Unai Emery went to Anfield with a counter attacking plan, but his speedy strike force got zero service.
Did Arsenal miss a trick at Anfield last Saturday? Their plan was clear enough: cede possession and sit deep; cede territory down the flanks and play narrow; play two speedy forwards upfront and counter attack.
It almost worked too. At least for most of a first half in which they could well have taken the lead. Nicolas Pépé came closest, ultimately fluffing his lines after running clean through, and Pierre Aubameyang scooped a lob just wide earlier on.
Here’s the thing though: neither of those chances came from an Arsenal counter-attack. Aubameyang’s chance came from Adrian’s misjudged clearance and Pepe took advantage of a slip by Jordan Henderson. It’s as though they forgot about the third plank of that game plan. Where was the counter attack? Where were the long passes for the forwards to chase?
Not once did we see a long pass from deep to try to catch out Liverpool’s aggressive high press. Jurgen Klopp must have been surprised too. It’s a tactic he certainly anticipated as he told LFCTV before kick-off: “They have Pepe and Aubameyang with absolute 100% speed…so they will pass, they will play long, in behind….it will be a challenge”.
And the fact that Unai Emery had David Luiz in his team makes it even more baffling. The Brazilian may not be the epitome of defensive consistency – as he showed again at Anfield – but his long range passing remains one of the best in the Premier League. When Liverpool played Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season, the same David Luiz twice played passes from deep over the top and only the brilliance of Alisson denied Chelsea from two good scoring opportunities.
It’s not an unusual tactic to deploy against a high press. Jose Mourinho’s Man United deployed the same tactic, with some success, against Liverpool last year, when Marcus Rashford scored twice from long balls in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
Heck, Leicester City played their way to the unlikeliest of Premier League titles largely on the back of this long pass-based counter attacking style. Who could forget Drinkwater – Vardy – Goal?
Liverpool themselves gave a little example of the kind of long passing transition play that was so lacking in Arsenal’s game when Fabinho, reacting to Arsenal’s attempt to press, fed Salah from deep and the Egyptian sped past Luiz to make it 3-0.
We didn’t see that from the Gunners on Saturday. Aubameyang and Pepe hardly had cause to chase after an interesting long pass all evening as Arsenal sat back, soaked up pressure and seemed determined to pass their way out from the back.
It was a risky ploy that almost led to a Dani Ceballos-assisted goal for Sadio Mane, but, more to the point, it meant their attacks took that much longer to develop. What’s the point of a counter attack when it takes so many passes in your own defensive third to develop the play? If the surprise element is gone and the chance to catch your opponents in disarray is no more, is that still a counter attack?
To be fair, they did look to feed through passes behind Liverpool’s high defensive line, but only from the halfway line on the few occasions they managed to wriggle free of the Reds cloying press. Liverpool were ready for those though, Virgil Van Dijk and Joël Matip easily intervening to ward off danger.
There’s nothing wrong with playing out from the back of course, and perhaps Liverpool’s pressing simply left Arsenal with little time and space to find that telling long pass.
But, either way, the lack of the long pass just seemed at odds with an overall strategy built on counter-attacking speed.