Arsenal and Liverpool played out an entertaining goalless draw at the Emirates this evening. Arsenal had an early Aaron Ramsey goal wrongly disallowed for offsides but the visitors were by far the better side in the first half.
Brendan Rodgers said prior to the game that he had studied Arsenal's most recent defeats and realized Arsene Wenger's side bossed possession in them but struggled to break down compact defenses. Arsenal also control possession in the overwhelming majority of home wins as well so I'm not sure how much can be learned by simply comparing possession figures and results. However, it's easy to understand what Rodgers was getting at- Arsenal are a technical and slick passing side and if you try to beat them at their own game in their own stadium it likely won't end well for you.
With that in mind Rodgers set his side out in a 4-3-3 with three center midfielders adept at the defensive side of the game. Lucas Leiva, who had failed to even make the matchday squad in Liverpool's first two games, sat just in front of the back four with Emre Can to his left and James Milner to his right.
Liverpool defended in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Leiva sitting in between the defensive and midfield banks of four. Leiva tracked the movement of Mesut Ozil between the lines. Can picked up Francis Coquelin, who was the right sided holding midfielder, Milner picked up Cazorla, the left sided holding midfielder.
In the first half Liverpool would look for opportunities to press Arsenal high up the pitch. The home side were forced into employing a makeshift center back partnership of Gabriel and Calum Chambers (Laurent Koscielny had a back injury, Per Mertesacker was ill) and Liverpool looked to take advantage of a nervous Arsenal back four. Coutinho rattled the crossbar inside of 4 minutes with the Arsenal defense at sixes and sevens.
Chambers in particular endured a torrid first half. Twice he gave away possession deep in Arsenal's defensive third, leading to Liverpool chances. Arsenal fans were holding their collective breath every time he got on the ball. On a separate occasion he tried to dribble out of defense but was dispossessed at the halfway line, leaving him hopelessly out of position and forcing the much better Gabriel to bail out his partner. The left side of the graphic below shows Gabriel's successful tackles during the 90 minutes. He was the left-sided center back- the two tackles he made in the box occurred when he was forced to provide cover for Chambers. In fact Gabriel made more tackles in Chambers' zone than Chambers made all game.
Arsenal improved in the second half. Liverpool sat deeper and deeper and attacked with fewer numbers. Because Liverpool were getting fewer numbers forward when they were in possession, they didn't have the opportunities to press high up the pitch they had in the first half and therefore forced fewer of the bad giveaways Arsenal were guilty of in the opening 45 minutes.
Arsenal kept sustained pressure on the visitors but there was very little space for them to operate in the final third. Liverpool set up their defensive lines at the edge of their own penalty area and challenged Wenger's side unlock them. Arsenal provided a few of their vintage quick passing combinations to open up the defense and had two good opportunities to open the score, the first Sanchez put into the side netting after being put through on goal, on the second Giroud couldn't get enough contact to beat Mignolet as he reached to get a shot away.
Liverpool were simply too deep and too compact for Arsenal to break down. All of Arsenal's possession was happening in front of the Liverpool back four. Liverpool were rarely made to turn around and face their own goal. Against a side defending that deep, you're not going to be able to get in behind them through the middle of the pitch- there simply isn't enough space between the center backs and goalkeeper. Theo Walcott's introduction for Giroud was therefore never likely to have a huge impact; he's at his most effective in the striker role when he has the space to run behind the center backs.
The one way to get in behind a side defending that deep is in wider areas. If you can channel the ball wide and get the opposition fullback in a position where he has to defend 1 v. 1, opportunities open up to get to the endline and cut it back across the face of goal if you have a player capable of beating the opposition fullback off the dribble. Ramsey is a very gifted player and had a good game but almost always takes up an extremely narrow position when he plays on the right. His positioning therefore can pose difficulties tactically for the opposing fullback but he rarely picks up the ball in wide areas and asks questions of their 1 v. 1 defending ability by running at them. The graphic below shows Ramsey's average position- quite narrow. Ramsey's interior positioning can often overload the opposition center midfielders but that wasn't likely to happen today with Liverpool employing three deeper center mids in their 4-1-4-1 set up. Normally those overloads will occur when the opposition is defending in banks of four and leaving two further up the pitch. Liverpool had ample numbers in the center of the pitch to deal with Ramsey moving into narrow zones.
It's easy to say in hindsight but I thought Wenger should have perhaps introduced Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right earlier. His directness and raw pace may have provided an outlet for Arsenal when they couldn't find the little gaps of space to play their quick combinations. In Joe Gomez he'd have been up against a left back making just his third Premier League appearance. Gomez has been excellent thus far, a far more focused and poised option than Alberto Moreno, but his direct opponents in his first two starts were Stoke's John Walters and Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie. Both are decent enough players but neither have the same ability to run past defenders that Oxlade-Chamberlain possesses. His introduction would have presented Gomez with a challenge he hasn't faced yet in his young career. If he could have beaten Gomez to the endline once or twice and provided cutbacks it would have forced the likes of Skrtel and Lovren to perform the difficult task of clearing the danger while facing their own goal.