Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arsenal 2-2 Liverpool: Rodgers scraps possession philosophy for counterattacking approach

Brendan Rodgers adopted an uncharacteristic counterattacking approach in an intriguing 2-2 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates. Liverpool finished the game with just 38% possession, by far their lowest total in a league game under Rodgers, and only the fourth time they've been out-possessed this season. The strategy looked as though it had worked perfectly when Jordan Henderson put the Reds 2-0 ahead in the 60th minute but Arsenal began exploiting pockets of space either side of Lucas Leiva who was sitting just in front of the Liverpool back four. Both the Gunner's goals resulted from collecting the ball in the area between Lucas, left back Glenn Johnson and center back Daniel Agger.

With the exception of Pepe Reina replacing Brad Jones in goal, Liverpool fielded the same side that defeated Norwich 5-0 in their last league outing.

Arsenal made no changes to the side that beat West Ham 5-1 a week ago.

The theme of the game was established early and didn't change throughout the 90 minutes- Arsenal pressed high up the pitch and looked to regain possession quickly, Liverpool sat deep, soaked up pressure and looked to play on the break.

Defensively, Liverpool used a 4-1-4-1 formation. Henderson and Steven Gerrard pressured Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in possession while Lucas sat just in front of the back tracking the movement of Santi Cazorla. The strategy was to not allow Ramsey and Wilshere to get goal side of Gerrard and Henderson where Lucas would be forced to leave Cazorla and step to ball. Downing and Suarez tracked the forward runs of Gibbs and Sagna.

Offensively, Liverpool looked to counter through Suarez and Downing breaking in behind Arsenal's outside backs and through Henderson darting into space behind Wilshere and Ramsey and in front of the Arsenal center backs. Effectively, what was 4-1-4-1 in defense became 4-2-3-1 when Liverpool were in possession with Lucas and Gerrard rarely joining forward. The player influence graphic below shows Lucas's and Gerrard's average positions were actually as deep as Agger's over the 90 minutes.

When Liverpool found an outlet ball to Suarez, Henderson or Downing, they'd look to play the ball through to Sturridge behind the Arsenal center backs. Suarez's opener was more a result of a comedy of defensive errors from Arsenal than anything tactical but Liverpool did create some very good scoring chances off of counterattacks. Shortly after taking the lead Downing released Suarez in behind Sagna down the left flank after Liverpool had regained possession. Suarez chested and played a wonderful volleyed through ball behind the defense to Sturridge but he put his effort wide. Later in the half Downing broke into the middle of the pitch on the counter and played Henderson in behind the defense towards the edge of the box. Henderson chipped over after Szczesny left his line but the move highlighted Liverpool's effectiveness on the break.

Second Half
The second half continued in much the same way as the first. Arsenal continued to boss possession in midfield but they increased their tempo in possession and become more vertical with their passing. Liverpool were clearly straining a little more defensively early in the half as Arsenal combined with more passing combinations higher up the field. A main contributing factor to Arsenal's increased threat in the attacking half was that they began to exploit the space either side of Lucas between Liverpool's defensive and midfield banks of four. Cazorla drifted from the middle into these areas and was then able to look for gaps between the center back and fullback to slip balls through. On the right, Walcott tucked inside, leaving Lucas and Johnson to communicate whether Johnson would track him inside or Lucas would shift over. Arsenal were beginning to find pockets of space between the lines they hadn't in the first half. With the Gunners seemingly on the ascendency, Henderson's goal on the hour mark from more blundering Arsenal defending came as a bit of surprise. Mertesacker and Andre Santos, brought on to replace the injured Gibbs in the first half, were the main culprits this time as both allowed the Liverpool midfielder to beat them too easily.

However, Arsenal's response was emphatic as they struck twice in three minutes to draw the score level. As they had begun to do early in the half, Arsenal exploited the space in front of Agger and Johnson and to the left of Lucas for both goals. For the first goal Walcott was able to cut in field from the right, forcing Lucas to slide over to provide help and commit a foul. Giroud scored from the resulting kick. On the second goal Cazorla drifted unmarked into this zone and was able to play a decisive ball for Giroud whose layoff Walcott finished in style. Jose Enrique was introduced on the left wing to provide added defensive cover there after the Gunners had equalized, with Suarez moving to forward and Sturridge coming off.

Arsenal's energetic second half pressing prevented Liverpool from finding the outlet passes to spring counters they had in the second half. 10 of Arsenal's 13 interceptions came in Liverpool's defensive half. Fatigue set in for Suarez, Henderson and Downing as the half wore on and they weren't able to break into space behind Arsenal's midfield as they had in the opening period.

It was surprising to see Rodgers take such a pragmatic approach and allow Arsenal to take the game to them. His likely reasoning however seems understandable- in Wilshere and Ramsey, Arsenal had two deeper lying midfielders that like to get into more advanced areas and aren't used to the responsibility of breaking up counterattacks. He thought he'd be able to exploit space in behind these two on the break and indeed he was right- had Sturridge's and Henderson's finishing been a bit more clinical in the first half, Liverpool may have put this one to bed. That they completed just 54 passes in the attacking third, by far their lowest total of the season, is evidence they were prepared to play the bulk of this game inside their own half. While Rodgers has been praised for his belief in his possession-based system, some have suggested he may be a bit tactically inflexible. Today showed he is at times willing to adjust his tactics.

The tempo of Arsenal's passing and movement was excellent in the second half. The second goal was wonderfully worked and they deserve a great deal of credit for showing the patience in their system to come back. An enjoyable game overall and probably a fair result in the end.

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