Liverpool v Arsenal: Analytical Preview

Liverpool v Arsenal: Analytical Preview

Liverpool take on Arsenal in the early kick-off next Saturday, with all Liverpool fans hoping that The Reds can improve on the last display against Sunderland.  Prior to the game I thought it would be interesting to attempt to assess some areas of Arsenal’s attacking style/strategy and some areas that Liverpool should look to exploit.

Arsenal Passing Analysis

 0-10 Minutes

  V NEWCASTLE (A)                 V LIVERPOOL (H)                     V MAN UTD (H)

                

               

 

               

In my opinion, it is crucial that Liverpool make a positive start against Arsenal on Saturday.  Whilst you have to accept that Arsenal will have the majority of possession, I think Liverpool can press and pressurise the Arsenal team, early in the game, in order to gain a firm foothold in the match.  As we are all aware, Arsenal have lost Fabregas and will be without Nasri and perhaps Wilshire.  This places a huge amount of pressure on the likes of Rosicky, Ramsey and Song (not banned at the time of writing), who Arsenal will look towards when initiating attacking sequences.

As you can see from the infographics above, Liverpool made an effective start to the game during last season’s fixture.  The reds managed to restrict Arsenal to just 56 passes in the opening 10 minutes of the game, and restricted Arsenal’s passing accuracy to just 73%.  Against Newcastle, last weekend, they managed 72 passes with an 83% accuracy.  Against Man Utd last season, Arsenal got off to a flying start managing 114 passes with an 91% accuracy.  What is even more astounding about their start against Man Utd, is the fact that whilst achieving a 91% passing accuracy they did so mainly in the Man Utd half (see heat maps).  Against Newcastle and Liverpool, Arsenal’s possession was mainly restricted to the zones around the half-way line.

Another interesting observation from the passing Analysis against Liverpool last season is that Arsenal clearly tried to probe more often down their left-hand wing, Liverpool’s right.  In the next ten minutes, their passing was focused down their right-hand wing, Liverpool’s left.  This also happened against Newcastle last Saturday.

11-20 Minutes

      V NEWCASTLE (A)                                    V LIVERPOOL (H)

                       

We could look at these results in two ways.

  1. Liverpool started with young Flanagan at right-back and Aurelio at left-back; it could be argued that Arsenal’s game plan was to target the full-back areas as they felt it was a weakness in Liverpool’s line-up.  Arsenal had Nasri and Walcott starting in the wide areas, and attacking full-backs Clichy and Eboue, and therefore it would stand to reason for them to think that these players could create some chances up against the Liverpool full-backs. Also there may have been some doubts over Aurelio’s fitness levels (when isn’t there some might say), and in actual fact Aurelio was subbed after 22 minutes and replaced by another inexperienced full-back Robinson.
  2. Liverpool’s compactness in the centre of the pitch, possibly helped by Suarez dropping deeper when not in possession, forced Arsenal to try to move the ball out to the wide areas.  In my opinion this should be a strategy, utilised by Dalglish, in Saturday’s fixture as I would much rather force Arsenal into putting crosses in the box, from wide areas, than being able to work players into space in the area between the midfield and the defence.  As we have seen frequently with Arsenal themselves over previous seasons, Barcelona (the masters), and recently Man Utd’s second goal against Man City in the Community Shield, it is very difficult to defend against team who move the ball quickly in these central areas.

In my view, it is a strategy of Arsenal’s to probe down one wing initially and then to try and probe down the alternate wing.  What is surprising is that there seems to be a pattern of changing from one flank to the next after ten minutes (a further analysis of this is needed to determine if this is just a coincidence).  The 11-20 minute heatmaps show that Arsenal had more success once they switched to the right wing, progressing further into their opponents territory, and is therefore something that Liverpool should be wary of.

