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Liverpool and Arsenal preview and tactical analysis plus musings on international football.

By Phil Gregory

Arsenal travel up to Anfield early doors for the 12.45pm kick off on Saturday, playing against a side confident of a result after their recent skin-of-their-teeth Carling Cup triumph. While Liverpool fans can correctly point out trophies are trophies, if we put rosy ideals to one side, the grim reality of the Premier League is that fourth place is arguably worth more than a domestic trophy. Quite why winning the FA/Carling Cup doesn’t secure you a place in the Champions League I’ll never know, as such a move would categorically end any loss of lustre for the two competitions. But I digress.

Despite being an Arsenal fan, Liverpool are amongst my most strongly disliked clubs. My experience of their supporters was largely negative “Five European cups” even before the Suarez debacle – which was frankly disgusting – so for me losing against what is a fairly average side earlier on in the season was a real blow. Needless to say winning at their place would do much to make amends, as well as potentially ending their pursuit of fourth place: an Arsenal win would put us ten clear of the Reds.

In terms of casualties, the good old international friendlies have been less than kind. Despite an injury Vermaelen played the full ninety and Van Persie, despite an incredibly heavy workload over the last fourteen months, played 45minutes despite a groin problem. While countries have a right to play players in competitive games as they see fit, this treatment of Vermaelen and Van Persie was downright crazy. Clubs do owe something to national sides, with international appearances vital in getting some players their work permits, but to take this sort of gamble for a friendly is absolutely insane.

I say insane, because to me, it is in nobody’s interest. The national manager risks injury to a player for future games/tournaments as well as damaging the goodwill of the player’s club manager. Alas when national team managers have virtually no incentive to be cautious with the players – after all, the clubs pick up the medical bill – then we get these incredibly foolish outcomes.

Some have called for compensation when players are injured on international duty, with national FA’s covering wages for the period of the layoff. That wouldn’t work, as the likes of the Togo FA simply wouldn’t be able to risk playing Adebayor given an injury to him would bankrupt them, but some reform is clearly needed. Players’ fitness should be assessed by an independent medical professional who passes them fit to play or not, removing accusations of bias. Should a national manager force a player who has been declared injured to play, a system of compensation should be invoked here, perhaps financial penalties alongside the player being compulsorily exempted from national team duty for a number of games. Players will always want to represent their countries, but managers must not be allowed to abuse that, so there have to be checks and balances in place. Fat chance of getting that from FIFA, though.

Turning back to the match at hand then, both Van Persie and Vermaelen are doubts for the game and the absence of either of them would be a loss heading into this game. The ever-improving Tomas Rosicky is expected to be fit to play despite a groin problem, though Ramsey has been ruled out.  Abou Diaby is however back involved, while the good news is that Andre Santos is only two weeks away from rejoining the squad in training.

Given neither of Robin or Vermaelen have been definitively ruled out, they could hopefully still be available. I’ll assume they are in the team sheet below, but indicate in brackets the probable replacement should either be ruled out.

Szcznesy

Sagna Koscielny Vermaelen (Djourou) Gibbs

Song Arteta

Rosicky

Walcott Van Persie (Chamakh) Chamberlain

With fingers crossed for good news on our two injury doubts, we have a cracking side for the game. Szcznesy keeps his place in goal, the defence looks solid and balanced with a pair of fullbacks for a change and a tidy partnership at centreback. Further forward the midfield unit is the same that impressed versus Tottenham, with pace down the flanks from our two Englishmen and the effervescent Van Persie completing the attack.

I can’t see much threat from this Liverpool side, but respect is due given that we are playing at Anfield. Their defence is solid, but they lack creativity in the middle of the park and haven’t got a holding midfielder to speak of which makes me think that we should boss possession relatively comfortably.

Luis Suarez dropping deep will be key for them, the Uruguayan’s goal scoring record isn’t much to write home about but he is certainly a creative talent. Our defence are all fairly comfortable on the ball, so we’ll probably look to play a high defensive line and squeeze the space in between midfield and attack that Suarez likes to play. Song will be happy to pick him up in that area also though we’ll need to be cautious that the midfield doesn’t over commit in attack. A high defensive line will have the added bonus of keeping the aerial threat of Carroll far away from our goal.

