Anfielder VI: The Outclassening

I think it’s safe to say that the Gunners really don’t like coming to the red part of Merseyside these days. Since a 3-3 draw in Jürgen Klopp’s first season, every match against Arsenal has been some level of beatdown. In this particular match, Caley Graphics’ commentary for the xG diagram below was “oh. oh dear. oh my.” and an assertion that sometimes the “That’s a paddlin’.” catchphrase isn’t sufficient to really convey the comprehensive abuse that had taken place. Just to join the chorus, among other film titles considered for this piece was “Return of the 4rsenal”, but that seemed too easy and also doesn’t really measure the magnitude of what Michigan fans I know used to refer to as an FBD. Due credit to Arsenal in the first half hour as, despite clearly packing it in and playing on the counter, they didn’t leave their forwards entirely dawdling around waiting for a feed from Aaron Ramsdale. They did try to contest the middle third to some degree. But once Jürgen and Mikel Arteta almost had a throwdown on the touchline over Sadio Mané’s response to the Gooners trying to get under his skin (it was kinda working), the proverbial switch was flipped. The players got charged up, the crowd got behind them, and Liverpool began to operate in a manner befitting the large gap in talent and experience that exists between the two sides. After a perfectly-placed Trent Alexander-Arnold cross onto Sadio’s head for the opener, Diogo Jota took advantage of an assist from Nuno Tavares for the second and the rout was on. From that point forward, every time Arsenal tried to move the ball forward, Liverpool retrieved it and cut through them like a training exercise. (“For this game, you get to be the cones! Exciting!”)

A 4-0 scoreline is usually indicative enough of a rout, but it’s occasionally other numbers that tell the tale just as well, like 19-5 for shots in favor of LFC or 6-1 in corners or 16-5 in chances created or 5-0 in big chances created or 2-8 in offside calls that showed that Arsenal not only was playing on the counter but figured out quickly that the only way to do that with any chance was to play long balls from Ramsdale to someone who was hopefully, but not usually, onside. As Lee Dixon pointed out during the broadcast, this was Liverpool at their best and Arsenal- Arsenal! -just wasn’t in the same class. Granted, we’ve seen that kind of comparison made at Old Trafford this season, as well, so there’s clearly a chasm between the top 3 and everyone else, but for the Gunners it manifests most sharply when they come to Anfield. Credit where it’s due, Arsenal do have the youngest squad in the PL and have made multiple buys in recent windows, which means that that group has largely been playing together for only a year or two. But this was a perfect example of why Liverpool haven’t needed to spend in those same windows and the benefit of having a squad that’s been playing the same system with each other for a few years now. The ease with which most of the goals were scored just underline what an experienced outfit looks like against an inexperienced one. Consistency and rhythm are two of the things that Jürgen has regularly emphasized and it’s shown in sequel after sequel for the Gunners at Anfield. Now we just have to apply it in a few more places and we’ll be playing for silverware in May.

Liverpool 4 – 0 Arsenal

The Gunners came out in their 4-4-1-1, which is about as a defensive/long ball kind of approach as you’re going to find in the modern game (i.e. not what most Arsenal fans still pining for the stylish days of Arsene Wenger are going to appreciate.) It helps in the middle third against formations like our 4-3-3, since it’s easy for the first ‘1’ to drop back and put five in midfield against situations where they’re likely to get outnumbered because of how static their shape is. We came in using Thiago Alcãntara in the Bob role, as he was frequently dropping deeper than Fabinho in the first half to link up play. That also meant that we ended up doing a lot on the left in the early stages, as that’s nominally where Thiago was stationed. That meant that Sadio was seeing a lot of the ball, which enabled Arsenal’s plan to knock him around some and try to get him irritated and off his game. To some degree, it worked, leading to Sadio’s foul that set up the sideline confrontation and earned a yellow card for our winger. But to say it put him off his game…?

