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Liverpool v Arsenal – Analysis of Liverpool’s Tactical Progress

As Santi Carzola ran away from Pepe Reina’s goal into the Arsenal away support the camera’s cut to Brendan Rodgers. A man who has by now put away his notepad and pen to accept that his strategy did not go according to plan against an excellent Arsenal side. Brendan Rodgers sets his team up in a way that aims to achieve the following three aspects of systems football

  1. High pressing and making the pitch as small as possible without the ball
  2. Fluid ball movement and making the pitch as big as possible with the ball [comfort with the ball]
  3. To create as many ‘clear and obvious’ goal scoring opportunities as possible and reduce the oppositions ability to do so.

Therefore, as a way of assessing just how far Liverpool still have to go to perform in a way that Brendan Rodgers coaches, I have set about statistically analysing the tactical outcomes of Brendan Rodgers’ system.


Rodgers’ pressing approach aims to:

  1. Force the opposition to clear the ball back into Liverpool’s defensive line and to regain possession
  2. Regain possession high up the field through a misplaced pass under the pressure
  3. Tackle or intercept play and break away to create a ‘clear and obvious’ goal scoring opportunity

It is important to now define that in this article a ‘clear and obvious’ goal scoring opportunity is one whereby the team has worked a position within the 18 yard box to get away a clear shot at goal (with no player directly in front of the striker with the ball or a tight angle at which to deal with). This may not actually result in a shot being taken. Liverpool’s strategy of pressing high was one of the more successful aspects of their game against Arsenal (02/09/12). Arsenal are a side with a short passing philosophy and on the face of the statistics it would be true to conclude that Mikel Arteta controlled the midfield having a 104 successful touches of the ball and completed 87 of his 92 attempted passes.

However, Liverpool’s high pressing did cause a number of issues for a much improved Arsenal side. Over the course of the ninety minutes, Arsenal were forced to play 25 long balls as a direct result of being pressed high. These long balls do not include goal kicks or general unpressed long balls forward, but 25 long balls made up of clearances under pressure and long balls in an attempt to play out of pressure. All 25 of these resulted in Liverpool regaining possession. Liverpool also forced 12 errors inside the Arsenal half; 12 moments of poor control and poorly aimed passes. Lastly Liverpool made 7 tackles in the high pressure situations that occurred within the Arsenal half. Therefore we can conclude, that as a direct result of Liverpool’s high pressing – Liverpool regained possession 44 times in the ninety minutes.


At a first glance, the Opta stats show that Liverpool attempted 19 shots at target and Arsenal 11. 15 of Liverpool’s shots were either off target (4) or blocked (11) – suggestive that Arsenal’s defensive unit had a good day; Arsenal managed to test Pepe Reina with 5 of their 11 shots. However, since the best way to assess how well a team attacked and defended is to look at the number of ‘clear and obvious’ goal scoring opportunities that took place, all of the above information can be taken with a pinch of salt. Arsenal managed to create 4 clear and obvious goal scoring opportunities for themselves and interestingly, 3 of those opportunities took place down Liverpool’s right hand side. Podolski found space to score in the 31st minute, Giroud found himself in a great position as he made his diagonal run across the box in the first half, Kieran Gibbs broke forward on the 52nd minute in a near identical position to Carzola’s 67th minute goal.

Liverpool on the other hand, could count only Luis Suarez’s break into the box on the 87th minute, of which he made the incorrect decision in not shooting into the right hand side of the goal in front of him. While this assessment shows that Arsenal created 4 goal scoring opportunities and Liverpool only 1, it is easy to conclude that this is the fault of the system or the fault of a midfield not providing enough creativity in behind.

However, Luis Suarez lost possession in an advanced central position on 22 occasions; In contrast, Danny Graham who played the same role against Arsenal for Swansea last season at the Liberty Stadium, lost possession just 4 times. While Suarez is to be credited for his work rate and pressing against Arsenal, he simply did not fulfil the role of a technical player keeping hold of possession in dangerous areas linking up with the more advanced midfielders. Therefore, in failing to do his basic task of linking the play together and bringing Liverpool into more dangerous areas it is easy to point fingers at Suarez – but, perhaps he just isn’t the correct player to fulfil the role required. Steven Gerrard is also to take some blame in giving the possession back to Arsenal on 24 occasions; including for Arsenal to break away and score. Steven Gerrard is often in a position whereby he is involved in the build up play and therefore, Gerrard and others who were involved in losing the ball Liverpool were prone to Arsenal’s dangerous counter attack.


As Arsenal won the ball back from Liverpool’s playmaking midfield, it was relatively easy for Diaby and Santi Carzola to break away and find the gaps left in behind a Liverpool midfield. A comfortable Liverpool side, one where passing in these areas becomes second nature would not lose the ball in such dangerous positions. It could be argued that until the Liverpool side do become comfortable enough on the ball in these zones, they would need to play a more defensively minded holding midfielder to prevent the opposition’s midfield getting in behind. However, by taking away Joe Allen, Sahin/Shelvey or Gerrard and requiring them not to get forward and join in with the playmaking you would lose the ability to outnumber the opposition in midfield and create 3v2 situations further forward. Liverpool will in time become far more suited to keeping the ball in these zones and learning the dangers of losing the ball in such situations.