Perhaps in anticipation of our high defensive line, Dalglish may play Bellamy as the advanced forward in an attempt to utilise the Welshman’s pace in behind our defence. Such a strategy would be effective, and if I was the Liverpool manager that would be how I would look to exploit this Arsenal side, tactically. The temptation however will be to play the big man given Arsenal’s apparent weakness from set plays.

With the likes of Downing and Kuyt on the wings however I can’t see Liverpool getting many dangerous crosses in the box: Sagna will have Downing in his pocket all game, while Gibbs will only suffer in an aerial contest versus Kuyt. Liverpool often played Kuyt up against Clichy to win the aerial clearances, so expect the Dutchman on the right flank.

The big strength of this Liverpool side is the defence, and they have the second best defensive record in the league this season. With Agger injured, Carragher will probably come in at centreback, which could be crucial for us. With Arsenal surely going to dominate possession, Carragher’s inclusion will likely exacerbate this trend given his penchant for English hoofed clearances. In addition, neither of Carragher or Skrtel will be comfortable stepping out of defence to track Van Persie when the Dutchman drops deep, and with Liverpool’s aforementioned lack of a holding midfielder, our best player could well find himself with plenty of room to pick his passes and hurt Liverpool.

Should Liverpool seek to play higher up the pitch looking for the win, the space in behind the defence and particularly the fullback will be rich pickings for the pace of Walcott and Chamberlain. While Enrique is a capable full back, Chamberlain could get change out of Johnson when we are on the attack, though the defensive abilities of Alex will be tested with Johnson eager to get forward himself and highly capable when doing so.

On the whole I’m relatively confident for this game. Should Vermaelen and Van Persie be fit I think we’ll see the Dutchman relatively free to pull the strings, while the threat of Suarez and Carroll is likely to be nullified by Song and the centrebacks respectively. Liverpool’s main source of strength will be a solid defence, but if they come forward looking for a winner we could nick one on the break.

2-0 to the Arsenal for me, 1-1 if Robin isn’t fit to play.

35 comments to Liverpool and Arsenal preview and tactical analysis plus musings on international football.

  • Stevie E

    Cracking review Phil, your preview of games puts all the pro journo’s to shame.

  • JK

    ==Formation and style==

    In terms of formation Arsenal are using one formation for few years now – the 4-2-3-1. But in difference to the last couple of seasons, this season there is a tactical difference – the team is still possession-oriented, but with much more onus on the flanks to provide additional attacking angles and penetration. As a result the team is attacking more down the flanks (31% down the left, 36% down the right and only 33% through the centre). Such as tactical change is a direct result of the fact that both Nasri and Fabregas were sold and replaced with Arteta and Gervinho. In the last couple of seasons it was Fabregas who played in the hole, and as much he was the team’s main playmaker, he was the additional central attacking player who directly supported van Persie (or the whoever was the lone striker) with Nasri coming inside to provide both playmaking skills but also a direct attacking presence too.

    Now with Arteta sitting deeper and mainly controlling the tempo (something he is doing unrealistically well – 90,7% success rate and 44 created chances), Gervinho keeping a much wider role than Nasri and Ramsey or Rosicky (both natural ball-playing and not natural attacking players) playing behind van Persie in the hole, the team’s focus was changed towards more wider penetration down the wings with both Gervinho and Wallcott providing the threat on the break or in behind.

    ==Key strengths==

    The team is more or less build to try and take advantage on the break down the flanks. The team is most dangerous if the opposition is leaving huge space in behind and is tactically naïve to try and push the fullbacks forward (Arsenal scores five goals both vs Chelsea and recently vs Tottenham due to this very reason), as a result leaving acres of space for Arsenal’s wingers to move into the channels and receive the through balls that both the midfielders and van Persie will try to feed them with.

