Arsenal vs Liverpool Preview: A Big Test For Emery

Introduction

Looking back on things I’ve wrote on here, I tend to only use data to look back and review what’s happened, rather than using it to either predict what will happen or try and see what a team should do. With this in mind, I thought it’d be fun to give a quick look ahead to Arsenal vs Liverpool.

The game is an interesting game for Arsenal and Unai Emery. They’ve already played Manchester City and Chelsea, but given these were his first two games in charge they felt like a bit of a free hit for him – even though it was also Maurizio Sarri’s second game in charge. Now, on the back of a good run of form, albeit a run of form that has seen them hugely outperform their underlying numbers, he welcomes Liverpool to the Emirates.

While improvement will still be needed to their xG numbers, a positive result against Liverpool feels as though it’d be a big step forward for Arsenal. The North London club have struggled against Liverpool in recent seasons, with no wins and 17 goals conceded in their last six meetings. With this in mind, I thought I’d look at just a couple of points that may be interesting on Saturday.

Should Liverpool Press?

Much has been made this season of Liverpool’s change in approach when it comes to pressing, with the team now sitting a bit deeper and picking their moments to press. An interesting question heading into the Arsenal game is whether or not Liverpool should bring back the heavy metal football due to Arsenal building from the back, or stick with their slightly more conservative approach.

After a quick look at where Arsenal lose the ball, it seems the latter option is better for Liverpool.

Despite the concerns with playing out from the back, 20.4% of Arsenal’s possession losses have been in their own third, which is almost smack on the league average of 20.7%.

There is a bit of a caveat in that this is where the loss originates, so more direct teams are likely to have more losses in their own third due to clearances/long-balls, but the opposition recovers the ball a decent distance away from goal. For Arsenal to not have great numbers but also rarely go long from the back is pretty worrying and something that could be capitalised on, but the more worrying numbers for Arsenal come in the middle third.

37.9% of Arsenal’s possession losses come in the middle third, the highest proportion in the league. It suggests Arsenal play the ball around the back okay, but struggle when it comes to progressing it and moving into attacking areas.

This plays perfectly into Liverpool’s hands as they’re the team with the 4th highest proportion of recoveries coming in the middle third this season. Liverpool can sit in more of a mid-block and let Arsenal pass the ball between their defenders, then pounce whenever they look to move the ball into the midfield.

Despite conceding three goals, they did this well at the Emirates back on the opening day of 2016/17. On that day Arsenal found it difficult to progress the ball while Liverpool made just 10% of their recoveries in the attacking third, which is lower than any teams average so far in 2018/19. Instead, Liverpool looked to win the ball in the midfield while also placing an emphasis on the wings.

Arsenal’s build-up is slightly different now, with the midfielders dropping slightly deeper, splitting and offering more support to the full-back in possession, but the opportunity for a similar approach is definitely there.

@ThatGooner wrote about Arsenal’s recent win over Leicester and noted that Arsenal’s build-up is incredibly predictable, describing it below.

The reason why Leicester, to an extent, copied Fulham’s approach is because Arsenal’s buildup patterns are so incredibly predictable. Nine times out of ten, the buildup patterns would be the exact same: the ball starts with Leno; it’s fed into one of the holding midfielders; they lay it off to Holding; he then plays into Lichtsteiner; the left-back plays back into Xhaka; he then plays a hopeful ball down the channel at full pelt, trying to find Iwobi.

If Arsenal start with this pattern again, Liverpool can quite happily sit in a mid-block and congest the midfield before pressing when the ball goes out wide to the full-back or for the pass down the line. If there’s no change in build-up play from Arsenal it feels as though they’re playing right into Liverpool’s hands.

How Should Arsenal Alter Their Build-Up?

After saying how Arsenal will be playing into Liverpool’s hands if they don’t change their build-up patterns, the next step is to try and look into just what Arsenal can do in order to progress the ball. A big part of this involves Mesut Ozil.

Ozil has been a lot less involved since Emery took over, which can be reflected in quite a few of his stats. The number of passes he makes has dropped from 70 p90 to 42.4 p90 while his number of received passes has dropped from 58.8 p90 to 32.9 p90.

