Premier League 2020/21: Liverpool vs Arsenal – tactical preview
Both sides are on a good run of form coming into this game, with two wins from two, both sides have an average goal per game of 3.0 and 2.5 respectively, accounting for this season’s results in the Premier League.
It has been 28 days since both these sides played out a 1-1 draw in the charity shield, and 72 days since Arsenal‘s landmark victory against the Premier League champions at the Emirates Stadium. Since that time, I’m certain both managers will believe their sides have improved in every area of the team.
Although we are not sure when we expect new Signing Diojo Jota will make his debut for the Reds, It’s likely, we will see Thiago Alcántara make an appearance either from the bench or from the start. Having impressed on his cameo against Chelsea last weekend, the 29-year-old looks a ready-made Red who can meet the demands of Jürgen Klopp’s midfield.
The tactical analysis below looks at the key tactics and players that will feature in this fixture.
The analysis also examines the strengths and weaknesses of both sides based on recent performances and previous head-to-heads.
The hosts will certainly line up in their signature 4-3-3. In the attacking phase, we can expect Liverpool to commit both full-backs, and keep short passing distances in the final third to penetrate at pace. While having the pacey front three made up of a false-9 and two inverted forwards, that can change the point of attack and drive at goal to create chances.
The Gunners are likely to play a 3-4-3, morphing into a 5-4-1 in the defensive phase. Going forward the North Londoners will look to be quick on the counter and may also use inverted wide forwards who can cut in. In their last League meeting, Liverpool bested Arsenal in possession 70% to 30%, meaning Arsenal hade to absorb a lot of Liverpool’s attack very deep in their 5-4-1 as they looked to play on the break to get success.
Goalkeeper, Alisson Becker will be the last line of defence for the Reds, while in front we expect to see the return of Joe Gomez to accompany Virgil Van Dijk as the tried and trusted centre-back pairing. If Gomez is not considered fit, this may mean Fabinho slots into centre-back allowing a first start for Alcántara in midfield.
In front, we can expect Naby Keïta to get his third consecutive start in the league alongside Georginio Wijnaldum as attacking midfielders. One would be confident of seeing arguably the league’s most dangerous trio start up front together, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohammad Salah leading the line. While Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold should start on the flanks, helping their side create overloads in every third of the field and progressing attacks from deep.
Although Gabriel has impressed on his first two starts for the Gunners, there is a case to be made that the elder statesman David Luiz will slot back in for this away game to lead the defence against the Champions. Keiran Tierney is expected to be fit and return alongside Rob Holding who will make up the right side of the back three. Héctor Bellerín seems to be the managers first choice right-wing-back of late, while on the opposite side, perhaps Bukayo Saka will make the starting line up, considering his ability to get box-to-box at pace along with his other attacking qualities.
Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos seem a complementary pairing in midfield for Arsenal in big games, although there is a case to be made for Mohammad Elneny this season. Up front, we can be confident that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette will make up two of the front three. At the same time, the choice of having right-footed Willian accompany them on the right or left-footed Nicolas Pépé cutting in and driving at the defence from the right as an inverted forward perhaps bolsters the Arsenal attack, particularly on the counter.
As for substitutions, injuries, bookings, and scoreline will be the first concern for managers as they determine their three in-game substitutions. Considering the strength of Liverpool’s front three and defence I would be more convinced of seeing Klopp opt for fresh legs in midfield when making substitutions. All the more of a reason why I believe Alcántara will make his first home appearance for the Reds.
While the away dugout has a less glamorous bench, not as many established internationals or goalscorers to call upon, I do believe if he does not start then Pépé will likely feature. Provided Arteta’s hand is not forced by way of injuries or bookings. We also know Lacazette is not 90-minute man for the Gunners of late so perhaps Eddie Nketiah will make an appearance late in the game.
Liverpool and Arsenal have had their fair share of problems at the back when teams aggressively engage the high press. Knowing that both of these sides prefer to build the attack from inside their box, we are starting to see more teams disrupt their plans and on some occasions punish with a goal.
Even against each other in the recent Charity Shield and Premier League clash, we saw examples of how both teams best chances of success were by hurting the team in possession in the build-up. Consider their last league meeting, Arsenal’s two goals were as a result of capitalising on a defender or goalkeeper error. Similarly, Liverpool’s only goal in that same game came from a quick turnover as Arsenal lost the ball in their third.
Let’s observe a few examples of both sides deficiencies at the back as well as their ability to punish from the front.
In their Premier League game in July at the Emirates, we see a moment Arsenal were caught a bit too calm at the back. After a few passes were exchanged between the goalkeeper and the centre-backs Liverpool forward, Firmino engages the press on goalkeeper Martinez. Martinez delays a moment before playing a long pass, at which point Firmino makes contact with the driven ball. The ball deflects back from Martinez and Liverpool almost score.
In the same game, now Martinez is pressed by Mané, the Liverpool forward comes extremely close to robbing Martinez of a clearance and potentially claiming a reward for his efforts to press.
In the recent Premier League clash between Liverpool and Leeds United, Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk makes a technical error in his attempt to clear the ball into the path of Robertson. Instead, the slipped ball fin its way into the oncoming striker Patrick Bamford. Bamford takes a touch into the box and finds an angle to convert past Alisson.