    The other common team’s attacking strategy (when the team is not countering) is to use the midfield triangle to recycle the ball in deeper position, trying to move up field as a unit and then use the van Persie’s dropping deeper or move wider to open space for the wingers to cut inside and take advantage of the vacated space.

    In terms of personal the team is build around three players – Arteta and his deep-lying controlling presence, van Persie’s hugely intelligent and effective movement off the ball (creating for others but also for himself – he is having 23 goals and 8 assits) and Wallcott’s wider presence on the right who is initially stretching the opposition, as a result freeing space for both van Persie to roam even more or the left winger to cut inside (he is the team’s second best assister with 7 and third chance creator with 33) in the first phase of the overall build-up play but then is acting as the wide-forward who will sneak past his direct opposition to receive the ball in the danger area in the box (being the team’s second best goal scorer with 5 goals).

    ==Key weaknesses==

    The team is hugely shaky in terms of defensive behavior. As much this is a result given the players personal problems – constant injuries, lapses of concentration, lack of proper team ethic in terms of cover for each other etc. – as much this is due to the risky overall team strategy. With the fullbacks both constantly pushing forward and with the team playing in a 2-1 triangle (as a result without recodnized holding midfielder; even Song – the team most defensive-oriented central midfielder – is not pure defensive midfielder and is often caught at the tip of the triangle trying to create for his team’s team moves rather staying deeper waiting to destroy the opposition’s attacks), the central defenders are often hugely unprotected and caught in the need to cover both the wider areas and their own central zones. Putted under constant pressure it’s a well known fact that sooner or later they will succumb and will make a costly defensive error. As a result the team is vulnerable as much through the centre and between the lines as down the flanks targeting the space behind the pushing fullbacks.

    In terms of attacking behavior the team is hugely uncomfortable when the opposition is sitting deep, limiting the space in behind for the wingers to try and cut inside off the ball through the channels. As a result van Persie starts to drop even deeper, effectively leaving the team hugely strikerless and without recodnized attacking presence. Even with the midfield triangle all capable of recycling the ball and delivering that killer pass, with such as suffocated space none of them is capable of providing that something different to open up packed defences. As a result the fullbacks are becoming even more active in terms of moving forward, something that makes the team even more vulnerable against quick breaks.

    As much Gervinho and Wallcott are having the pace to get in behind, as much they are more often than not wasteful when it comes to try and beat their man with the ball at their feet with 36 and 76 losses of possession respectively. With so many passers and non-dribblers, it’s logical that the team found it extremely hard to break such as disciplined and tactically intelligent teams, both at the Emirates and away from home (the recent matches vs Swansea and Fulham springs in mind).

    ==How to beat them==

    Arsenal’s starting XI is easily to foreseen, given their injuries. With both Vermalen and Rosicky doubtful (and given their injury proneness it’s safer to conclude they will sit out the game, or if play not fully fit and as a result not playing up to their best) it’s Djourou who will partner Koscielny. In the midfield, if Rosicky misses the game, it’ll be Benayoun who will be in the hole with most probably Gervinho down the left. The rest will be as expected.

    With Agger definitely missing the game, it’ll be Carragher who will play alongside Skrtel. Let’s assume that both Johnson and Gerrard will miss the game too. For the first time in a very long time, missing Agger, Johnson and Gerrard in theory is not bringing huge tactical concerns (if we put aside the other boosts that these three players are capable of providing).

    Given the Arsenal’s wide threats it’s tactically savvy to expect that Liverpool will sit reasonably deeper in defence, something will suit Carragher perfectly. With van Persie often seeking to drop deeper and that nominally Arsenal will have one player there, it’s imperative Liverpool to start with a three man midfield too, but in a 1-2 shape. Logically this means that Spearing have to start. On the other side with Kelly playing on the right this will further more increase Liverpool’s defensive stability on the flanks, with Enrique solid enough on the left (even considering his recent decrease in form).