The danger lies in the speed at which the opposition attacks on the counter attack – because you have manipulated a situation on the field where you have made the pitch as big as possible, you are then in a position whereby you cannot immediately ‘make the pitch as small as possible’ and are open to a real counter attacking threat. The inability to cope with the counter attack. (please note that L2 and L1 are the wrong way around in image 1)

Commentary: Each player is given a component identification since players are considered components of a system. Player A wins the ball back from a LFC player. Player B finds the space left in behind the LFC midfield after their midfield is left stranded further forward. In image two, player B receives the ball in vast amounts of space as player C runs in between L1 and L2: drawing L1 into the gap leaving space on the right hand side of the defence for player A to sprint on into. Whilst Liverpool have 6 players and Arsenal only 3 in the situation above, Arsenals clever movement and Liverpool’s inability to switch from making the pitch as big as possible to as small as possible quick enough is not good enough. Liverpool either need to be more cautious when in possession or be more comfortable in not losing the ball in the central areas of the field. There is a lack of cohesiveness between the Liverpool defenders in this situation and they are not prepared for the counter attacks of any form. One clear fault is the defence/midfield not compacting the play further up field during this play (losing the ball further up the field). The defence sat so deep and allowed a vast space for the player dropping off to work his movement. 

There needs to be a confidence in the players in these positions to absolutely not lose the ball – Joe Allen is one player who has done just this. Liverpool made 16 errors when comfortable in possession in playing the ball between the midfield and defence (whether tackled, poorly controlled, or misplaced passes). The pass completion rate also illustrates the same picture: 93% in their own half, 76% in the opposition half, but 78% in the final third. This clearly shows that Liverpool were poorer with the ball in the first third of their attacking half (6 parts now…don’t get lost) – simply, the area where the central midfielders are more likely to be involved. This therefore means that either their passing completion rate is not good enough, or that their off ball movement is not providing enough options for others on the ball in these zones.

These are all signs that show there is room for improvement and that will come over time. Credit must not be taken away from the excellent performances from Arteta and Diaby though, Arteta was everywhere and even making important tackles. Credit must also be given to the Arsenal defensive coaching staff (Steve Bould), who has transformed Arsenal from a shaky high line defensive unit to one that protects the 18 yard box almost perfectly. Liverpool were often forced into wide areas and were then doubled up on by the Arsenal full back and winger  – the perfect tactic against a team that prefers to play on the ground, forcing the team to cross the ball into a minority of attacking players and then themselves losing possession this way.

Arsenal's defensive unit protect the central key areas in front of their goal. Forcing a pragmatic LFC side to play out in the wider areas. A desired tactical outcome for Arsenal, not Liverpool. 7 of Arsenal's 10 outfield players within the zone


Liverpool succeeded in pressing extremely well for the most part of the game. However there is certainly room for improvement elsewhere. They are still yet to show signs of being a cohesive unit going forward with the ball and with time, this is achievable. Arsenal’s tactic of hitting Liverpool on the counter attack and knowing that Liverpool are not entirely comfortable on the ball in important zones was key.

This is why they would then hit Liverpool in the wider defensive areas as the full back would then be left out of position in attempting to make the pitch as big as possible when in possession. Arsenal also understood that Liverpool wanted the ball played on the floor into the 18 yard box and set themselves up in such a way that forced Liverpool to play with the ball wider than desired. Arsenal’s passing (if you take away Giroud’s 30% pass completion rate) was 88% against a team that pressed well. This is to the credit of Arteta’s playmaking and ball retention. While Liverpool are left with room for improvement; Arsenal,  despite Giroud’s inability to win any duel of any kind, finished the game after executing the perfect tactical response to Brendan Rodgers’ learning Liverpool side.

It is of the utmost importance that Liverpool fans recognise that what Rodgers achieved at Swansea was a result of years of hard work. Liverpool may not see the best from their system until early next year and ask any of the coaching staff and they’ll point out certain tactical deficiencies, but lessons will be learnt and progress will be made.

Note: Recording of ‘clear obvious goal scoring opportunity’ and pressing outcomes have been done by the Author.

Most of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.comSubscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.


The debate over Sterling’s shot being clear and obvious as a goal scoring opportunity – not included in my count, but remember this is subjective. I am of the opinion that because of the angle left by the keeper and defender that Sterling was not expected to score and therefore not ‘clear and obvious’. I thought Sterling did extremely well to hit the post in this situation given the speed at which the ball as moving and pressure he was under by the nearby defender causing him to be off balance. See the two still images below to decide on the angles yourselves.

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: http://shop.soccertutor.com/Coaching-the-Tiki-Taka-Style-of-Play-p/st-b019.htm Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - jeddavies.com | Writer on several websites as well as Liverpoolfc.tv and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or www.Facebook.com/JedDaviesFootballCoaching | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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