Eh. Not so much. Yes, he was seriously distracted in that opening half hour and it was leading him to spend time appealing to Michael Oliver, rather than playing, but once we took the lead, all that schoolyard crap faded away. He, uh, also won more fouls than anyone else on the pitch (5.) And, again, the cross from Trent was as brilliant as he ever is:

It’s a textbook header because the ball is dropped right on his head. Trent has 51 assists in his career now. As a fullback. He’s provided 38 since he became the regular starter in 2018-19; more than any other player in the PL in that time. And that’s 10 of them for Sadio alone; more than twice what he’s provided to any other player. Speaking of fullback play, there’s a lot of debate about the usefulness of Nuno Tavares rumbling around r/soccer at the moment, with some Arsenal fans wondering why he was preferred to Kieran Tierney and others suggesting that he can’t be blamed entirely while going up against one of the best front lines in the world (and on the side that Mohammed Salah plays on.) But there’s just as many Benfica fans stepping up to give some toldyasos and cackling about getting €8 million for him. They seemed to have the weight of the argument after this point:

To deflect some of the blame, Arsenal was having trouble with our press as the first half wore on and this was in the first few minutes of the second, where we’re often strong and they just had no idea how to deal with what we were doing. OTOH, yeah, that’s pretty bad. That was Diogo’s fifth goal against Arsenal, four of them for the Reds, which is the most he’s scored against any Premier League club. He was a key man in the third goal, which is a brilliant example of not only quick counterattacking play, but the flow that Liverpool has developed in these situations:

That’s Alisson Becker to Kostas Tsimikas to Diogo to Sadio to Mo, easy as you like. The best part is Diogo’s header, which is a remarkable display of both power and accuracy to get the ball out of the air and then in front of Sadio to carry in toward the goal. That’s Mo’s 11th of the season, leading the league. In second place? Sadio. Mo is also leading the league in assists, with 7. (Selfish!) That’s also the 20th time they’ve combined for a league goal, only trailing Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler (24.) That was a team goal from one half of a team that understands each other and knows where each other are on the pitch and whom are completely comfortable playing within their system. It’s also a statement about the kind of system that Jürgen and Michael Edwards and FSG have constructed here. Everyone is committed to the team concept and genuinely enjoys playing with and for each other. It speaks highly of not only the talent that we’ve been able to accumulate, but the type of personalities behind that talent. That was evident again when Takumi Minamino scored his long-awaited first PL goal at Anfield:

Taki scored that with his first touch, 48 seconds after coming on the pitch for Diogo. It’s also one of the rare times when not only have all three of Liverpool’s starting forwards scored, but also the one substitute. It was Trent’s second assist of the match and sixth in the last five (Should we call him Trent Always-Assists?) He’s easily been among Liverpool’s best players of the past couple months.

A fullback with a heat map mostly on the other side of the midfield line? Completely normal for this side. But in a day replete with great performances, it’s worth mentioning a couple others, as well.

As noted, Thiago seemed to be doing the Bob, although his heat map doesn’t indicate quite as much coverage as He of the Blazing Smile. But that stat line is excellent from a midfielder, especially the accuracy and the pair of key passes, which is exactly what we signed him for. This was only his sixth appearance and third start of the season. Hopefully, this is a trend setter. Speaking of trends…

That 15 touches in the opposition box isn’t just the most for this game. It’s the most by any player in the PL so far this season. He also added 8 dribbles and his 11 goals are 2 ahead of where he was four years ago when he set the PL record for goals in a season (32.) He also has the most big chances created with 9, putting him one ahead of TrentAA.

I’d be remiss to not mention a few others, like Kostas’ steady play on the left side in place of Andy Robertson, Alisson’s excellent foot save on an attempt by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain getting some of that Klopp consistency in his legs. This was his third straight start and the regular play is doing good things for him. He was a sharper passer today than he was against West Ham and also improved at keeping the ball moving in the middle third. He was also the last line of defense that prevented Arsenal’s one decent chance in the first half as he got a foot out in front of Bukayo Saka to knock the ball away in the box.

Also, credit where credit’s due: Ramsdale, despite letting four go past him, was the sole reason that Arsenal didn’t lose by six or seven. He conceded as many goals as he did in his first nine games for his club, combined, but also made five saves, with a couple of them being highlight reels of their own. Everyone laughed at his purchase price, but it looks like their assessment of him was (ahem) on target.

So, that was fun. Next up is Porto, also at Anfield. It’s a dead rubber, since we’ve already won our Champions League group, but it’s also €3 million for a win so we really shouldn’t be throwing in the entire bench. Also, remember that rhythm thing? I’m sure Jürgen will want guys to keep some motion in their legs for next week’s match at Liverpool Juniors. In the meantime… FIGHT!

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