Why Arsenal should play four at the back against Liverpool
The Gunners had a tough outing at Anfield about three months days ago when they were humbled by the Scousers, 4-0. There were quite a few lessons to learn for Arsene Wenger and his men from that fixture and if you are a hopeful Arsenal fan, there is no doubt you’d be praying sincerely to avoid the same mistakes against an in-form Liverpool.
One major blunder that not many have realised is Wenger’s decision to field a back-three with a two-man midfield as that caused him one too many problems across all departments of the pitch. Yes, it is hard to believe that one decision can have an impact on a team across attack, defence and midfield but if you analyse the 4-0 mauling closely, you wouldn’t beg to differ.
Arsenal lined-up in a 3-4-2-1 with the back three consisted of Monreal, Koscielny and Holding while Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin were deployed as wing-backs. They had a two-man midfield of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey who were supposed to sit behind the front three of Sanchez, Ozil and Welbeck. However, the shambolic defending and attacking need to be credited to their own setup before we give due credit to Jurgen Klopp’s men for their clinical nature.
First, let us see how Arsenal fared without the ball and then move on to their problems on the ball. The twist here is that both off and on-the-ball, their problems were in the same area of the pitch.
Inability to defend on the wide areas
Arsenal were exposed down the flanks by the full-backs of Liverpool as Wenger couldn’t come up with a solution to solve the defensive negligence shown by his wide attacking players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. As you can see from the image above, the objective of the Londoners was to form a solid 5-4-1 defensive shape and allow Liverpool to have the ball in areas where there is lesser scope for threat.
However, the front-three of Liverpool namely Salah, Firmino and Mane occupied the entire 5-man back line by positioning themselves in between the centre-backs and wing-backs. This left Arsenal with the midfield-two and the attackers to handle the rest. Since Arsenal had only Xhaka and Ramsey to protect the most threatening area of the pitch (the no.10 zone) against the midfield-three of Liverpool (with Firmino also dropping deep occasionally to overload the center), both Ozil and Sanchez were rather remaining narrow than going out wide to ensure they don’t get overrun in the center.
Especially all of Klopp’s teams are known for attacking through the centre of the pitch with direct vertical play and this really narrowed Arsenal’s defensive lines. Thus the narrow shape of Arsenal’s defence meant that both full-backs of Liverpool were going to have space, time and no pressure whatsoever to push higher up the pitch.
The above image shows the number of touches by Alberto Moreno (circled yellow) and Joe Gomez (circled red) down the flank and the two wreaked havoc going forward. In fact, the most number of touches in that game was by Moreno with 92 while Gomez had the 5th most touches with 62.
Both Moreno and Gomez not only enjoyed seeing the ball more often but they also were producing fruitful chances. Even the first goal of the game came from the flanks with Gomez not being closed down by Bellerin. It was too much space and time for the young right-back to not find a Liverpool attacker inside the box and eventually found Firmino free from the shackles of the Arsenal back-five and the Brazilian headed it home to make it 1-0.
You can take a look at another example which happened roughly around 10 minutes before the first goal was scored. However, this defensive mishap took place on the other flank with Moreno being left completely free to cross. The problem here is that Oxlade-Chamberlain is being stretched out wide by Mane and this meant it was Ozil’s responsibility to track-back and close Moreno down as he was the only option available to defend wide areas other than Oxlade-Chamberlain but the German didn’t seem too interested in carrying out these duties.
Again, it was too much time and space for a player like Moreno to not be able to whip in a teasing cross into the box. The Spaniard did exactly that and Emre Can was there to attack the ball with his head but the connection wasn’t up to the mark and the ball flew just over the crossbar. This was a recurring incident throughout the game and the full backs of Liverpool finished the game creating a sum of 4 chances together (including the assist by Gomez).
It was not just about the full-backs but Klopp could even make use of overloads on the flank to throw Arsenal off-balance. Whenever the Reds went wide, there was a lack of clarity amongst Wenger’s men as to who marks who, whether to go touch-tight or retreat and so on. Hence, the preferred route by Liverpool this game was more on the wing as compared to their usual standards.
As you can see, the Arsenal back-five was pinned together in a narrow way with literally no one to protect the no.10 zone. Oxlade-Chamberlain was occupied by Moreno and thus Ramsey (circled black) had drifted wide to help Ozil out against the overload created by Liverpool. Can was on the ball with Firmino dropping into the huge space (red box) left by Arsenal’s midfield. A simple one-two passing combination with the Brazilian put Can in an advanced position inside the box. He whipped in a beautiful low cross to Salah but Cech was there to keep the score 0-0.
