For the first time in about eight seasons, we seem to be in for a genuine three-horse title race heading into the second half of the semester.
The top two sides squared off at the Emirates Stadium this weekend in a pivotal clash for Arsenal, who could not afford to lose as they went into the match five points behind leaders Liverpool.
A thoroughly impressive performance earned the Gunners a 3-1 win, which puts them firmly in contention for the title as they are now just two points off the leaders.
Gabriel Jesus was unavailable for this fixture with a knee injury, but that might have proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Mikel Arteta opted to use Kai Havertz as the nominal striker in their usual 4-3-3 formation, although his role on the pitch was a little different.
Arsenal generally tend to move to a 3-2-5 structure in possession from this formation with Oleksandr Zinchenko inverting into midfield to form a double pivot alongside Declan Rice, while both number eight push forward and the wingers pull out wide to the touchlines. However, Arteta devised a new structure for this match.
Zinchenko stayed wide on the left, as Jorginho was included in the midfield to partner Rice in the double pivot.
Havertz dropped back on the left side and essentially mirrored what Martin Ødegaard does on the right. Both wingers stayed wide as usual, meaning Arsenal operated without a central striker. This is quite evident in their passmap from the game:
This proved to be a masterstroke, as Arsenal dominated the match almost from start to finish. Liverpool managed to muster one shot and target and only scored thanks to a terrible defensive mix-up which resulted in an own goal, but they were clearly the second-best side on the night. To understand why, we must take a detour through one of Liverpool’s biggest issues this season.
As we highlighted in our analysis of Jürgen Klopp’s departure, Liverpool’s squad building has been iffy of late.
They conducted a midfield renovation last summer but critically missed out on a proper number six to replace Fabinho. Alexis Mac Allister has deputised in that role this season.
He has done a pretty good job on the ball and has not looked much of a weak link defensively against most teams, but he is not in his best position when Liverpool drop into their 4-1-4-1 mid-block.
That is what Arsenal aimed to exploit by using Havertz to create a four-player box midfield. Liverpool’s two number eights were occupied with the Rice-Jorginho double pivot, so Ødegaard and Havertz created a numerical overload against Mac Allister between the lines.
This is what led to Arsenal’s opening goal in the 14th minute. The move started with Gabriel finding Havertz via Jorginho.
The German international was free because Mac Allister was caught between him and Ødegaard. He then laid the ball back to Gabriel as Liverpool’s lines started to get disarrayed, which is where Zinchenko came into the picture.
The Ukrainian international’s position wide on the left ensured he was always a free passing option, so Gabriel played the ball to him to drive the team forward. He was soon confronted by the Liverpool right-back, but their centre had gone all out of shape by then.
Havertz’s involvement attracted the attention of Mac Allister, who moved across to mark him. The ex-Bayer Leverkusen attacker then made a forward run to drag the Argentine midfielder away, leaving Ødegaard in acres of space between the lines.
The Norwegian international then had to make a simple pass by his standards to set Havertz off past a broken Liverpool defensive line, which had no reference to mark due to the lack of a fixed striker.
Just like that, Arsenal were through on goal.
Besides the impact on the scoreboard, this was a decisive tactical victory for the Gunners. It caused Liverpool to be far more considered in their pressing for the rest of the half and drop deeper, thereby ceding control of the match.
In most likelihood, Arsenal would comfortably have kept a clean sheet as they did not concede a single shot on target in the first half.
Of course, that freak own goal changed the complexion of the match as Liverpool came out stronger in the second half, but they eventually had a similar mishap of their own which restored order.
Arsenal’s victory was thoroughly deserved whichever way you look at it, as they were superior tactically and performed better on the pitch.
Title Race Implications
The result makes the title race closer as Arsenal have reduced the gap to top spot to just two points.
However, a little more digging reveals that this may be the trigger that sets off Man City’s new-year disappearance which has become typical in recent seasons.
City can leapfrog Liverpool and Arsenal to go first if they win their two games in hand. For a team that has won 10 out of 11 games, that is quite likely.
More importantly, both sides’ performance on the night highlighted they have not yet addressed the weaknesses that held them back in the first half of the season, so it is reasonable to assume that they will continue to stumble and stutter for the rest of the campaign.
Arsenal might have won convincingly on the balance of play, but they still struggled to do the most important job in football – put the ball in the back of the net.
Their lack of clinicality led to a potentially season-derailing three-match losing streak in December, and it was on full display here.
Havertz did not convert the one-on-one mentioned above, so Bukayo Saka needed to follow up to score, and Arsenal went on to miss three more big chances in the match.
A great bit of charity from Liverpool’s best defenders ultimately gave them the three points, but they could easily have been left ruing missed chances on another night.
Arteta deserves a lot of credit for his masterful use of Havertz as a false nine which won him the tactical battle, but it did not solve this issue.
Whether it is Havertz or Jesus, the Gunners do not have a clinical centre-forward and also lack an overly dangerous midfielder or winger when it comes to goal threat, so they will almost certainly go on to drop points due to poor finishing.
Liverpool were outplayed and tactically exposed. Their injury-enforced absences are worth noting, but they are not the solution to their midfield problems.
Klopp must also take some blame for not appropriately adapting to Arsenal’s tactical tweaks, so his men were almost doomed to fail on the night.
At Man City, Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Braut Haaland are back to fire their team to yet more trophies. If Pep Guardiola’s side could live with the top two without their star players, think of how much better they could get now.
It seems to be Man City’s title to lose.
Stats courtesy FotMob.
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