klopp had to go for Minamino, Firmino and Jota as the front trio. Although these are considered quality replacements, they couldn’t bring the same explosiveness in front of the goal as their teammates do.
Liverpool used a couple of different attacking strategies against Arsenal and none of them was efficient And there’s a reason why.
At first, the Reds tried to expose their opponents through their usual long diagonal balls, trying to deliver the ball to the underloaded sides and rely on speed upfront. That is one of their most successful moves in the presence of Salah whose positioning is outstanding, which combined with his pace and ability to hold on to the ball result in scoring as frequently as he does. Liverpool’s problem, though, is that without the Egyptian, they lacked the pace, lacked the awareness and lacked the strong finishing to succeed with that strategy.
With Jota relying more upon through balls and runs to the box, Firmino relying on his great positional sense in the penalty area, they only had to rely on Minamino’s pace for taking advantage of these situations. With his lack of regular playing time, the 26-year-old wasn’t convincing enough in his positioning and shot accuracy and failed to threaten Ramsdale and the improved Arsenal defence.
He could’ve also moved in a better way to drag the Arsenal defender out of position.That’s why one of their most successful moves failed without Salah. Especially after Arsenal dropped back and invited the play in their own half. Liverpool used fewer long balls in the second half and their accuracy rate dropped drastically too. Seeing that their efficiency in front of the goal decreased forced them to seek other options to penetrate.
The team moved into a more advanced position and tried to break through Arsenal’s low block by using through balls and a lot of movement. The Gunners had already dropped in more of a 5-3-1 in efforts to protect the goal and Liverpool had to commit more players in the final third in order to break through their defensive structures. That even involved Matip who frequently moved out of his position and tried to support his attacking teammates. Although exposing the opposition with through balls and smart passes is much more into Firmino’s and Jota’s lane, the team missed Mane’s influence on the game and his movement in the half-spaces that provides threat but also stretches defences.
Without him and Salah, the team was a lot less versatile, and while they produced 14 shots, they were rarely on target due to their inability to move into quality positions as the two star players could do. The lack of creative spark from midfield additionally aggravated the situation, underlining Liverpool’s lack of depth in certain positions.
Arsenal’s defensive improvement is their biggest reward
Something that the Carabao Cup confirmed was the Londoners’ defensive improvement. There’s no doubt that Aaron Ramsdale’s signing was one of the best moves for the team in the defensive department and had the biggest contribution to their improved performance, but it is obvious that Arteta has improved the team’s defensive strategy overall and their movement as a unit is light years ahead of last year’s.
The composure that they showed against a dominant and attack-minded team like Liverpool, especially going down to 10 men only showed the immense amount of work put on their defensive performance not only by the defenders but by the whole team.
They have an improved marking strategy which was evident in many games but especially against Liverpool and against Manchester City when in both games Arsenal were one man down. The Gunners now have better control over the oppositions’ movement and manage to defend as a unit, limiting the spaces between the lines and being caught out of position more rarely than before.
The players have developed a better positional sense and are now able to switch between man-to-man and zonal marking depending on the manager’s requirements and their opponents. The Spaniard has instilled a better understanding of the game in the players which leads to increased awareness and improved marking.
Arteta was trying to implement a successful pressing strategy since his arrival. The idea in his tactics was there but the execution was poor. It is just now that the players became aware of the importance of pressurising the opposition in certain areas and starting to do it more and more, which expectedly leads to better performance. They wouldn’t necessarily dive into high pressing, leaving gaps behind and constantly being exposed on a counter. With a much more measured approach, they more often attempt to recover the ball in midfield and use the youngsters’ speed and Lacazette’s hold up play to create chances from these opportunities. And while being immensely criticised, it is safe to say that Xhaka is one of the most efficient players in that matter, being very active in the team’s ball recovery efforts.
Despite not being in the group for the Carabao Cup first leg, another player that brought defensive solidity is Takehiro Tomiyasu. The right-back fit the team perfectly and improved Arsenal’s performance on the flanks. The team had difficulties in stopping their opponents from attacking through the wide areas, but since his arrival, they haven’t been as vulnerable. Not only he contributes defensively but recovers the ball equally well, allowing the team to be more efficient in possession.
That’s not the only reason for the improved performance, though. It seems that Arteta found the long-waited right partnership in the central defence with players who support each others’ movement and have different strengths that complement each other. The struggles that Arsenal had with their centre backs was affecting their actions on a counter, their defending of crossing attempts and their actions when defending set-plays.
With Gabriel being a leader off the ball and White having composure on it, their cohesive performance has affected the team’s performance both in and out of possession. While being under constant pressure in possession resulting in a much lower pass completion rate than usual, White was focused defensively and was undoubtedly the best performer for the team, constantly intercepting, clearing the ball and never being caught out of position.
The Gunners’ attacking struggles will deepen if they don’t sign a centre forward
Arsenal did have a boost in their attacking performance compared to the start of the season but there are still issues that need to be resolved. The lack of a natural forward might deepen their problems. Despite having one of the most talented young players in the league and finally finding the best position for Lacazette, the team are lacking a natural striker who can get to the end of these passes and crosses and threaten the goal. A player with strong positional awareness and finishing who can exploit spaces in and around the box. A player with a strong aerial presence who can take advantage of their set-piece opportunities.
Having Martinelli and Saka on the flanks is definitely beneficial for the team but centrally, Arsenal need more versatility. Lacazette certainly contributes a lot but his strengths don’t work against each opponent as sometimes the team need a more direct player who will wait in the box and convert chances into goals. The Frenchman helps in ball progression and his play with his back to the goal is outstanding but he is more of a creative type.
The only backup option is Eddie Nketiah whose future is uncertain. He started against Liverpool and was Arsenal’s only hope to break through. They tried to set him up in 1vs1 situations with Matip, trying to outrun him but that rarely worked. With the lack of playing time and the absence of the qualities that the team need in a striker, he cannot be relied on. Aubameyang’s situation isn’t improving either, which leaves a huge gap in the Londoners’ attack which can only be fixed with a new signing.
With their direct opponents in the Premier League West Ham, Tottenham and Manchester United being in a similar position in terms of attacking efficiency, Arsenal need to make a move towards signing a quality centre forward who can put them a step in front of the others.
As our analysis shows, both teams had their flaws which expectedly ended with a goalless draw. Liverpool struggled to change up their attacking strategy depending on the available attacking players and struggled in front of the goal. Arsenal were lacking the creative spark and failed in creating chances but with 10 men they got the most of the situation by focusing on not conceding and pulling out a solid defensive performance. The lack of goals can be considered as poor performance by the teams but it actually hinted for