Another year another miserable opening day result. Three goals in a 15 minute span to open the second half gave Liverpool a lopsided 4-1 advantage and although goals from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers made the final score look a little more respectable, they did little to mask what a humiliating afternoon this was for the club.
In his post match press conference Arsene Wenger put the loss down to three main factors: the psychological blow of Coutinho’s late first half equalizer, being physically not at peak levels, and inexperience. None of those feel like especially valid excuses and if anything reflect poorly on Wenger himself. Coutinho’s free kick was certainly a blow but doesn’t explain the total meltdown at the start of the second half that saw Klopp’s side score 3 in the span of 15 minutes. As for not being ready physically, Liverpool had more players at the Euros than any other club side so they shouldn’t have had an advantage there. Finally, the fact we were fielding an inexperienced side is solely on Wenger for not bringing in needed additional players this summer. Yes we’ve been unlucky with injuries but center back was a spot we’ve needed reinforcements at since the second half of last season.
Klopp named a fairly unsurprising first 11 perhaps with the exception of Jordan Henderson given the nod at the base of midfield over Emre Can. They played a 4-3-3 with Adam Lallana to the right of Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to the left in midfield. Sadio Mane played on the right of the front three, Coutinho played on the left and Firmino started at striker. Across the back Alberto Moreno and Nathanial Clyne played left and right back respectively. Dejan Lovren and summer signing Ragnar Klavan partnered at center back.
Wenger opted not to play Monreal at center back to provide some experience there and instead gave the 19 year old Rob Holding his debut. Holding partnered Chambers with Monreal at his normal left back spot and Bellerin at right back. Wenger stuck with his policy of easing new signings into the squad by leaving out Granit Xhaka and went with Elneny and Coquelin in the holding roles of our 4-2-3-1. Alexis led the line as he had against Manchester City with Ramsey in the hole behind him in the #10 role. Alex Iwobi played on the left. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly Theo Walcott played wide on the right. Wenger has suggested he’s not good enough defensively to play wide but he performed there well in the friendly against City and was rewarded with a start here.
Arsenal press in midfield but keep deep defensive line, leaving big gaps
We started the match by pressing high up the pitch. I imagine the high pressing was designed with the thought of protecting our inexperienced center backs- do our defending high up the pitch with our midfielders and attackers so that Holding and Chambers have less of it to do near our own box. Liverpool were quite sloppy in possession in the first half which made our pressing look better than it actually was. But in truth our pressing was disjointed throughout- we were leaving too big of gaps between the first wave of players pressing and those in behind. The defense needed to step forward a few yards to prevent Liverpool from playing between our lines. The visitors struggled to keep the ball in the opening half but our defensive shape still wasn’t right. In the second half they would exploit us.
One of Coquelin or Elneny would push high up the pitch when Liverpool were in possession to close down Henderson when he got on the ball. As a result, our non-pressing deep lying midfielder was left alone behind to defend the width of the center of the pitch. When Coquelin pressed Henderson, Elneny was 1 v. 2 against Liverpool’s other two center midfielders Lallana and Wijnaldum. Coutinho also tucked inside from his attacking left midfield position which further overloaded Elneny. Liverpool were able to quickly combine through Arsenal’s far too open midfield to create chances. Once they got beyond our first line of pressing there was acres of open space to exploit.
The image below is an illustration. Henderson receives the ball deep in midfield. Coquelin steps out of the defensive bank of four to press. Elneny is left to defend Lallana and Wijnaldum 1 v. 2. One simple pass from Henderson to Wijnaldum means Liverpool have broken our press, leaving Elneny in a world of bother to try to slow down Wijnaldum and Lallana on his own. From this position it’s two passes- from Henderson to Wijnaldum and Wijnaldum to Lallana- and Liverpool are at our back four.
Below is another example just a couple minutes later. Here Elneny is doing the pressing with Coquelin sitting deep. One simple square pass from Lallana to Wijnaldum means Liverpool have passing lanes forward and Coquelin outnumbered 3 v. 1 near the halfway line.
We were also confused by the excellent movement of Firmino. The Brazilian dropped into deep positions from his starting position at striker and floated into the channels to create overloads all over the pitch. Liverpool found an excellent balance with Firmino in this sort of false 9 role with Mane and Coutinho playing the wide forward positions. Coutinho would tuck into the gaps between our midfield and defense to link play forward like a #10 and Mane would tuck inside and play high up the pitch near our center backs, his pace posing a serious threat in behind our defense.
