For the 2016-2017 season Soccermetrica will focus solely on Arsenal. I plan on doing a weekly scouting report of the Gunners’ upcoming opponent that I’ll put out at least a day before each match day. I’ll also write a detailed tactical analysis of each fixture that I will try to put out the Sunday or Monday after a amatch.
Here is the first installment of the weekly scouting report for Arsenal’s week one opponent Liverpool. These should become more detailed with more graphics and game-specific analysis in subsequent weeks as our opponents begin playing competitive fixtures that offer more insight into how they’ll lineup and approach matches tactically.
Jurgen Klopp is enjoying his first preseason at Liverpool having replaced Brendan Rodgers last October. It’s remarkably difficult for a manager to arrive midseason and thoroughly instill a nuanced playing philosophy while also trying to prepare for matches every few days. So while their 8th place finish last season wasn’t hugely impressive (they were 10th when Klopp took over), they did appear to be developing a distinct identity and better positional organization under Klopp as the season progressed, something they were desperately lacking towards the end of the Brendan Rodgers era and will look to build on this time around.
That disappointing 8th place finish may largely be attributable to a congested fixture list brought about by impressive finals runs in both the League Cup and the Europa League. Although they lost both those matches, the fact they got there was cause for optimism in Klopp’s first partial season and offered proof that he was having an effect.
This summer’s preseason will provide invaluable time on the training pitch. Preseason will also provide Klopp’s staff the chance to control the fitness regime of the squad. Liverpool hired on Bayern Munich’s fitness and conditioning coach Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer in May and Klopp has promised the most difficult preseason of his players’ careers.
One thing you know to expect from a Jurgen Klopp side is a tireless work rate and relentless pressing in midfield. They finished tied with Leicester in successful tackles per game last season and if the new training regiment has the desired impact we can expect an even more tenacious side off the ball.
Klopp has made six new signings this closed season. Loris Karius was brought in from Mainz to provide competition for Simon Mignolet but broke his hand in a friendly against Chelsea at the end of July. Sadio Mane will provide attacking pace in wide areas following an impressive last season at Southampton where he scored 11 league goals and provided 7 assists. Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan will provide competition for Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho at center back. Georginio Wijnaldum is a tremendously athletic midfielder capable of providing goals from midfield. He led Newcastle in goals last season and was second in assists and should compete for a spot in the first 11. Veteran goalkeeper Alex Manninger was brought in to provide additional cover for Mignolet and Karius. Additionally, the promising 20 year old midfielder Marko Grujic signed from Red Star Belgrade in January but was immediately sent back to them on loan for the remainder of the season. He’ll provide additional depth in midfield after Joe Allen’s departure for Stoke City.
How they’ll line up
At the Emirates against a midfield as technically gifted as ours I expect Klopp to opt for more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 so as not to get overrun in the middle of the pitch. That midfield three will likely be Emre Can flanked by two of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum or Adam Lallana.
If Klopp does go with the 4-3-3 we could see Mane on the right of a front three, with Coutinho on the left and either Roberto Firmino or Divock Origi at the #9 with Daniel Sturridge likely to miss out as he recovers from a hip injury. This is Anfield’s Henry Jackson predicts Firmino will get the nod after an impressive preseason and with Origi’s late arrival following his participation in the Euros with Belgium.
Like Arsenal, Liverpool are struggling with injuries in defense. They will be without Mamadou Sakho for the opening weeks of the season while it looks like Dejan Lovren will recover from a knock in time for Sunday’s kickoff. Matip is just returning from an injury of his own and apparently looked off the pace in their 4-0 defeat Sunday to Mainz. We’ll therefore likely see Lovren partner with new signing Klavan- who has impressed in preseason- in the center of defense. Nathaniel Clyne will start at right back. The Reds are rumored to be interested in Köln left back Jonas Hector but to start the season the at times erratic Alberto Moreno will retain his spot at left back.
Klopp will hope preparations this summer will result in more assuredness at the back. Despite possessing the 8th best goals against record last season, Liverpool made more defensive errors than any other side with 32 according to data from Squawka (Watford had the next most errors with 28, Arsenal had the fourth most with 25).
How Arsenal will line up
Arsenal have of course been hit with an all too predictable injury crisis that sees us without center backs Gabriel and Mertesacker for an extended period. Koscielny is likely to miss out having just arrived early this week to training after France’s run to the finals of the European Championship. These absences coupled with our baffling inability (or unwillingness) to sign an obviously needed top class center back to partner Koscielny means the situation in the center of defense looks dire for the opener. Ahead of our friendly with the MLS All Stars at the end of July, Coquelin revealed via the Arsenal snapchat that, with Koscielny on holiday and Gabriel out at the time with tonsillitis, he had been training at center back. Krystian Bielik and Rob Holding ended up partnering in the center of defense for that game but both are yet to make their Premier League debut and it’s difficult to imagine Wenger starting an 18 and 20 year old in an important league fixture. Might we then see Coquelin partnering Calum Chambers? Chambers seems the one obvious pick to start but he hasn’t exactly overwhelmed in his appearances at center back thus far at Arsenal. Wenger may opt to rush Koscielny back but has been reluctant to hurry players back at the beginning past seasons even when it has meant using a significantly weakened side. Monreal and Debuchy are also capable of deputizing in the center of defense. If Monreal were to slot inside, we wouldn’t lose much on the left with the able Kieran Gibbs slotting in at left back. Hector Bellerin at right back is the only obvious feature of the back four. What Wenger opts to do with the center backs will be partly fascinating but mostly terrifying.
