Where did Unai Emery go wrong against Liverpool?
The high-octane encounter featuring Liverpool and Arsenal was expected to be one of the games to watch out for in Round 3 of the Premier League but the Reds absolutely destroyed the Gunners, thus turning a much-anticipated fixture into a rather one-sided affair.
The fans at Anfield might argue that they had their money’s worth, watching Jurgen Klopp’s army continue their juggernaut in the Premier League, however, from a neutral perspective, it wasn’t a great game to witness.
Having lost just once in the Premier League since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Liverpool were the outright favourites on paper but one would have expected Arsenal to put up a better fight, especially after encouraging performances against Newcastle United and Burnley in their first couple of fixtures this term.
Klopp hardly made any significant changes to the starting eleven that won 2-1 against Southampton, with only a couple of changes coming in the midfield.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner dropped to the bench to make way for Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, with the manager making no further alterations to his defence and the prolific front three of Mane, Salah and Firmino.
Unai Emery, on the other hand, went for a completely different shape, opting for a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation as opposed to the regular 4-2-3-1 style that he had fielded against Burnley.
However, there were only a couple of changes in personnel, with Reiss Nelson and Alexandre Lacazette making way for Granit Xhaka and Nicolas Pepe, who was handed his first Premier League start.
Dani Ceballos, who played in the No.10 position, filled the gap behind Aubameyang and Pepe, and complemented a midfield trio consisting of Matteo Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka and Joe Willock.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal started as the two full-backs, with Emery choosing to continue with the centre-back pairing of David Luiz and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
As evident from the way Arsenal went about things in the first half, Emery’s motive was to block the passing lanes in the middle of the park, press Liverpool off the ball, win possession back and then hit the opposition on the counter-attack.
Indeed, Arsenal had the pace of Pepe and Aubameyang up top to hurt the hosts badly on the break but their narrow shape in the midfield didn’t really pay rich dividends.
Apparently, Emery wanted to field a compact formation to deny Liverpool any space to exploit between the lines but the Spaniard missed a big trick with his reading of the game.
Emery seemed to have forgotten that Liverpool rely heavily on the full-back pairing of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to offer width on either side of the pitch and allow the likes of Salah and Mane to drift inside and occupy the spaces between the opposition’s defenders.
Turning the clock back to last season, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson had amassed a staggering 23 assists between them in the Premier League, thus making up for the lack of a natural No.10 in Liverpool’s ranks.
Ideally, even a layman would know that Liverpool do not have a world-class creative midfielder to exploit the gaps between the lines and create space in the midfield, which is exactly the reason why Arsenal’s ploy to play a narrow line never looked justified.
Going by what Liverpool had to offer, Arsenal should have emphasized on blocking the supply of crosses from the wide areas but instead, they chose to defend narrow and virtually played the game into Liverpool’s hands from a tactical point of view.
As a result, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson found themselves in acres of space down the wide areas and although Robertson’s crossing wasn’t up to his usual standards, Liverpool’s relentless attacking play from the flanks finally produced the desired results.
Yet, realistically, Arsenal’s tactics apparently worked to good effect for almost the entirety of the first half, as they sat back deep inside their own half and coped quite well with the barrage of crosses coming into the box from the flanks.
However, it was always going to be a matter of time before that risky ploy backfired and Joel Matip’s headed goal at the stroke of the interval opened the floodgates for Mo Salah to completely demolish the Gunners in the second half.
Emery should have known that David Luiz, despite all his technical abilities, power and experience, has a habit of being rash and indecisive against quality attacking players. And that was on display twice in the second half as the Brazilian played a part in each of Salah’s goals.
Arsenal’s tactical blunder to leave wide open spaces on the flanks allowed Liverpool’s full-backs to attempt a total of 23 crosses on Saturday, with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold accumulating a total of 9 key passes.
Surely, with their calibre, it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t have made a telling difference when provided with so much room to torment the opposition.
Interestingly, some of the Arsenal fans might argue that things could have been different had Pepe and Aubameyang managed to capitalise on the chances on the counter-attack in the first half.
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That, however, would sound more like a protective measure to keep the manager away from the firing line after the 3-1 loss.
Liverpool, on the contrary, should be happy with the three points and that victory leaves Klopp’s side at the top of the standings as the only team in the Premier League with a perfect record after three games.