    Through the centre Gerrard’s potential miss will open up a space for Henderson alongside Adam. In this match for Liverpool will be as much imperative to be discipline and solid at the back as much will be key the team to be able to recycle well the ball once they regained it. If not the team will simply gift the ball back to Arsenal who will start to recycle once again and use their ball-players to force Liverpool to chase them down and eventually become tired. With Spearing anchoring the midfield, Henderson will focus mainly on providing that calm recycling presence through the middle, that will eventually free Adam to be penetrative once the team reach the final third or if there is good option to feed the front trio with an early diagonal pass. And as I already expressed an opinion yesterday, from pure tactical point of view, in the current moment I’m more than comfortable expecting Adam to provide some moment of magic rather waiting Gerrard to do all the tactical things himself (collecting the ball from deep, recycling it and providing the penetrative element).

    Upfront, the front trio will have dual responsibilities. First, they need to be able to provide the tracking back process, with the aim to cover Arsenal’s fullbacks in defence. If not Arsenal will simply overload the flanks and in theory will have greater chance to find a gap in Liverpool’s defence. Then the wingers should both participate in the building-up process and be able to provide the mobile and attacking presence to target Arsenal’s biggest weaknesses in defence. All for all, Bellamy (on the left) and Kuyt (on the right) perfectly fits this profile. With Suarez spearheading the team’s attacks, Liverpool will have enough hard-working players in defence, but players who are all capable to play between the lines and through the channels.

    It’ll be imperative for Liverpool to keep it tight and disciplined in defence and through the centre, leaving the back five (the back four+Spearing) in defensive positions, with the central midfielders relatively deeper to ensure a gaps will not be open through the centre. With the front trio all capable of creating for themselves, but also providing the cover in defence, the team will surely have it’s chance to try and provide Arsenal enough attacking threat. Arsenal are overly one-dimensional team in terms of how they are approaching the games. So it’s sure they will not sit deeper and try to counter (even when they traveled to Milan for the CL, before the match Wenger assured the media he will try to dominate the possession), instead of this they will try to dominate the possession and pass their way into Liverpool’s third. All of this, couple with the specific Arsenal’s weaknesses, is the perfect tactical context that Liverpool could relish playing with the supposed front trio on the break. With Arsenal not having clear tactical idea and cohesion whether they are pressing on standing-off when out of possession, in such as chaotic moments Bellamy and Suarez’s mobility and trickery, coupled with the Kuyt’s intelligence surely will cause them enough problems sooner or later.

  • K

    Van p picked up his 5th yellow against the scum last weekend, surely he is suspended??? Has noone noticed this?

  • DC

    Another nice review Phil! Good stuff!
    Here’s hoping for a smooth 3 points and continuation of the intensity from the St Totteringham’s Day Romp!
    I’d prefer the same side that started the Spuds match (assuming that everyone’s fit and not fatigued from the utterly irrelevant international matches and travel at this time of the season)! Therefore, Yossi on the left to help Kieran out and the same trio in midfield!
    Liverpool will miss Agger significantly and Gerrard is a doubt with his groin. Either way, the game will be won and lost in the midfield as it was against the Spuds! If Djourou plays, i’m sure that Suarez will try to front up against him more than Kos and that could create problems – Song and Arteta will have to be very aware of this and if they play like they did against the Spuds, the midfield and protection in front of the central defenders will be ok.
    Here’s to a happy trip back from Merseyside! Come on you Gunners!

  • DC

    Prediction: 4 – 2 to the Gunners if the boys take their chances as they did against the Spuds!

  • tristan

    If RVP is out (god forbid), how about gerv, theo, ox up front? Walcott wants to be central, and hows that for pace? Couldn’t be too much worse than chamakh lately.

  • Tasos

    Impressive analysis Phil.

    With both Rosicky and Vermaelen facing late fitness tests and Diaby declared fit and ready, it wouldn’t surprise Me if the Manager put Diaby straight into the team tomorrow. Hopefully he is now over his continuous injury problems because I think he still has plenty to offer the team, plus his height can help our defence cope with the aerial threat from Carroll on set pieces.

    Liverpool haven’t let in many goals this season, mainly due to their defensive partnership of Skirtel and the now injured Agger. With the ageing Carragher replacing Agger and Arsenal’s confidence now restored, I fancy we can inflict Liverpool’s first home defeat of the campaign, with the pacey Theo Walcott adding to his brace from last week.