At the base of midfield we should see Granit Xhaka make his Premier League debut, particularly if Coquelin does indeed start at center back. Mohamed Elneny has been fantastic in pre season showing the impressive energy levels we saw last season but combining that work rate with a range of passing and assuredness on the ball he was at times lacking following his January move from Basel. It’s difficult to see how Wenger could leave him out.
With Ozil being rested following his summer with Germany at the Euros I expect to see Ramsey in the more advanced central role. He’ll play that role differently than Ozil, collecting the ball in slightly deeper areas and looking to dribble past the midfield whereas Ozil tends to collect the ball in pockets of space between the lines. Ramsey was hugely impressive this summer with Wales and a return to his 2013-2014 form would be a massive boost, although he’ll likely operate in either a deeper midfield role or on the right when Ozil returns.
Wenger has a difficult to decision to make about who starts at striker. Alexis Sanchez played there in the friendly win over Manchester City on Sunday. He looked a bit rusty but has operated centrally with great success at times with Chile, although usually as part of a front two.
Alternatively Wenger could go with Theo Walcott. The manager views Walcott as more of a striker than a wide attacker though the 27 year old expressed a desire to return to the wing. Wenger feels his defense isn’t strong enough to consistently operate on the right but he performed excellently there in the Man City friendly, providing a first half assist for Alex Iwobi before combining well with Alexis for a one-two before deftly chipping over Joe Hart.
Wenger said in a 2012 interview with FIFA “the 4-4-2 formation is the formation best suited to the dimension of the football pitch.” In recent seasons he has ditched the 4-4-2 for either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 because it allows for more control in midfield and the presence of Ozil more or less requires you to play 4-2-3-1 with him in the #10 role. But with Ozil out this weekend I’d be half tempted to use a 4-4-2 with Xhaka and Elneny in the middle of midfield, Ramsey tucking inside from the right and Alex Iwobi on the left. Wenger would likely never spring for it but I do think it suits the players we have available well.
Ramsey is comfortable playing on the right and tucking inside to offer additional link up play forward. You can still defend in two banks of four out of possession- Ramsey is a tireless runner and will track the opposition fullback. In possession he tucks inside and operates more like a #10. Perhaps most importantly, I think Walcott and Alexis are better as part of a strike partnership than as lone #9’s. Their combination that resulted in the goal against City offers some proof they can combine well together. Up against a new and not particularly quick defensive partnership for Liverpool in Lovren and Klavan, I think the two could cause real problems. It’s probably a futile thought- Wenger will almost certainly operate with three in the middle of midfield- but is interesting to consider at least theoretically.
My best guess is we see Chamberlain on the right, Ramsey in the #10 role, Iwobi on the left and Alexis at striker.
The obvious advantage for Liverpool will be their three attacking players against what will be a makeshift Arsenal center back pairing following injuries to Mertesacker and Gabriel. I imagine we’ll look to maintain possession as much as possible to keep our inexperienced backline from being put under pressure. That means when Liverpool do win the ball back, which under Klopp they’ll do quite well, the midfield need to recover quickly. Any quick transitions forward from Liverpool that leave our center backs exposed could cause some serious troubles. In Mane, Coutinho and Firmino Liverpool have pace and trickery in abundance.
Liverpool could also cause us problems pressing high up the pitch. Chambers has a tendency to give the ball way cheaply when put under pressure and Cech isn’t always convincing when the ball is dropped back to him. If Liverpool can press high and force our center backs to play backwards to Cech, it’ll force him into hitting long hopeful clearances forward. Not only will that prevent us from developing a passing rhythm from back to front, without Giroud we don’t have anyone likely to win any of those long balls.
Whether Wenger starts Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott or Joel Campbell on the right side of midfield, Arsenal should have an advantage down that channel where Alberto Moreno will be at left back for Liverpool. Moreno can certainly be a threat going forward but is a truly awful defender, poor both positionally and in terms of his decision-making and 1 v. 1 defending. He’ll almost certainly look to provide attacking width deep in the Arsenal half when Liverpool are in possession which should open up space down the right to counter into when we win the ball back. Whoever plays at right midfield will have to be diligent tracking Moreno’s bursts forward but should get plenty of joy in transitions. Ramsey should look to float right from his #10 role and Bellerin will get forward from right back, forcing Moreno into tricky overloads where his decision-making tends to be poor.
Elsewhere, Arsenal could cause problems to what will be a new center back partnership for Liverpool in Lovren and Klavan. Whoscored.com lists Klavan’s weaknesses as aerial duels and tackling, two seemingly important skill sets for a Premier League center back, and Lovren can at times look clumsy and unathletic though he enjoyed a marked improvement under Klopp after a disastrous 2014-2015 season. If the Arsenal front four can get behind the Liverpool midfield and force the two center backs into defending 1 v. 1 we’ll be favored to win those battles.