Arsenal took themselves five points clear at the top of the Premier League with an efficient and dominating midfield performance, keeping Liverpool level, with Chelsea just below them. They were without Mattheiu Flamini who was replaced at the base of midfield by Aaron Ramsey alongside Mikel Arteta, while Tomas Rosicky started on the right of the attacking three. There was a shock inclusion for John Flanagan at right wing back for Liverpool, with Glen Johnson sick, he got the nod over Martin Kelly and Raheem Sterling who has also played there this season. Aly Cissokho started on the other flank, which allowed Jordan Henderson to keep his place in central midfield.
Arsenal shaped up in their usual 4-2-3-1, with Aaron Ramsey as part of the midfield two, which made their line up more attacking. His absence from the front four freed up space for Rosicky to provide an extra threat for Arsenal. They had the ideal blend of qualities; Cazorla who is less penetrative, but a creative retainer of possession, Rosicky more direct and threatening, while Ozil shares the best characteristics of both.
Arsenal’s play naturally gravitated centrally, with Cazorla drifting in off the left flank, and Rosicky attempting to make his penetrative runs beyond the last line of the defence. This is where Arsenal have always been their most dangerous.
Gary Neville goes into greater depth in the video below on this issue of the driving runs, which Arsenal teams have typically made over the years to exploit space in behind. In recent seasons we have seen Arsenal lose their potency in this area, but I believe this type of movement is now making a resurgence in Wenger’s team this season, and is a key component of their good form of late.
Brendan Rodgers is now at a crossroads. His 3-4-1-2 formation was initially utilised to make best use of his defenders, the lack of Joe Allen and Coutinho, and to accommodate both Sturridge and Suarez up front. The last week has seen the midfield triangle flip from a 2-1 into the 1-2 we have now seen against West Brom and Arsenal. The purpose of this change was to accommodate the return of Lucas from his brief absence and keep Henderson pressing in midfield, which also gave Steven Gerrard more freedom, and left Lucas to patrol in front of the defence.
However, with both Allen and Coutinho available, Rodgers may be tempted to revert back to something resembling the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems we saw last season (he was unable to use his ideal 4-3-3 for lack of ideal personnel). A hint that this formation may be making an imminent return was evident, with Liverpool 1-0 down at half-time. Rodgers switched to four at the back and brought on Coutinho for Aly Cissokho on the left.
Aly Cissokho had a miserable game dealing with Sagna and Rosicky, only making 9 passes, with a 67% accuracy, which is a shame after some very solid recent performances. Coutinho, in contrast, attempted 37 passes in the second half in Cissokho’s place, while Victor Moses completed 100% of his 18 passes in his 20 minute appearance.
Arsenal’s two goal cushion allowed them to be slightly more conservative later in the game. Wenger made his standard substitution with Arsenal in a winning position, bringing on Nacho Monreal as a defensive-minded winger to protect the lead.
Arsenal edged the possession contest, particularly in the first half. As you can see, a total of 1123 passes were attempted between the two teams; an incredibly strong focus on possession from both teams. Liverpool struggled to link play through the middle of the field in the first half, but this picked up with the introduction of Coutinho, and both teams finished with an 85% passing accuracy. Mikel Arteta made 106 passes at 94%, 27 more than Liverpool’s highest passer (Gerrard 79 passes at 87%).
There was no shortage of chances created for Liverpool, who had 10 chances to Arsenal’s 9, however, the rare lack of sharpness in front of goal was evident as both Suarez and Sturridge failed to convert.
For Liverpool the game was lost in midfield. The lack of thrust, bite, and ball retention in the first half has been a recurring theme, with some raising question marks over Lucas and Gerrard as an effective partnership. The second goal from Ramsey ended the game as a contest, and Rodgers will need to re-think the best way to use his returning players as the festive period edges closer. Arsenal continue a run of crucial games which may define their season, and march on in style.