Liverpool sent a strong message to their top 4 rivals with an incredible performance against league leaders Arsenal, starting the game at such a high tempo that Arsenal couldn’t catch a breath. By the time they had, the game was already won in under 20 minutes.
In terms of how Liverpool played, there wasn’t much different to what we have seen on many occasions already this season, especially at Anfield. A quick start which has become the Reds trademark under Rodgers, sees them lead the leagues ‘first half goals’ column by a country mile.
Rodgers went unchanged again, he appears to have found a winning formula despite injuries and arguably not his first choice line-up. He has also made the least substitutions for any manager in the league this season, which seems to be slowly brewing some consistency.
So as you can see it was the same system which destroyed Tottenham and the exact same eleven who destroyed Everton. 4-3-3 with Gerrard playing in his deeper role again, Coutinho and Henderson ahead of him, while Toure kept his place after his howler at West Brom (not that there was anyone to replace him with).
Recently we discussed the idea of Suarez and Sturridge taking it in turns to share some of the defensive burden on the flanks for Rodgers to field them both. Just as Sturridge did last week, it was now Suarez who was asked to start on the right and put in a shift. Sturridge took his turn to start as the centre forward while Raheem Sterling accompanied them on the left wing.
Elsewhere, if you look at Rodgers’ deployment of the midfield three in relation to the front three, there is consistency with a couple of themes:
Coutinho’s defensive performance which has been poor in recent games (apart from the Everton game), but was ironically outstanding in this game. Normally deployed the same side as Sterling to give him extra cover.
Henderson’s defensive diligence and his ability to cover, this usually see’s him on the same side as the alternating Suarez and Sturridge. More on this in a moment.
Here is how Arsene Wenger set up with his usual 4-2-3-1:
How Liverpool set up shows that Rodgers recognised a combination of things. Firstly that Arsenal’s right side would be a particular threat, with Bacary Sagna overlapping an in-form Oxlade-Chamberlain. Secondly, that their left side is not necessarily weak, but would require less protection. Cazorla would spend most of the game drifting infield, and Nacho Monreal is a good left back, and can get forward, but is far more reserved than Sagna.
Liverpool were therefore more suited to having Suarez on the right – any neglect of his defensive duties would have far less impact. Henderson could get out to the right to cover, with Gerrard as a second wave of pressure behind him, and protection from the increasingly solid Jon Flanagan at right-back.
Rodgers also sees Sterling as extremely reliable defensively. If you think back to the Everton game at Anfield, where Leighton Baines was the obvious threat on the left, we saw Rodgers set up opposite to this Arsenal game. Sterling was on the right to take care of Baines, Sturridge on the left away from the threat.
I think this highlights where Rodgers’ priorities lie – always field Suarez and Sturridge, ideally as part of a three (because the team is better in this system), but not at the expense of defensive security, which means getting the balance right behind. This influences which side Sterling plays on, and who plays left and who plays right out of Coutinho and Henderson.
As you can see, Liverpool kept their shape extremely well (Sterling’s average position appears narrower as he moved to the right towards the end). They squeezed Arsenal out of possession while retaining their shape, and without needing to have the ball all the time. The shape you see from Arsenal is not uncommon, because of the nature of their system the wide players always end up central. The full backs always end up very high and very wide, as they provide nearly all of the attacking width for the team.
Liverpool were able to nullify this easily – here is an example from the first half with Gerrard coming across, Sterling working back, and Cissokho defending from left back:
A massive factor in this game was mentality. Rodgers has developed a winning culture within his players which can count for a lot on the field. When you think about the timid 20 year old Jordan Henderson who first arrived at Anfield from Sunderland, he is now a completely different animal. Anyone who doubts that should re-visit the fifth minute of this game and watch him tear Martin Skrtel (who has just given them the dream start) a new one, for slowing the tempo down and not carrying the ball forward quickly enough.
Liverpool just had the edge in all areas, comfortable without the ball, lightning fast with it, relentless, energetic and methodical with their pressing. The clinical nature of their finishing was a bonus and an incredible spectacle for the neutral, but went a long way to show just how far the team is now progressing.
I debated whether these statistics were worth a mention, but here they are anyway. They tell us that Arsenal out-passed Liverpool by a big margin with 434 accurate passes to their 294. They were more accurate (87% to 79%) , especially in the final third (77% to 56%) and had more possession with 57.5%.
Liverpool were however the more creative. They had 19 chances from open play and set plays to Arsenal’s 7, sliced them open and created a massive 8 clear cut chances, scoring 4 of them (Arsenal had 1, which was their penalty). Liverpool won the physical battle with an incredible 31 successful tackles to Arsenal’s 12, and won 56% of the 108 ground duels throughout the game.
Mesut Ozil had a particularly tough day, making the two Arsenal defensive errors which both lead to Liverpool goals. He has taken stick from an attacking perspective also, however this poor Arsenal display was not down to one man.
This game was over after an opening 20 minutes of utterly ruthless football from Liverpool. The win puts them only 5 points from Arsenal who face Manchester United on Wednesday. The top four and the title race are certainly hotting up even more with this controversial result, and the Reds will be hoping to keep on rolling at Craven Cottage midweek.