Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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One Change Alters Arsenal's Defensive Structure Against Liverpool

Arsenal were better structured to contain Liverpool last season, and their willingness to allow Zinchenko to mark Salah 1v1 cost them a goal. The threat of Szoboszlai in the right half-space may be the cause for this change.

Figure 1.1 - Trent Alexander-Arnold moves from right-back in-between Liverpool's center-backs.

This movement back from Trent Alexander-Arnold is nothing new. He did this last season against Arsenal and has frequently done this this season.

Figure 2.1 - Arsenal's shape against Liverpool last season on April 9, 2023. Trent Alexander-Arnold passes to Mohamed Salah and Gabriel comes out to challenge Salah.

Last season in April, Arsenal had a different game-plan to stop Salah. They used Gabriel exclusively to mark him. Whenever Salah received the ball, Gabriel was right there close behind him. That worked.

Figure 2.2 - Rotations of Liverpool last season.
Figure 2.3 - As Liverpool advance the ball forward, further movement. Note Jordan Henderson dropping back.

Liverpool were forced to focus more on the left-wing because Arsenal effectively halted any attack on the right-wing.

Salah was the out ball. There was no threat in the half-space from Jordan Henderson, so they could double team Salah without having to worry about runs behind once he received the ball.

Figure 3.1 - Illustration of Arsenal and Liverpool's shape when Liverpool is building up.

This season, Liverpool signed Dominik Szoboszlai. Kai Havertz was tasked with marking Szoboszlai. Szoboszlai poses more of a threat in the half-space than Jordan Henderson, so now Gabriel has to stay back.

This forced Arsenal into using Zinchenko to mark Salah one-v-one. That is a massive mismatch.

Figure 1.2 - Kai Havertz follows Dominik Szoboszlai. Trent Alexander-Arnold passes over the top to Mohamed Salah.
Figure 1.3 - Mohamed Salah receives the ball 1v1 Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Figure 1.4 - Mohamed Salah squares up Oleksandr Zinchenko 1v1.
Figure 1.5 - Mohamed Salah dribbles past Oleksandr Zinchenko, shoots, and scores.

With one change in the midfield, Liverpool:

  • Remove Kai Havertz, Arsenal’s best threat in the counter-press. He is forced to track Szoboszlai forward into unused space.
  • They create a mismatch, exposing Zinchenko to Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat, Salah.
  • Take Gabriel out of the equation. He is rendered useless marking no one, waiting for a run from Szoboszlai that never comes.
Figure 4.1 - Kai Havertz follows Dominik Szoboszlai forward while Trent Alexander-Arnold passes over the top to Mohamed Salah.
Figure 4.2 - Mohamed Salah receives the ball 1v1 up against Gabriel, with Oleksandr Zinchenko trailing behind.

And they kept taking advantage of the space behind Zinchenko, dragging Havertz forward with Szoboszlai. Creating large amounts of space between Arsenal’s back-line and second-line.

Match: Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal, December 23, 2023

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