When two Premier League juggernauts collide, the fixture can either go down as one of the all-time great games in the competition or end up being an anti-climactic damp squib. Take, for instance, the two most recent instalments of Liverpool v Manchester City at Anfield. After the 4-3 thriller last season came a tepid 0-0 draw in early October. The Reds are involved in another heavyweight clash this Saturday when they visit Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in a fixture that has produced 13 goals in its two previous editions.
Liverpool’s last visit to the venue came just before Christmas 2017 when they drew 3-3 with the Gunners. In a frantic Friday night affair, the visitors owned the first half and led 1-0 at the interval. When the lead was doubled soon after half-time, the points seemed to be heading back north, but a kamikaze six-minute spell saw Arsenal score three times to turn the game on its head, with Liverpool managing to restore parity in a barnstorming match that showcased the best and worst of both teams. Our tactical analysis looks back on the key moments from last December’s chaotic affair and pinpoints the lessons that Jurgen Klopp will seek to extract ahead of Saturday’s showdown.
Plenty has changed at both clubs in the 312 days since their previous Emirates clash. For one, it will be the first time since the 1995/96 season that Liverpool face an Arsenal side not managed by Arsene Wenger. Of the Gunners’ starting line-up that night, Alexis Sanchez and Jack Wilshere have left the club, while three of their seven substitutes have also since departed. In the meantime, they have made significant additions to their squad like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Lucas Torreira and Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Three of Liverpool’s starting XI from the 3-3 draw are no longer at Anfield, while Simon Mignolet has become second choice goalkeeper to Alisson Becker. Instead of Ragnar Klavan at centre-back, the Reds now have the far more assured presence of Virgil van Dijk, who has brought an overdue steadiness to Liverpool’s defence that, as you’ll come to see, would have been rather welcome on that night.
One criticism of Klopp’s side so far this season has been a lack of killer instinct in the final third; there have been games which Liverpool dominated but won only after prolonged discomfort as they left opponents off the hook. That was also a feature of last season’s visit to Arsenal, during which the Reds were well on top in the first half but had only a headed Philippe Coutinho goal to show for it. Roberto Firmino had a close-range header pushed wide by Petr Cech shortly before the Brazilian (circled in above image) was caught in a dilemma between going for goal and laying the ball on a plate for Mohamed Salah for a tap-in.
Soon after Liverpool did score, Firmino almost doubled the lead with a curled effort that just missed the top corner of the goal, while Sadio Mane attempted an overhead kick with the goal at his mercy when a more conventional headed effort may have been wiser. Just after half-time, Salah shot straight at Cech when he looked in a prime position to score. All this was before the Egyptian made it 2-0 to Liverpool on 51 minutes and, with the home fans vocal in their displeasure at Arsenal’s performance, the dye seemed cast for the visitors to perhaps repeat the 4-0 hiding they meted out to Wenger’s team earlier in the season.
On 52:55, Liverpool had a 2-0 lead. On 57:41, Arsenal were 3-2 in front. In the space of 286 seconds, the Merseysiders had one of their collective defensive meltdowns which had dogged them on several other occasions in recent times. Indeed, this came exactly a month after the Reds blew a 3-0 half-time lead against Sevilla in the Champions League. Taking each Arsenal goal in isolation, what will Klopp want to see his team doing better against the Gunners this time around?
The image above shows the action four seconds before Arsenal’s first goal. The ball is breaking towards Hector Bellerin, who is haring up the right flank, and with Klavan running towards his own goal-line, Andy Robertson (see arrow) appears best placed to stop Bellerin from getting to the ball. Meanwhile, over on the other side, Sanchez (number 7) has enough room to park a tank, so distant is right-back Joe Gomez, who appears to have not one iota of the Chilean’s whereabouts. When Bellerin meets the ball, he has five yards of free space from which to cross, although nothing should be taken away from the quality of the Spaniard’s delivery.
Although Gomez has by this stage realised the threat of Sanchez at the edge of the six-yard box, he strangely retreats from the ball as it sails towards the pair, allowing the Arsenal forward to stoop with ease and head it to the net. Yes, Sanchez has since left for Manchester United and Gomez has been in tremendous form this season, although the young defender will still be well advised to take on board the lessons from that goal, especially with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang both enjoying a fine start to the campaign.
In the 56th minute, Arsenal drew level with a superb long-range effort from Granit Xhaka. It was a sweet hit from the Swiss international, but Klopp would have been disgusted with the space that he was afforded. Liverpool might be renowned as a high-pressing team under the German’s watch, but that reputation was absent here. Upon receiving the ball from Alex Iwobi, Xhaka (circled in above image) has so much room that he can afford to take a controlling touch and still comfortably get the shot off.
Also, Mignolet ought to have done much better in his attempt to prevent the goal, failing to get much of his body behind the ball despite having ample time to read its flight. Perhaps Alisson would have reacted better in that instance and, given that Xhaka scored a screamer at Crystal Palace on Sunday, he should be alert to the Arsenal midfielder’s threat from long-range efforts. Whoever starts in midfield for Liverpool this weekend, meanwhile, cannot afford to let Xhaka have so much time on the ball if he has a sight of goal within 30 yards of the target.
Liverpool were still reeling from allowing a clear lead to slip so quickly when they even more abruptly found themselves trailing 3-2. The issues of a lack of midfield pressing and penalty box lapses in concentration were again at play for Arsenal’s third goal. The image above shows the complete absence of pressure on Mesut Ozil (circled), with Can occupying a no man’s land and being powerless to stop the ball from being played to his fellow German international. The Liverpool midfielder did make a valiant effort to chase down Ozil afterwards but his starting position left him with too much to do.
As the Arsenal man plays a one-two with Lacazette, he runs across Gomez (circled in above image) and dinks the ball over Mignolet, who crouched needlessly early. There’s also a school of thought that Dejan Lovren (see arrow) has gotten too tight to Lacazette, which doesn’t help Gomez’s cause. This was a collective mishap from Liverpool and one which, while thankfully not witnessed so far this season, cannot be allowed to happen with Arsenal’s strikers in imperious form and Ozil always capable of pulling influential displays out of the bag, even though such performances are sporadic.
There have been key changes in personnel for both clubs in the intervening 10-and-a-bit months, while both teams look more assured now than they did at the time of the 3-3 draw. However, Klopp will realise that, just as his team are capable of ripping opponents to shreds with powerful displays of attacking football, Arsenal are equally well-equipped to do that. The presence of Alisson in goal and the confidence exuded by van Dijk at the heart of Liverpool’s defence means that the Reds don’t seem likely to allow for a repeat of the five-minute horror show from last December. However, Klopp’s men will surely be subjected to a far sterner test than anything that Huddersfield, Red Star Belgrade or Cardiff provided recently. Liverpool can’t say they haven’t been forewarned as they prepare for battle with a team that, prior to last weekend, won 11 matches on the spin.