In recent EPL game between Arsenal and Liverpool, Lacazette collects a poor back pass from Van Dijk to the goalkeeper, where he then converts from close range. As a result of high pressure from the Arsenal forwards, they were successfully able to force and capitalise on the defender’s mistake.
In the same game, this time, Alisson is caught out with poor execution. The Arsenal forward intercepts a pass on its way to the full-back, Robertson. Lacazette collects, drives into the box and feeds a low cross for Nketiah to convert from close range.
Although both of these sides are known for some champagne football going forward, they can exploit teams and punish from quick transitions. It’s not the 20/30+ pass phases that lead to chances for these sides but the first 2/3 passes in the transition to attack that often result in goals.
Both can hurt in the transition
There are shades of grey when it comes to what qualifies as a quick transition to attack and what qualifies as a counter-attack. However, It is fair to say counter-attacks are considered a transition to attack.
Liverpool and Arsenal’s attacking identity pertains to technical ball carriers with a blistering pace that can punish teams without a moments notice. Liverpool with Mané, Salah, and even both full-backs Robertson and T.A. Arnold as well Arsenal with Aubameyang, Pépé, and Saka. Both sides have proven they have the motif and the ability to exploit disjointed defences with fast, direct attacks deliberately.
Above, we see a recent example of Arsenal targeting a stretched Leicester City defence. Saka picks up the ball in midfield, he drives forward, engages the defender in a 1-v-1 and lays on a pass on the opposite side for Aubameyang to tap in. Only seconds before the goal was scored, Leicester was building possession comfortably in the middle third.
Once again, in the same game recently between Arsenal and Liverpool, Liverpool score from a quick turnover in possession just halfway inside the Arsenal half. Firmino intercepts, immediately Robertson makes a forward run in the half-space before the five Arsenal defenders have time to react he Robertson plays a firm ground pass for Mané to tap in. Once again, this goal came from a two-pass move, having won the ball five seconds earlier.
Both sides will be sharp, and ready to exploit the opponents back four once stretched and disjointed. In a game that promises plenty of goals from open play, we wait to see how both sides will unlock the opposition goal.
‘Inverted Forwards’ a feature of both sides attack
Yes, it is quite common to see the inverted at all levels of the modern game, no surprise there. However, as both of these sides play with inverted forwards, it is a staple of their creative play and penetration when in the final third.
As Arsenal make it very difficult to play in-swinging or out-swinging crosses into the box, Liverpool will rely on Salah and Mané to be very inventive in their dribbling as well as efficient in their combination play when driving at the Arsenal defence.
Due to Arsenal’s back five, the Gunners deny teams numerical superiority while keeping a defensive balance so to deny teams any chance of success or secondary success from crosses. Due to man to man marking as well as screening or blocking crossing angles, Arsenal will force the Reds into finding other solutions from the half-space and central areas.
Above, we see an example of Arsenal’s defensive balance, pressing man for man in the wide areas and half-space Arsenal are also compact and balanced centrally to meet with crosses into the edge of the six-yard box.
Above, is an essential tactical illustration. Rob Holding will have a challenging task in nullifying the threat of Mané on the right-hand side. Holding would not be one of the quickest defenders in the league so having to defend the in-form Mané will be a big ask.
Such a match up, if unlucky for the Gunners, could result in game-changing bookings or even worse conceding as Mané is a player who gets into dangerous positions and invites fouls by getting close defenders and breaking forward at full tilt.
On the other hand, as we see above, should Pépé feature on the right that then gives Arsenal two inverted forwards. Pépé has proven he has the confidence and the ability to carry the ball 40 yards, drive at the last defender and make something happen.
Liverpool could meet a similar fate that they are known for causing teams if they lack concentration and discipline against a very quick Arsenal attack. Of late, we have seen what high pressure and fast attacks can do to Liverpool. I would be certain Arteta will have considered Liverpool’s defensive frailties when putting names on the tactics board ahead of this clash.
Final thoughts before kick-off
Both sides, however, Liverpool especially can score from any position at any moment of the game. An in-form Liverpool side always seems to have ten outfield players that can score from set-pieces or open play; I expect we will see this type of Liverpool come Monday.
Arsenal, on the other hand, seems more refined and limited as to how they can score and in particular who can score in tight games. Although they were winners, they were unconvincing winners in the previous meeting between these two sides. Perhaps a little harsh to say, however, Liverpool’s dominance and misfortune on the day cannot be overlooked ahead of this game.
Arsenal now has to prove they can match if not beat Liverpool when it comes dominating the lions share of possession and more importantly controlling the game. I have reservations for Arsenal’s bench; if the Gunners are chasing the game in the latter stages, it’s hard to see a game-changer or a goalscorer to come off the bench. All the more of a reason for Arsenal to start strong and keep it tight at the back.
I expect a narrow but convincing result for the home side, with all their key players fit and in form in front of goal as of late, it will be hard to see anything less than a Liverpool win on this occasion. My full-time prediction: Liverpool 3 – 2 Arsenal.