The one major reason for Arsenal to fail defensively was their decision to go for a two-man midfield helped by Ozil and Sanchez. When a manager opts for a 5-4-1 defensive, it is absolutely essential that the opposition full-backs are either taken care of by his own wing-backs man-to-man or there need to be 2 wingers who work hard enough to support the midfield-two by tracking them back. The Gunners had neither as the back-five was occupied merely by the Liverpool front-three and adding to this, the mediocrity of Ozil off-the-ball didn't help their chances.
Lack of creativity and intent
While on the attack, Arsenal pushed their wing-backs high up the pitch with the back-three spreading wide apart during build-up play. Xhaka held his position to form a diamond with the back-three and these were the 4 players majorly responsible for build-up play and initiate attacks. However, it was Liverpool’s defensive shape that created hassles for Arsenal as a typical Klopp’s side ensures being compact in the centre and not letting opponents play through the middle. So whenever the ball was with the back-three or Xhaka, they were pretty much clueless for most of the time, thinking how to find their attackers in space.
To give you a clearer picture, let us take a look at the same with an example.
The image above shows Liverpool’s defensive structure for most of the game. The midfield-three of Can, Henderson & Wijnaldum cut off the passing lanes in the middle while the wingers Salah and Mane occupied half spaces. The positions of Salah and Mane largely depended on where the ball was.
In this case, since Monreal (on the ball) had a possibility to play it straight to an on-coming Ozil, Mane has positioned himself there. It forced Monreal to go to the only free option which was Oxlade-Chamberlain and once the latter receives the ball, Mane and Moreno wasted no time to quickly close him down and the midfield-three of Liverpool slide towards the flank along with his movement to give cover and balance.
This is exactly the same scenario that happened on the other flank with Salah as he closed down the half space to block the passing lane to Alexis and allow the ball being played to Bellerin. Their passing numbers from that game also suggest the same as Bellerin had completed 41 passes out of which 22 were backwards while Oxlade-Chamberlain completed 22 passes out of which 12 were backwards. Hence for most of the game Arsenal were merely trying to crack Liverpool’s defensive structure by helping their wing backs but it was way too predictable for Liverpool’s full-backs to be troubled.
In the image above (top), Bellerin is closed down by Moreno immediately after receiving the ball and Moreno doesn’t worry about stepping out of his position to do so. He also has sufficient help from Salah and the midfield three who are sliding towards the flank for cover. While in the frame below, Oxlade-Chamberlain is positioned deep in his own half and thus is closed by Mane with the midfield-three covering him for support.
There was a lack of creativity and intent from Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain and yet Arsenal didn’t attempt to find an alternate route to attack other than playing to the wing-backs and hoping to get into positions to cross. It eventually didn’t happen as both Gomez and Moreno were well-covered and also comfortable handling these 1v1 situations themselves. The Liverpool full-backs ended the game with the most ball recoveries for the Scousers with 6 each.
This was the major difference between Arsenal and Liverpool as whenever Gomez or Moreno received the ball, neither of Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain closed them down out of fear of leaving Salah and Mane with their back three. Hence entire back five of Arsenal were occupied by just 3 Liverpool attackers and it only increased the defensive load on Xhaka, Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil.
What can Arsenal do instead?
Now that we have a clear idea of what’s broken, let us see how to fix it. Wenger can consider the idea of fielding his traditional 4-2-3-1 once again with the aim of removing defensive load off his best chance creator, Ozil. There is also a need for defensive cover in midfield given that Xhaka is not the best option to do the dirty work in the centre of the pitch. The Swiss international is not a typical defensive midfielder and he is there to hurt the opposition with his sublime passing range. In short, he is more of silk and thus his partner needs to be more of steel in order to balance the attack-defence work rate in the middle. Hence, Coquelin can be an ideal choice to take up the defensive load in the centre, allowing both Xhaka and Ozil to be more of their own selves.
To address the wider areas, an ideal solution could be to have both wingers and full-backs, unlike their 3-4-2-1. The full-backs would be an easy choice with Bellerin on the right and Kolasinac on the left while the wingers ahead of them could be Iwobi on the right and Sanchez on the left. Both Iwobi and Sanchez are hard-working players and would be ready to track back and help the full-backs defensively and this would also give much-needed width for Arsenal while going forward.
The full-backs were isolated and tormented both on offensively and defensively in the last outing at Anfield and the addition of more width could stretch Liverpool and also allow combination play on the wings to get into dangerous positions out wide. Will 'Le Professeur' find it worth a gamble or take another chance with his 3-4-2-1?
Images sources: www.whoscored.com, www.this11.com, www.replaymatches.com, www.express.co.uk