In last season’s fixture with Liverpool, the stats also show that Liverpool made zero tackles or interceptions in their own central half areas in the first ten minutes.  This would suggest that Arsenal were not being forced to focus their passing out to the wing due to the fact that Liverpool had packed the central areas, and were making successful tackles and interceptions that were breaking down Arsenal attacking movements.  In the Newcastle match, there was one successful tackle made by Newcastle and zero interceptions in the same zones of the pitch; adding support to the assumption that Arsenal choose to focus their passing movements in this manner.

Despite the fact that I believe Arsenal may actively employ this strategy on Saturday, as I alluded to in point two above, if I was Kenny Dalglish I would be happy to force the ball out into these areas when Arsenal are in possession.  I would be confident in Agger and Carragher’s ability to deal with any crosses that Arsenal put in the box, as long as Arsenal are prevented from getting behind the full-backs and crossing from the byline.  I would be confident that Enrique will be capable of dealing with Arsenal’s wide players, and Flanagan will receive support from Henderson, or more likely Kuyt, when required.

The stats also support the assertion that Arsenal are less threatening when being forced to cross from wide areas.  In the fixture, against Liverpool, last season, Arsenal made a massive 44 crosses (9 corners) with only 7 of the crosses successful – 16% success.  Against Man Utd, they made 28 crosses (3 corners) with 4 successful – 14% success. Against Newcastle, they made 22 crosses (5 corners) with 4 successful – 18%.  It is important to note that crosses are, perhaps by their nature, largely inaccurate as the crossing player is generally trying to simply hit an area usually doing so under pressure.  I would certainly not state that Arsenal should be frely able to put crosses in the box; if a team can cross often in a game I believe that sooner or later a cross will come in that is un-defendable and will result in a clear goalscoring opportunity.

I simply believe that Liverpool face less danger from wide areas than from attacks through the central zones, using short quick passes, where Arsenal players interchange positions often and run off the back of Liverpool midfielders.  In addition to being confident that Agger and Carragher are capable of dealing with Arsenal’s crossing; I also believe that Reina should be encouraged to claim as many crosses as possible.  In my opinion Reina could then initiate quick counter attacks distributing the ball to the likes of Downing or Suarez, with Arsenal having committed significant numbers into attack.

As I stated earlier in the article, Liverpool made a very effective start to the fixture last season limiting Arsenal to just 56 passing attempts in the opening 10 minutes of the game.  They did this by ensuring that they maintained possession themselves, attempting 60 passes in the first 10 minutes with 80% accuracy.  In their fixture with Arsenal, Man Utd only attempted 16 passes in the first 10 minutes with an accuracy of 44%, this illustrates how effective the start was last season by Liverpool.  In my view it is crucial that Liverpool assert themselves early in the game on Saturday and then maintain this throughout the game.

The table above illustrates that Liverpool were unable to maintain the positive start that they had made.  In the period of time between the 11th minute and the 40th minute Liverpool’s attempted passes reduced fairly dramatically, highlighting the fact that Arsenal were dominating possession.  They seemed to recover either side of half-time before losing possession again between minutes 51 and 80. Perhaps after withstanding the Arsenal pressure, Liverpool then thought they could snatch victory and managed to increase the amount of passing attempts in minutes 81-90.  They also fell behind in this period and therefore I would expect them to try and take more possession of the ball in order to get themselves back on equal terms (which they thankfully did).

It is imperative that Liverpool try not to fall into this pattern in the game on Saturday.  I believe that Liverpool should feel as though they have players capable of maintaining possession against Arsenal, and as a result capable of creating chances.  They must not concede possession to Arsenal too easily during the game; this does not mean that I am advocating a ‘gung-ho’ approach where they press Arsenal high up the pitch (I think this would be a recipe for disaster).  On the contrary I believe that Liverpool will be best served allowing Arsenal’s centre-backs to have the ball whilst preventing them from playing in to the centre circle area.  If Liverpool can force Vermaelen and Koscielny into hitting long passes, it will again reduce Arsenal’s attacking threat.  The point I am making is that once Arsenal lose possession, or Liverpool win the ball back, Liverpool must keep possession and not be relieved of the ball too quickly.  If they fail to do this Arsenal will be able to exert more dominance on the game.