Looking more at the build-up, Ozil was a big part in progressing Arsenal’s play last season, as he attempted 10.76 passes into the final third p90, the 18th most in the league. It’s pretty rare for an attacking midfielder to make so many passes into the final third, he seems to be the only player who lined up as a traditional #10 in the top 30 (Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Philippe Coutinho are the only others who’d be comparable). However this season has seen this part of his game drop right off, attempting just 4.68 passes into the final third p90.

This doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it may mean that Ozil can receive the ball more in attacking areas where he can then have more influence in the final third, but that doesn’t seem to be happening with both his xA and passes into the box p90 also down. If Arsenal wish to solve their problems at progressing through the midfield it feels as though getting Ozil more involved is a big part of that.

It’s something @ThatGooner also mentioned when looking at the Leicester game, having the two deeper midfielders split creates a space in the middle for Ozil to drop into and help progress the ball. Ozil can drop into little spaces and help in the build-up, while the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi can move into the space created by Ozil.

If Ozil isn’t given the freedom to drop then it feels as though Arsenal’s build-up will struggle, allowing Liverpool to restrict them to their own half and control the midfield, while it’ll be another game where Ozil has little involvement and feels underutilised.

Quick Points

Countering The Counter

Liverpool have had the most counter attacks per game this season, while Arsenal have conceded the 6th most with the 8th highest percentage leading to shots. It’ll be interesting to see how Arsenal go about trying to stop Liverpool’s counter, whether it’ll be a counter-pressing approach to try and cut them off at the source – but risk leaving more space in behind – or to be a bit more conservative, possibly having their full-backs be more defensive like Manchester City at Anfield.

Full-Backs

Liverpool’s full-backs seem an important part of their play, not only do they provide width but they also play a lot of progressive passes. Both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are among the top 15 progressive passers for both last season and the start of this season. Outside of James Milner, their midfielders tend to not be so good at progressing the ball, meaning these two could be key for Liverpool progressing the ball on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are going through a bit of a crisis at full-back. Hector Bellerin, Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal are all facing late fitness tests, meaning their fit options are likely to be 34-year-old Stephan Lichtsteiner or midfieler Granit Xhaka. With Liverpool likely to come up against either an aging, unfit or out of position full-back the wings seem to be a great chance for them to gain an advantage over Arsenal. If Liverpool can win the ball back wide, progress the ball with their full-backs and try to isolate the likes of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah or Xherdan Shaqiri against Arsenal’s full-backs they could find some joy.

Alexandre Lacazette and/or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Whether Arsenal go for a more positive approach against Liverpool, fielding both Lacazette and Aubameyang, is an interesting question. Furthermore, if they do go with just the one, which one should they go with?

Personally, I think Arsenal should go with just one, mostly to try and get more midfielders in the team to help with the build-up. Mkhitaryan was mentioned by @TheM_L_G as a player with good numbers for pressures and deep progressions this season, making him seem as though he should be valuable both in possession and in trying to restrict the influence of Robertson.

On the other flank it seems as though Iwobi would be more beneficial in the build-up and retaining possession than Aubameyang, leaving the choice to Aubameyang or Lacazette up front.

While I think Lacazette seems to offer more in his all-round play, Aubameyang’s running in behind feels as though it’ll be more useful to Arsenal on Saturday and help get the most of the three behind him. If Liverpool are to push their full-backs forward there should be opportunity for Aubameyang to run in behind and stretch the defence, which the likes of Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan thrive on.

It’s a tough decision and both have different qualities, but Aubameyang feels the better suited for this game.

Conclusion

It feels as though there’s more pressure on Emery than Klopp going into this game. If both sides play how they have been then it’s hard to imagine anything other than a Liverpool win, with their xG numbers being much more impressive and Arsenal’s weaknesses playing right into their strengths.

It seems it’s up to Arsenal and Emery to try and figure out how they’re going to look to progress the ball better and not get punished in transition, while Liverpool just have to keep doing what they’re doing.

With Emery now having long enough to start to get his methods across to the players and this being their first game against one of the top six since the first two, it feels as though if he can come out on top they’re in a good position to keep building. If not, combined with the poor underlying numbers, it’ll feel as though there hasn’t been much progress made at the Emirates.

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