Below is an example of this clever movement from Liverpool. Here, Firmino drops very deep into midfield to collect a pass from Clyne. Coutinho has come all the way across the pitch from the left and offers Firmino a short square pass. The two then combine for a quick 1-2 before playing into Mane between the lines.
This particular move fizzled out for Liverpool but Firmino’s and Coutinho’s movement was critical for Liverpool’s second. Firmino pulled wide to the right channel to get on the ball and Coutinho moved into space between the lines. Firmino plays a penetrating pass to Coutinho who flicks on for Wijnaldum. Lallana makes a driving run into the box and takes down Winjaldum’s cross with a deft touch before finishing coolly.
Even Coutinho’s stunning free kick opener came about as the result of clever movement from the Liverpool front three. Firmino dropped to within 10 yards of the halfway line to collect a short pass from Henderson. Again, Elneny stepped forward to press him, leaving Coquelin behind him and acres of space in the middle of the pitch (see screen grab below). Firmino plays a pass to Mane who is then able to pick out Coutinho tucking inside. Holding steps out and commits the foul. The issue here isn’t just that Elneny is pressing. Pressing when done as a unit is great but the movement has to be coordinated throughout the squad. The issue here is what’s going on behind Elneny. Our defense is way too deep when Firmino gets the ball, leaving a massive gap for Liverpool players to move into and offer him easy passing lanes. The second the defense sees Elneny stepping forward to press they all need to push up to close that gap between defense and midfield. We were never compact enough. On one hand we were trying to press high up the pitch but on the other hand we were playing with a deep defensive line. That’ll never work out well. I’m sure Holding and Chambers wanted to stay deep because they were concerned about the pace of Mane and Coutinho getting in behind them. But if that was the case we needed to have the midfield play deeper to screen the center backs. Our shape was too loose in defense throughout the 90 minutes.
Arsenal don’t exploit Moreno in second half
In the match preview I discussed what a defensive liability Moreno is and that we should be looking to force him into 1 v. 1 situations as much as possible down our right side. In the 14th minute he attempted to head a clearance that fell straight to Ramsey in the penalty area. On that occasion he made a decent recovery tackle but his shakiness was evident. Then in the 28th he took a wild lunge at Walcott in the box leading to an Arsenal penalty. For Arsenal’s opener he was high up the pitch when Lallana lost possession in midfield, leaving him out of position and allowing space down the right for Walcott to drive forward and score.
However in the second half we got away from attacking down the right and made Moreno’s job too easy. Walcott only attempted two take ons in the entire 90 minutes, both of which were in the first half. He completed just 13 passes, 8 of those came in the opening half.
The most maddeningly frustrating stat of the weekend is that according to whoscored.com 48% of Arsenal’s attacks were down the left side and only 27% were down the right side. I’m sure some of this has to do with the fact Iwobi plays more of a possession style and likes to join in the buildup more while Theo is a much more direct player. But when an opposition has such a glaringly obvious weakness in their defensive ranks you have to alter your game to exploit it. Liverpool have a very solid right back and an England international in Nathanial Clyne yet we chose to attack him time and again over Moreno.
I think the obvious takeaway from this match is how abundantly clear it was that we were unprepared for every facet of a football match. Physically we looked off the pace, evidenced by the fact Liverpool covered 5 kilometers more than us over the 90 minutes. Tactically we were all over the place, conceding way too much space defensively and failing to exploit the biggest weaknesses in Liverpool’s not-all-that-good back four. Mentally we responded to Coutinho’s late first half equalizer by capitulating and conceding three in 15 minutes. Yes we made it close in the end but a hardened, mentally strong team would have never gotten themselves into a position where they were 3 goals down at home on the opening day of the season. That the squad needed reinforcements should have been abundantly clear before the match but now Wenger can’t even try to claim otherwise. All is certainly not lost. The returns of Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud will have a big impact but still the result is troubling. We were played off the park by a team that will be one of our competitors for a top 4 spot. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all won. Tottenham have a talented squad and could easily be right up there again this season. Competition for a top four spot is as tight as it has ever been and if we don’t improve quickly our run of Champions League participation will be under serious threat.