The key is finding the balance between quick counter-attacking transitions, where it is more likely that possession will be lost, and slower, more patient, build-ups where it is easier to maintain possession.  In the fixture last year Liverpool had more attempts at goal in the periods in which they attempted more passes (displayed in the table below). This again highlights the fact that they were capable of creating opportunities, for attempts on goal, when they had more of the ball.  As Liverpool have improved the playing staff over the summer, there should be no reason why they would not create more opportunities for attempts on goal if they can see enough of the ball.

Exploiting Arsenal’s Weaknesses

If Liverpool can secure sufficient possession of the ball, how then should they attempt to attack Arsenal?

Andy Carroll

I’m sure everyone will be able to recall Carroll’s goal for Newcastle at the Emirates last season.  If you can’t he basically jumped far higher than everyone else in the Arsenal team (including the goalkeeper Fabianski) to nod the ball into an empty net, and secure a 1-0 victory for Newcastle.  In that game Carroll received the ball 46 times, more than any other Newcastle player, creating two chances in addition to his goal.  In Liverpool’s game last season, Carroll only received the ball 19 times before being subbed after 71 minutes.  Now that Carroll is fully fit, I would expect to see him more involved in Liverpool’s attacking strategy on Saturday.  This means using him effectively during open play to bring others, such as Suarez, not just lobbing aimless balls up to him so he ends up in a fight with two central defenders (Carragher is often the main culprit).

The Aerial Threat of Carroll

The passes into Carroll, more often than not, need to be into his feet or chest to allow him to hold-up the ball and then lay it off for his fellow team-mates.  The stats from the game against Sunderland show that he accurately completed 9 out of 11 lay-offs, but 0 out of 7 flick-ons.  Common sense would tell anybody that the ball needs to be delivered to him in a manner that allows him to control it and hold it up.  If Liverpool do hit high balls up towards his head, then they must get players around him in order to pick up any second balls.

Liverpool must create opportunities to deliver effective crosses into the Arsenal penalty area for Carroll to attack.  Again the quality of the cross is imperative here; Andy Carroll is not a miracle worker who can magically generate enough power onto a floated cross, landing between the penalty spot and the edge of the area, to enable him to score.  Liverpool must create opportunities which see the likes of Downing, Adam, Henderson (or Kuyt), Suarez and Enrique delivering a range of crosses, into the Arsenal penalty area, between the six-yard box and the penalty spot.  Some crosses should be in-swinging, some should be out-swinging; they should try to cross from deep, from the byline and from somewhere in between.  Enrique delivered one magical cross into Sunderland’s penalty area that, in my opinion, will more often than not see Andy Carroll getting on the end of it.

In Arsenal’s game towards the end of last season away to Stoke, which they lost 3-1, it was Jones and Walters who received the ball the most frequently (25 times each).  Jones scored one, Walters scored one and Pennant got the assist in open play which was from a cross.  I am most certainly not saying that we should be as direct as Stoke, however it is clear that Arsenal struggle against direct teams with powerful centre-forwards.

With the right service Carroll can give the Arsenal centre-backs a torrid time, and I certainly hope to see it happening on Saturday.

Set-Plays

The stats, and our own observations, will tell us that Arsenal are poor when it comes to defending set-plays and I see no reason why this would be any different on Saturday.  Arsenal conceded a higher proportion of goals from set-plays than any other Premier League team last season (53.5% thanks to OptaJoe), and the argument that it was because Vermaelen was absent with injury has also been dispelled.

Tough Times for Arsene Wenger

Liverpool must use set-plays effectively on Saturday, if they are going to maximise their scoring opportunities.  In order to create opportunities from set-plays, and before we begin to discuss Charlie Adam, they first have to be won (it is easy to bypass this fact).  This comes back to my point at the start of this article regarding possession; yes possession is not always a reliable indicator that a team will win the game (think back to Barcelona’s possession stats against Arsenal last year) however it helps to have the ball now and again!  If Liverpool can secure enough possession they will not only have more chance of creating chances in open play, they are also more likely to win free-kicks and corners in dangerous areas that can lead to goalscoring opportunities.

