Two early set-piece goals allowed Liverpool to play to their strengths with another breathtaking counter-attacking performance.
Liverpool fielded the same eleven for the third consecutive game, in a 4-3-3 formation. Gerrard was at the base of the midfield triangle again, with Coutinho and Henderson ahead. The front three all changed their positions however. Sturridge moved from the left to occupy the lone striker slot, dislodging Suarez, who started on the right. Raheem Sterling began on the left wing.
Arsenal were in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape, making one change from the victory over Crystal Palace. Oxlade-Chamberlain, so impressive in midfield in that game, shifted to a more familiar right wing role. Lucas Podolski dropped to the bench.
What was most remarkable about Liverpool’s approach was how compact they were from back to front. The front three dropped goalside of Arsenal’s midfield when the away side were in possession, meaning that the gap between Sturridge and his centre-backs was unusually small for a side in a 4-3-3 shape. This meant that the spaces between Liverpool’s lines were minimal, thus preventing Arsenal’s attacking midfielders from impacting the game. Only Nacho Monreal created a chance in the first half for Arsenal. The away side finished the first half with only one Olivier Giroud shot to their name (it did not hit the target). Arsenal found it almost impossible to penetrate all game. The two most common passing combinations emphasise this – Wilshere to Arteta (21) and Arteta to Wilshere (18). Arsenal’s two centre midfielders were unable to regularly find passes through to their more advanced teammates.
As soon as one of those players did receive the ball, Liverpool pressed them aggressively. Their third and fourth goals were both the result of Mesut Ozil being harried out of possession. Phillipe Coutinho, as against Everton, was the prime mover in the regard, completing 6 tackles and 2 interceptions over the course of the game – a remarkable performance. Indeed, he was just as effective at the other end too, providing the assist for the fourth goal and almost creating the sixth with another fantastic through ball to Jordan Henderson late in the second half. He finished the game having created 5 chances, the highest individual total achieved on the day.
Steven Gerrard behind him was arguably just as impressive. His debut in this role against Stoke was a disaster, not for his defensive failings, but for his wasteful long pass attempts. Against Everton, he was more disciplined in possession and made a number of tackles and blocks to stymie his side’s bitter rivals. He gave an even better performance here, with both parts of his game in tune. He completed 7 tackles and 2 interceptions, succeeded with 7 out of 10 long pass attempts and created both of Martin Skrtel’s set-piece goals. The fact that Mesut Ozil, his opposite number, had one of his worst performances in memory speaks volumes.
Arsene Wenger approached this game as he does any other – the intention was to press the opposition with a high block and drag them out of shape with intricate possession football. He is the ultimate dogmatic manager, and this is the latest example of his Plan A being completely exploited by a more pragmatic one.
The sight of Arsenal conceding multiple goals from simple direct balls in behind is a familiar one. And yet their manager never seems to learn from it. Even in this tie, at 0-4 having conceded two goals of that nature, he persisted with a high line, before seeing his side inevitably fall victim for a 5th time. A simple Kolo Toure long ball from the back found Sterling, who had spun off Koscielny. Mertesacker played him onside, and he eventually scored past Szczesny at the second attempt. Sterling had 5 out of 5 attempts on target today. It might sound harsh to say about a player who notched two goals, but he was wasteful. All 5 chances were near-gimmies, a testament to how often the dangerous young winger got himself into goalscoring positions.
Brendan Rodgers, on the other hand, is showing that he has transitioned from being dogmatic to pragmatic in his time at the Anfield helm. Gone are the interviews where he worships at the altar of possession. Many observers, this one included, argued vehemently last year that a more direct style of football would better suit the players at his disposal. The evidence is clear – he has listened to this criticism. No longer is he attempting to force on his side the patient ultra-short game that he inherited at Swansea. Last season Liverpool were 3rd in the average possession per game table with 57.2%. Now they are 9th, with 53.8% – a significant drop. It is no coincidence that his side’s performances and league position have responded accordingly.
Arsenal were abject here. They conceded two goals early on from set plays and were easily and viciously ripped apart on the counter-attack. They were unable to penetrate Liverpool’s compact lines and created very little of any significance. The performance of Mesut Ozil was an aberration, and his attitude when withdrawn (refusing to acknowledge his side’s travelling fans or bench) is worrisome.
Liverpool’s boss, like Chelsea’s on Monday, will take pride that his side implemented his specific plan to perfection, against a side who seemed to think that the usual would suffice. The selection of three direct players in midfield was brave, but further evidence that Rodgers is moving away from his marriage to tiki-taka and getting the most out of the resources available to him. The increasingly out-of-favour Joe Allen, a former favourite of the manager, is indicative of this mental shift. A fully deserved three points for his side.