Liverpool fans might be encouraged by their team’s performance at home to Arsenal, which comprised a dominant first half performance, owed to an effective formation change that demonstrated manager Brendan Rodgers’ tactical nous, and the determination and character to recover from a 2-1 deficit to find a late and well-deserved equaliser.
It was as dominant a first half display as any seen this season, with Liverpool’s composed passing consistently finding the gaps in Arsenal’s midfield. Too narrow to properly deal with the surging runs of wingbacks Jordan Henderson and Lazar Marković, who had by far his best game in a Liverpool shirt, the room in the middle of the park was well exploited by an energetic and effective Philippe Coutinho. Wenger’s side attempted a triangular midfield three, with Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pushing forward and Mathieu Flamini at the base, which proved ineffective at countering Liverpool’s movement in their new system. Flamini was exposed by the space in front of him, and it was in that pocket that Liverpool were able to string together an imposing number of passes and build play forwards.
Coutinho was able to at last cement Liverpool’s dominance – they had over 70% of the first half’s possession and completed 200 more passes than the Gunners – and his own sustained quality when, in the 44th minute, he skipped free of Arsenal’s back line to slip the ball into the back of the net off the inside of the post. Arsenal, though, responded almost immediately when Mathieu Debuchy headed in from a free kick on the stroke of half time. Clearly enthused by the equaliser, Arsenal made more of a game of the second half, and in the 64th minute took the lead through Olivier Giroud. Liverpool endeavoured manfully to respond, with the introductions of Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert adding impetus to the Reds forward line. Borini, though, lasted just 18 minutes before a second yellow card left Liverpool down to ten men and yet to find an equaliser. Martin Škrtel, however, came to the Reds’ rescue. Deep into the nine minutes of added time, racked up after Giroud inadvertently stepped on the head of a prostrate Škrtel, who required staples to continue, the still-bandaged Škrtel found acres of space from a Gerrard corner to power home a textbook header and win a deserved point for Liverpool.
Though they ended the game with only a point Liverpool might take great encouragement from their performance and, in particular, the success of their newly implemented formation. Adapting to three at the back and shifting Henderson, a natural central midfielder, and Marković, by trade a winger, into effective wingbacks, Liverpool have at long last found a way to mirror the intensity and effectiveness of last season’s forward line, bolstered as it was by Luis Suarez and the currently sidelined Sturridge. Though it might be significantly improved by the presence of an outright striker, it remains a promising option.
The game with Arsenal also offered valuable insight into areas for improvement in this new formation. With wingbacks pushing high up the field, it was a backtracking back three that left Liverpool vulnerable to Arsenal’s second goal – Škrtel had to cover for the recovering Kolo Touré, leaving room at the heart of Liverpool’s defence for Giroud to find. Identifying this early, though costing an Arsenal goal, might ensure Liverpool are prepared for such eventualities in the future. It also identified the need for Daniel Sturridge’s speedy recovery. Still sidelined, Raheem Sterling who was recently awarded the Golden Boy award for the best young player in Europe, was left with the responsibility of filling in up front. Though industrious in his efforts, the outlet and finishing of an out-and-out forward might be the final piece of Liverpool’s puzzle, a want that may be met in the fast approaching January transfer window or by the return of Mario Balotelli, whose fortunes in front of goal might change in Liverpool’s new formation.
In short, there is great encouragement to be taken from Liverpool’s performance, and with additions and refinement they might begin to rediscover last season’s sparkling form.
What might Liverpool do to maintain their form?