The best wingers in the world, more frequently, win free-kicks in threatening positions around the opposition penalty area, and therefore I’m looking towards Stuart Downing to help Liverpool do this (just to be clear I am not saying that Downing is one of the best wingers in the world).  In Aston Villa’s game against Arsenal again towards the end of last season, which they won 2-1, Downing received the ball 40 times.  More than any other Aston Villa player (Ashley Young only received the ball 17 times), the second highest was Darren Bent with 33.  Despite this, the stats do not seem to reflect Downing’s involvement favourably; he did not record any assists, create any chances or draw any fouls.  His passing accuracy was however 78%, whilst Young’s was 43%, therefore I would suggest he had a big impact on Aston Villa’s performance that day.

In my opinion Downing can play a vital role in helping Liverpool to create set-play opportunities.  He should help to win corners, and his direct dribbling/running with the ball should improve the chances of Liverpool being awarded free-kicks in dangerous areas.  In the Aston Villa game he played solely on the right-hand wing (as the infographics below illustrate); personally I would prefer him to drift more often for Liverpool, on Saturday, switching wings and even swapping with Adam on occasions. Unless of course he is having particular success on one wing.

    

Once the set-plays have been won, Charlie Adam comes to the fore.  Adam’s assist from the free-kick last weekend was a clear reminder to everyone of one of the reasons why Dalglish was so keen to secure his signature.  In addition to his creativity in open-play, Liverpool can benefit immensely from his quality delivery into the penalty areas from set-plays against Arsenal.  Adam’s overall stats from last season, illustrated below, demonstrate his creativity.

I believe that Liverpool will most certainly be working on set-plays in training during this week; one quality delivery from a set-play may just prove to be the difference between the two sides.

Luis Suarez

I’m stating the obvious here but Suarez will once again be a key threat for Liverpool.  In the fixture last season, Suarez received the ball more frequently than any other Liverpool player (50).  Suarez was a constant threat to Arsenal, he had more attempts on goal than any other player in the game, had a passing accuracy of 80%, and drew the most fouls.  Liverpool must try to get Suarez on the ball as often as possible in dangerous areas.  I believe that they need to attempt to get him on the ball in the channels behind the Arsenal full-backs, who have hopefully been drawn out towards Liverpool’s wide players.  In my opinion Arsenal struggle to effectively defend against players, similar to Suarez, when they drift into these areas.  They were unable to cope with Rafael van der Vaart at the Emirates last season, who picked the ball up in similar areas to those that Suarez exploits.  The infographics below show that Suarez was active in the channel areas against Sunderland, but the stats also show that his involvement in the second half dropped as expected due to his lack of a break and a proper pre-season (Received the ball 27 times in the first-half and 17 in the second-half).  Hopefully his fitness will have improved and Liverpool fans can see Suarez play to his usual level for longer in the game against Arsenal.

                       1st Half                                                             2nd Half

     

If Suarez can manage to attract Vermaelen or Koscielny out towards the touch-line, not only is it likely that he will be able to dribble past them at some point, it also creates more space for Carroll in the centre forward position.

Summary

I may be biased, but I believe that Liverpool should go into the game at the Emirates as slight favourites.  Arsenal have lost, or are without, two of their best players and I feel that Liverpool can dominate the midfield area.  In order to get a positive result I believe that Liverpool must;

  1. Ensure that they see enough of the ball – they must not let Arsenal totally dominate possession
  2. Try to dominate possession in the first ten minutes to set the tone (Already disgruntled Arsenal fans will hopefully begin to vent their frustration)
  3. Force Vermaelen and Koscielny to make long passes – prevent them from passing into the centre circle area
  4. Use Carroll as a focal point and provide him with effective service
  5. Create opportunities to win set-plays in attacking areas – ensure the quality of the set-plays is outstanding
  6. Give Suarez the ball!

No doubt there are many other areas where Liverpool could target Arsenal.  Please feel free to offer comments and opinions on other areas where Arsenal could be targeted.