No doubt Arsenal and Liverpool played a match of the season at the Emirates on Sunday. It remains to be seen how long this title will hold, however. Season opener is always a tricky affair as no one wants to lose, luckily, both teams went for a win and the match didn’t disappoint.
Arsene Wenger had some tough time deciding the starting line up as he was missing six players. Welbeck, Mertersacker and Gabriel were injured while Oezil, Giroud and Koscielny are still not in shape after EURO. In defence he had little to chose and new signing Rob Holding made a début paired with unproven Calum Chambers. Only real surprise was on left wing where another unproven player, Alex Iwobi, took place ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting line up. All in all, Wenger was forced to pick severely weakened central defender pairing while deliberately sidelineing Oxlade-Chamberlaine.
Similar problems in defence had Juergen Klopp who was missing new signing Joel Matip due to injury while Mammadou Sakho was out of squad for breaching the discipline during the pre-season. Last year’s starters James Milner and Daniel Sturridge were also missing. However, unlike Wenger, Klopp did his shopping during the summer and had new signings Ragnar Klavan, Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane to replace injured players. By the end of the match it will prove decisive as all players that made a début for Liverpool proved crucial for victory over Arsenal.
As expected, both teams opted for high pressing game from early on. You can see above four Arsenal players locking down six Liverpool players which lead to a lot of problems for visiting team. At times Liverpool had trouble getting out of their defensive zone having to rely on long clearances more than Klopp had hoped for. This might be the reason Wenger went for Iwobi instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain as Nigerian is much harder worker thus more useful chasing down opposition defence. Whole lock down on above screenshot is down to Alberto Moreno who is way too central congesting the space and making it easier for Walcott to mark himself and Klavan. As this is not bad enough, his poor positioning clogs the midfield as Wijnaldum is directly affected by Moreno’s positioning so he is restricted to occupy more central position as well.
Wijnaldum’s role, as well as Henderson’s is to drop deeper when Liverpool is pressed high and help them establish numerical advantage to transition the ball from defensive into middle third. Whole Klopp’s idea gets destroyed by poor positioning from left back.
While high pressing triggers Wijnaldum’s and Henderson’s runs deep, deeper opposition triggers forward runs from full backs as you can see above. Liverpool has a solid base of two centre backs and two midfielders who create a box to control the transition into middle half of the pitch with numerical advantage. While width is achieved by pushing the full backs high, wingers Coutinho and Mane get into central positions to occupy the centre backs. This image also tells an important role Firmino plays for Klopp. He has relatively free role to roam left and right.
As match progressed in deeper in the first half Arsenal scored after Henderson lost the ball deep into his half to Alex Iwobi who assisted Walcott. Five minutes after the goal were best football Arsenal offered in the match with crisp passing and quick runs from central players, particularly Aaron Ramsey. However, Liverpool regained their composure and put their foot on the game rather quickly. After a masterful free kick in the injury time they were back and second half looked very promising.
Although Liverpool pressed high in first half, they did it with even more energy after the second half had begun. Only four minutes into the second half comes the moment Klopp will be especially happy about. As you can see in picture above, Liverpool positioning in attacking third is very much same as in second still shot, albeit on the left side of the pitch this time. Free roaming Firmino changes places with Coutinho and passes him a ball from left into the central area. Coquelin and Elmeny fail to close him down and Chambers is forced to leave the defensive line opening space behind. Skilful pass finds Wijnaldum who exploits that space and Liverpool is through. Subsequent cross from Wijnaldum finds his partner in midfield and Lallana who scores with great finish.
Although skills to pull the move off are down to players, the move itself is conceived and done by Klopp on training pitch. At that point Liverpool stole the ball from Arsenal and controlled the game completely. While Arsenal tried to get back with more pressing Klopp’s team employed more direct balls and threatened even further. Quarter of an hour later they were three goals clear of hosts and it looked like the match was over.
Despite the fact Arsenal managed to get two goals back, Liverpool wasn’t really in danger of letting points go. Well, it was, but not from well executed team play by Arsenal. In conclusion, Liverpool showed they play as a team more than Arsenal does at this early stage. Also, the quality of players Klopp brought in, compared to those Wenger could muster together, was too much for London team.