  • DC

    @K,
    RVP is not suspended; after New Year, there is an amnesty at 5 bookings. He’ll be suspended, as will Kos who is on 7, if he reaches 10 yellows before the middle of April! Any players not playing will be due to fitness issues or team-selection!

  • bc

    Why cant we just shorten the.football season and play all international matches at the end of the season if u take out the international breaks i think the.season could start in spetmeber and end in april or alternatively start in march and end in october. no winter football other than internationals. aplogies for spelling mistakes – big fingers small keyboard

  • elkieno

    Comon you Arsenal, qualify our win over the spuds with a win over liverpool, they really aren’t better than us on our day….
    I will be watching and cheering the Arsenal on to victory…. Oh no I did t pay the bill on time and it’s been d/c!!!
    damn!!!

  • phil only d 90mint on d football pitch wil tell o. U are jst bn sentimental cos u are an arsenal fan ookk

  • DC

    @JK,
    All that you’ve said depends on 2 things:
    1. Who scores the first goal;
    2. Arsenal’s ball retention and use of the ball when in possession in the final 3rd. Enrique and Johnson are not great defensive fullbacks and they will invariably need deep cover from their wingers who will be running towards their own goal as much as towards ours!

    Like I’ve said, the intelligence of the our short passing game, and the movement and runners from the midfield beyond RVP, will keep Liverpool very honest. Spearing could get over-run in midfield as Parker was last weekend if! Liverpool will use the long-ball as much as possible to bypass the midfield but whether Carroll has the quality to hold the ball is still very much in doubt! I don’t see us keeping a clean sheet, especially from a set-play, but I certainly see us scoring more than Liverpool who are not as potent an attacking force as the Spuds or Chel$ki!

  • ak47

    nice. indeed chamack filling in for robber doesnt fill me with confidence, though ability wise he is capable of having a cracker. same with the dj verm situation. this unfriendly was so unimportant i went to the gym instead and i havent got sky sports.

    if we play like we did against the 5pur2 should be in the bag really.
    question is how will the mental strength cope with knowing they could do to pool what the s-word failed to do to us.

    spoke to pool friend before we done the tiny tots in and he was a bit overwhelming with the negativity towards us in a mocking tone, just hope when i see him again in a few weeks i can say……..we’re doin ok now aint we. with a wry smile.

  • nicky

    @ Phil. Very surprised over your omission of Gervinho in your suggested line-up.
    @Tasos. Agree entirely with your remarks about Diaby, who many of us rate very highly. He could well be a regular match winner if only he can keep fit. 😆

  • DC

    @Nicky,
    Gervinho is still exhausted from the ANC and he has just returned from the midweek internationals! He is unlikely to start!
    Wrt Diaby, it is indeed good to have a true attacking midfielder like him back in the squad but he has just come back from injury so again, a starting berth is unlikely due to match fitness at this stage of the season.
    I foresee both coming on in the final quarter of the match if all things go as planned!

  • nicky

    @DC,
    Thanks for that. I’d forgotten about the ANC.
    Also, how many knew about the New Year amnesty on bookings? We learn something new every day! 😥

  • JK

    Carrol wont start by the way, it will be this formation.

    =========Reina
    Kelly-Carra-Agger-Enrique
    ========Spearing
    ——-Hendo-Adam
    ====Kuyt=Suarez=Bellamy

    Liverpool will sit deep and hit Arsenal on the counter when your full backs and Song are out of postion.

    The movement of Liverpool’s front 3 in is not as individually as good a RVP but as a unit it is strong and will cause problems.

  • Tasos

    @JK

    Insightful post.

    A question for you. How much energy did Liverpool expended during last weeks extra-time and penalty cup win at Wembley, both physically and emotionally?

    And do you believe, as I do, fatigue will eventually have an effect on Liverpool’s performance, especially if Arsenal dominate possession, forcing the home team to chase hard for 90mins.

