Both sides face questions over selection and system as two proactive managers contemplate the benefits of reactive football. Arsenal have traditionally been resolute in their commitment to Arsene Wenger’s football philosophy, but now must consider whether to sacrifice an advanced playmaker for more midfield security. Meanwhile Brendan Rodgers is still looking to integrate new signing Daniel Sturridge into his preferred 4-3-3 shape.
Arsenal: Proactive or Reactive?
The reverse of this fixture earlier in the season was a rare occasion when Wenger’s side have been willing to cede possession in order to exploit counter attacking opportunities. The game came after two consecutive 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke, both games Arsenal had dominated, and pundits were quick to suggest that Wenger’s side lacked the creativity or ruthlessness to breach packed defences. Arsenal responded by sitting far deeper away to Liverpool, encouraging their opponents high pressing before counter attacking with ruthless efficiency to record a comfortable 2-0 victory.
Traditionally Wenger has been one of the most proactive managers in Europe, always looking to dominate possession and impose Arsenal’s style regardless of the opposition. Yet here was an example of reactive Wenger, acknowledging an opponent’s weakness and adjusting accordingly. Rodgers has been willing to relax his football philosophy in recent months, and Liverpool are by no means as vehemently proactive themselves as they were at the start of the season. Playing away should also make them less committed to pressing than they would be at Anfield. Nevertheless, Wenger has used ‘Plan B’ to excellent effect already this season, and there may be a temptation to try it again.
Arsenal’s midfield triangle
Wenger has favoured a positive midfield triangle this season with Santi Cazorla as an advanced playmaker ahead of a midfield pairing, usually comprised of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. Wilshere is a multi-skilled player capable of helping Cazorla create as well as pressuring opponents. In his prime Arteta was a similar player, but this season has been tasked with a deeper role defending the space in front of the defence. Arteta has performed this role relatively well, but has been ruled out for the season, leaving a defensive void in the Arsenal midfield.
The natural replacement for Arteta is Francis Coquelin, but Wenger appears to lack faith in the young midfielder and has preferred partnering Wilshere with either Abou Diaby or Aaron Ramsey, both predominantly forward-thinking players. However away to Chelsea in a recent league match Wenger selected Coquelin to provide a defensive screen, but also moved Cazorla wide and pushed Wilshere into the advanced role to offer greater solidity. Arsenal’s performed poorly against Chelsea so there is little suggestion that this tactic proved successful, but it at least set a precedent regarding Wenger making adjustments against strong opposition. Whether he offers Liverpool the same respect is another matter entirely.
Liverpool’s midfield triangle
Liverpool’s natural midfield combination, and the shape adopted from Rodger’s Swansea side, includes a solitary holding player and two central midfielders tasked with pressing the opposition. In theory this negative triangle is the ideal arrangement to combat the positive triangle of Arsenal. Lucas is a natural holding midfielder capable of occupying the space inhabited by Cazorla.
However Rodgers has favoured a positive midfield triangle in recent months, with an advanced midfielder lining up ahead of Lucas and Steven Gerrard. This change has offered Liverpool a greater goal threat by giving the lone forward more support. In recent weeks it has also allowed Rodgers to incorporate Sturridge into the side whilst keeping Luis Suarez in a central position.
To do this against Arsenal will probably be deemed too much of a risk, as the added threat of Suarez between the lines would come at the cost of leaving Cazorla unmarked. More likely is for Lucas to return to a holding role, with Jordan Henderson or Joe Allen lining up alongside Gerrard to put pressure on Arsenal’s two deepest midfielders.
As mentioned above Suarez may be positioned centrally behind the forward, but the likelihood is he will start in the forward line, either as the central striker or as a wide forward. Wherever he plays Suarez will operate in the same way – pressurising defenders incessantly without the ball and finding space between the lines to run at defenders when in possession.
Suarez poses Arsenal a problem. Wenger has not played a defined holding midfielder this season, opting for a central pair behind an advanced playmaker. This pair is likely to be Wilshere and Ramsey, neither close to be a natural holding midfielder. Faced with a forward as quick and as clever as Suarez operating behind them will be a massive test of their defensive awareness.
Equally pertinent is the identity of Arsenal’s defence. Neither Kieran Gibbs nor Bakary Sagna are entirely comfortable in possession, and either could come under pressure from Suarez if fielded wide. Both full backs also attack with reckless abandon, and the movement of Suarez and Sturridge into wide areas could pose a threat on the counter attack.
If the Uruguayan plays as the central striker he would likely find himself up against Per Mertesacker, known to be slow on the turn, and Thomas Vermeulen, who can be guilty of stepping out of defence too readily. Wenger’s best option at centre back for Suarez, and for the equally mobile Sturridge, may be Laurent Koscielny in a covering role, although he hasn’t started either of Arsenal’s previous two league games.
Two managers committed to strongly held tactical preferences that is likely to result in a 4-2-1-3 vs a 4-1-2-3, meaning parity in midfield and a spare man for both defences. Both managers have options – Wenger could take a defensive approach by moving Cazorla from midfield, Rodgers could be aggressive and play Suarez in an advanced midfield role – but both are likely to stick to what they know. Arsenal’s forward three are a more cohesive unit than Liverpool’s and offer more options, but Suarez is a wildcard that will test Arsenal’s backline. Ultimately it is likely to come down to who can find space in midfield, and just like at Anfield earlier in the season chances may come from quick transitions rather than patient passing.