The Alexis Sanchez story dominated all the headlines over the weekend, overshadowing an excellent Liverpool performance which surprisingly involved a very strong defensive performance. Liverpool’s attackers were in stunning form, especially Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane who pulled apart the Arsenal defence leaving other Liverpool attackers to run rampant.
“The thinking was that we had to go more direct and I wanted to play two players strong in the air because we decided to go more direct” – Wenger
Arsene Wenger might have included Sanchez in the starting lineup if not for the training ground bust up but still would have stuck to the direct approach. It makes sense for a team to go direct against Liverpool to completely bypass their midfield press and threaten their weak defensive unit. Manchester United did the same and almost nicked a win earlier this season, Leicester did it perfectly to the script in their win against Liverpool last week. So with a striker like Giroud who is strong in the air and with Danny Welbeck to support him, Wenger’s strategy made perfect sense. For once, Wenger actually set his team out to counter the oppositions’s strengths rather than sticking to the same old Arsenal template of trying to win playing “Beautiful Football”.
Looking at the Liverpool Pass map above, it is clear that Jurgen Klopp instructed Emre Can to drop deep and almost form a back three with the central defenders. Can stayed deep and was rarely involved in any attacks or even in the build up play. James Milner took up the responsibility of the primary initiator of attacks from the deep. He had 81 touches of the ball, more than anybody else on the pitch. Also crucially, Can provided the extra height and protection against the long ball which has been a big problem for Liverpool this season.
Passmaps & xGplot for Leicester against Liverpool. #passmap #xGplot #autotweet pic.twitter.com/l66vbVkZoG
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) February 27, 2017
In case you’ve missed it yesterday.#Passmap for #LiverpoolFC vs. #TottenhamHotspur.#LFC #Liverpool #Anfield #PremierLeague #dataviz pic.twitter.com/7ftuZ8XQnA
— GSN (@info_gsn) February 17, 2017
Note the orientation of the midfield three against Leicester and Spurs
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 this season has generally featured two deep midfielders with the third midfielder(generally Lallana) in a more advanced attacking position. Klopp, against Arsenal, flipped this trivote by playing Can in a very deep position and pushing both Wijnaldum and Lallana ahead. This allowed Liverpool to increase the intensity of their “death-metal” football by pushing more players forward but at the same time giving the defence extra protection from the long ball. There was a chance that Liverpool were vulnerable to the counter but Arsenal were very poor, especially in the first half when Liverpool’s defence didn’t have any sorts of problems. But Danny Welbeck’s goal again clearly showed, how easy it is to slice through the Liverpool defence once you bypass the press.
This slight tweak to Liverpool’s midfield might prove crucial in the upcoming matches as Liverpool seeks to qualify for the Champions League next season. In reaction to the Leicester defeat and subsequent criticism of Klopp’s reluctance to change his system according to the opposition, the German’s small but significant tweak made all the difference against Arsenal. It remains to be seen whether the German will continue to use this form of the trivote in the midfield. This will allow more players to join the press but also will leave the defence more prone to counter-attacks. But if the press is done right like against Arsenal, Liverpool more often than not will end up scoring more than the opposition. Addressing this very issue, Klopp had some interesting comments regarding Adam Lallana’s pressing.
“It’s really nice to have Adam, because he jumps out of a compact formation and triggers the pressure, or sets the tone,”
“The problem, and that’s in a few games , is when we’re not compact and Adam does the same, and he opens a gap for the opponent—and it’s a one-on-one in a big area.”