  • Tasos

    “expend”

  • Gord

    Apparently Song may not be fit to start. That from Arsenal.com, not a blog or newspaper (article about Diaby).

    http://www.arsenal.com/news/news-archive/wenger-i-knew-diaby-would-come-back

  • Sammy The Snake

    Gordon, that link has nothing to do with Song!

  • Arvind

    It does Saammy…check out the last line : )

  • Can I reiterate the way the quality of the Untold pre-match reviews is growing. Trouble is Phil by next season you’ll be having to write a whole book on each match, just to keep up.

    Oh and don’t forget the promised part two of your new economic series.

    Today I really hope Rosicky can play – if he can, and if he can reproduce the form of last Sunday we will be flying.

  • Cheers guys, too kind.

    Tony – I haven’t forgotten, last week was just a bit hectic and suffered from the loss of a day due to the aftermath of my football team’s social! Part 2 coming up in the week.

  • Ruaridh

    complete dive!

  • Damien Luu

    Hahaha, f*cking yeah! You can dive, you can knock Mikel out, but you can’t beat Arsenal. “RVP, he scores when he wants!” hahaha

    Great work you Gunners!

  • Gooner Gal

    What a game!!! Arsenal remain the most exciting team in the league.

    We are doing it against the odds.

  • Gooner Gal

    I am trying to decide who is my MoTM, I might give it to Chesney because he brought his ‘A’ game today.

    Suarez is so dirty, he sullies the whole of Liverpool.

    RVP – I am struggling to think of appropriate superlatives for the Arsenal centurion.

    I have said it before, this squad have fight and character. This is not the worst team we have ever had, just the worst start to the season. There is a difference. Anyway it is not how you start, it’s how you finish!

    We have to keep this up.

  • Gooner Gal

    P.S, nice write up Phil.

  • Judging from the BBC that was tighter than I expected. I couldn’t watch the game as my saturday team kick off at 2pm (10-0 win today, if you were wondering!)

  • WalterBroeckx

    Phil, the next Arsène Wenger 😉

  • Gooner Gal

    I’ve just watched MoTD and I can’t believe that a key incident in the game was not shown! Arteta went to hospital after a challenge on him during the game and the studio numbnuts are doing a red top speculation special! The flag ship sports show for the beeb has really fallen in standards. I had hoped they would show what happened to Arteta as it all happened so fast. What are the two Alan’s on the show for? If we are talking about contracts and wages, I think we should start with their ones! The sullen Hansen going on about a Liverpool loss is not a rarity in it’s self, nor is Alan Shearer making simple observations so it’s all a bit of a joke.

    —–Rant Over——–

  • Damien Luu

    @Gooner Gal: Mikel collided with Henderson around the edge of our area (if my memory serves correctly), and I think that was an elbow into his face by Hendersonofab*tch. This opinion was shared by my match commentator (this time he was not a totally dumb*ss like usual).

  • Damien Luu

    Oh, and when the incident happened, the ball has been kicked to Pool’s side of the field.

  • Gord

    I don’t know if we are going to get a guess at a formation for Tuesday’s CL game. But, somebody who might know a bit more about the lineup has an article out:

    http://www.arsenal.com/news/news-archive/wenger-i-m-tempted-to-change-formation

    > “I am tempted,” said the Frenchman. “At the moment, basically I have only two midfielders, [Alex] Song and [Tomas] Rosicky. That means we have to play with four strikers.

    > “We can play any system you can imagine until tomorrow night. But I will not tell you that now.

    > “I am tempted [to play Oxlade-Chamberlain down the middle], we will see. I have 24 hours and I have to see if Rosicky is available or not. If he is not available then I will be in a very difficult situation, because I don’t know what I can do then.

    > “I hope he will make it. He told me yesterday [Sunday] that he will. But the medical staff are not sure.

    > “I can play six strikers if I want, I have enough. I have Chamakh, Park, Van Persie, Gervinho, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain. I can take a risk, because I have no choice, basically.”

    I am going to guess a 4-2-4 based on the above. If nothing else Song will be there is help the back 4, and Rosicky can take a look to see what part of the Milan defence to next have a go at.