Jürgen Klopp would have been relieved when the half-time whistle blew at the Emirates on Sunday afternoon. His team were thoroughly outplayed in the first half and should have been behind, if not for his back line’s heroics and Arsenal’s wastefulness. The Gunners outshot Liverpool 13 to two in the opening period and missed three big chances, according to SofaScore.
Klopp’s tactical set-up had not worked. With Mohamed Salah away to represent Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations, Harvey Elliott filled in on the right wing, with Cody Gakpo playing alongside him on the right of a midfield three. Alexis Mac Allister was back in the starting line-up as the Reds’ No. 6, with Wataru Endo also away on international duty. Liverpool aimed to play out from the back but were repeatedly caught in possession by Arsenal’s extremely well-drilled and ferocious press. With Trent Alexander-Arnold mostly operating in traditional right back zones, Mac Allister often cut a lonely figure in midfield, lacking passing options around him. The hosts profited off of Liverpool’s desire to play through them and should have scored off of one of their several high regains.
The obvious solution to Liverpool’s troubles seemed to be playing long balls in behind Arsenal more often, rather than trying to play through them. But when they did, it was largely fruitless, with an isolated Darwin Núñez having to play the unrewarding role of chasing hopeful hoofs against the solid duo of Gabriel and William Saliba. Elliott looked lost on the wing and could not play to his strengths; his lack of athleticism was exposed in a game state where Liverpool needed runners in the front line, rather than tidy technicians. Salah’s absence was felt. On the left, Luis Diaz struggled to make any impact. It was clear that a change was needed.
Klopp’s shrewd half-time adjustments changed the complexion of the match. In terms of personnel, Liverpool remained unchanged to start the second half, but their set-up was entirely different. Gakpo moved into the centre forward position, with Núñez shifting to the left and Diaz to the right of the front three. Elliott played in a deeper midfield role, and Alexander-Arnold inverted into midfield more often, giving Mac Allister an extra body to play off of, and aiding Liverpool’s ability to progress the ball in central areas.
The re-shuffled front line, which now had Liverpool’s most athletic forwards on the wings, allowed them to play long and over Arsenal’s press more often. The Gunners’ outstanding high press was effectively nullified by the visitors’ ability to play long diagonals into the channels in behind the hosts’ full backs. And in these situations, Núñez and Diaz had favourable physical match-ups to exploit against the less athletic Benjamin White and Jakub Kiwior. Alexander-Arnold, in particular, was exceptional in using the angles available to him in the middle of the park to find his wingers in dangerous areas.
Arsenal now had to play with far more respect, which allowed Liverpool to gain a foothold in the match and create far more threat than they ever posed in the first period. Beyond that, Klopp’s substitutes were clever and well-timed. Both Ryan Gravenberch and Diogo Jota played significant roles in the victory, with the former winning the free-kick that led to the first goal, and the latter setting up Diaz’s dagger in stoppage time. In the second half, the visitors outshot Arsenal ten to five.
No Virgil van Dijk, no Mohamed Salah, but no problem for Liverpool and Klopp, whose in-game tactical changes were crucial in enabling his team to advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup. The Reds’ manager continues to squeeze the most out of his team, which still has four competitions to play for. For the second time in three years, Liverpool can quietly dream of a quadruple.
Get Football | John Horstmann