Liverpool 4 -0 Arsenal: Why has Arsene Wenger made the same tactical mistakes again?
Even a week later, and it’s still difficult to remember a more disappointing Arsenal performance than Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing at Anfield.
Liverpool were favourites, granted, and Jurgen Klopp has an outstanding record against his title rivals, but Arsenal’s performance was so devoid of tactical nous in a game where they didn’t have a shot on target, that Arsene Wenger and his players deserve criticism.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that Wenger has changed his tactics in his shift to a 3-4-2-1, away from a standard 4-2-3-1 that he’s favoured for years. But ultimately, the formation of players isn’t all that influential in a side’s shape or style; it’s the application of a team’s players that is far more defining.
And this is the key; Wenger is still instructing his players, albeit under the guise of a different shape, to follow the same instructions that leads his teams to crushing defeats in important games.
Specifically, Sunday’s game bore an uncanny resemblance to the 2013/14 season, where Arsenal lost 6-3 at the Etihad, 5-1 at Anfield and 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. In all games, Arsenal faced teams who pressed at every opportunity, forced them into mistakes in defence, disrupted their passing rhythm, and subjected them to a public tormenting that became painful even for neutrals. All it’s taken is a fast start, and Wenger and his team have collapsed on the counter attack.
Tactically, there are two key areas where Wenger has repeated his mistakes.
The first is the oldest argument you can levy at a Wenger team; that of defending the ‘red zone’, and this was Jonathan Wilson’s fearful analysis prior to the Liverpool game. Wilson contended that Wenger has yet to truly replace Patrick Vieira in midfield, defining the red zone as the central area just outside the penalty area.
Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, the players responsible for guarding this area, both had poor games, with the latter not even watching for Liverpool’s all important first goal.
Xhaka seems to polarise fans, above all; the Swiss has an excellent left foot and boasted a commendable 90% passing accuracy and averaged 2.4 tackles a game last season. The problem is that he’s erratic in the tackle and easy to exploit, and against Liverpool, he didn’t actually manage a tackle. Xhaka has to be partnered with a defensively minded midfielder who is prepared to sit in order to limit his liabilities on the team.
Aaron Ramsey isn’t the player to achieve this in big games. The Welshman is a goalscoring midfielder, who performs a box to box role. Frequently, he would charge up the pitch to support attacks that never came; Klopp’s instructions to gegenpress (‘counter-press’) meant Xhaka was often isolated, with the ball never making it out of their half.
The solution to this is to play the ball long, to bypass the press by launching the ball high, and this might part explain why Wenger chose the height of Danny Welbeck (1.85m) over Alexandre Laczette (1.75m) up front, in an attempt to have an aerial outlet. (Clearly, as well, Wenger wants to continue to use Olivier Giroud as a super-sub).
Wenger’s second tactical error was his zealous use of his wingbacks, who should have been considerably more cautious against the devastating Sadio Mane, who thrived in the space behind on the flanks, a similar symptom exploited by teams in 13/14.
Wenger builds his teams on technical passing ability (hence his fondness for Xhaha), and works on the premise that his team can pass their way around an oncoming press. Liverpool’s press proved too robust, and wingbacks Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain were positionally stranded when Arsenal lost the ball in dangerous areas, a predicament punished impressively.
This is all compounded by the ongoing fragility of Wenger’s relationships with the fans, which is tensely palpable and near boiling point already.
Even as Arsenal collapsed, you could sense the twittersphere going into meltdown. Wenger’s Arsenal create more fan generated content than any other, and spark a huge reaction when games are on. This is all part of the Wenger package now; heavy amounts of criticism- above any other team, which is often taken onto the pitch with his players.
Wenger again finds himself in a difficult position. It is imperative that Arsenal win, and win quickly, to prevent the toxicity of the naysayers from overwhelming his reign.
After all, and oddly, there are some reasons to be optimistic. In the 2013/14 season where Arsenal were on the receiving end of those pummelling’s, they were also top of the league for 128 days. In a post title-winning-Leicester age, with Sanchez still at the club, anything might still be possible.