Pájara strikes as Arteta blinks at Anfield
A look at how the shift to a back five changed Sunday's game.
With that being such a big game and with so much to talk about, I’ve made the majority of this post available for free but there’s a bit just for paid subscribers and, unfortunately, only they can leave comments when I do that, so if you’ve anything to say/challenge/add/ask then do so on Twitter!
I’m away next weekend but am hoping to get something else done before then …
"There’s a word that we use in Spain on cycling when a cyclist is going up and looks amazing and in one kilometre he goes (thud) and he looks like he’s stuck and it’s a word called ‘pájara’."
Mikel Arteta says he experienced pájara once in his career, at Anfield, as Arsenal collapsed to concede four times in the opening 30 minutes. There’s no doubting Anfield has that power and it is a fate Arsenal have succumbed to repeatedly in recent seasons. But it didn’t have to be that way on Sunday and I cannot escape the feeling that Arteta’s own experiences as a player at Anfield coloured his decisions and turned the game back in Liverpool’s favour as Arsenal approached a huge three points.
The game is, to be clear, a strange one to assess as a fan. At 2-0 up, anything but a win is always a disappointment. But the way things played out, taking a point was a relief. Arsenal fans the world over would’ve experienced the two contradictory emotions come the final whistle. Aaron Ramsdale summed it up best after the final whistle.
“I think right now it’s mixed emotions but over the next few days it will be a really good point.
“I’ve just walked off the pitch and we’ve just been under pressure for 30-35 minutes. We’ve managed to get a point away at Anfield. They’re a top side, the crowd get right behind them.
“It may be two points dropped but we could have dropped all of them at the same time.”
We all know why Arsenal gained a point in the end — Ramsdale made two stunning saves — so I want to take a look at the two that were dropped.
I’m biased, we all are, and the late goal (and pressure) at Anfield, unfortunately for me and my battle with my biases, just served to consolidate one of my biggest dislikes in football. Bringing on an extra defender only ever brings more pressure with it.
Sometimes it works and my biases are put on hold for another day, sometimes it doesn’t and I get to pretend I’m definitely right. This was a case of the latter.
I have nothing against lining up with a back five, I think it can work really well and I think it can lend itself to a really offensive, attack-minded system. But changing from a back four to a back five in the closing stages of a game encourages your team to sit back and encourages and allows the opposition to push on.
The second half at Anfield on Sunday, in the moment, felt like an onslaught. Liverpool flew out of the blocks, they had chances, they had the penalty miss. Then they had a one-on-one for Darwin Núñez, the equaliser, and were denied by couple of unbelievable saves by Aaron Ramsdale.
But Arsenal had regained a foothold in between all that. The team had weathered the Anfield storm.
I’m sure another wave was coming either way but, in his desperation to survive it, Mikel Arteta actually made changes that invited it.
Firmino came on and the ball was in play for 12 seconds. Liverpool played one long ball forward from a goal-kick and Gabriel dealt with it, clearing into Salah to win a goal-kick.
We took our goal-kick and Liverpool within 35 seconds, had taken two shots, a Núñez one-on-one saved and a back post Salah volley hit the side-netting. The momentum was suddenly all Liverpool’s again.
The sub, and the way Arsenal changed, did a few things to the game. It hurt the team’s ability to press, firstly. With the back five looking to stick to their positions, Arsenal could no longer keep Liverpool in their own half. The pressing in that middle section of the second half had, like in the first half, worked well. Arsenal were brave to push Oleksandr Zinchenko into midfield and have Gabriel pull wide to aggressively deal with Mohamed Salah whenever he received the ball with his back to goal. It was effective, too. Here, still in a three-man midfield, Granit Xhaka presses Trent Alexander-Arnold to force a first time pass …
… that pass is played into Salah, tightly marked by Gabriel with Zinchenko deeper and further inside to cover the run from midfield, and Arsenal force the ball back again.
The issues with the back five on this front were two-fold.
Firstly, Xhaka was now part of a two-man midfield and could no longer press as aggressively, knowing he would leave a huge amount of space behind him if he did. Secondly, none of the back five (maybe due to exhaustion) were aggressive enough to make up for it. So Arsenal ended up sitting deeper and allowed Liverpool to progress the ball more easily. The front three were completely outnumbered …
… because the back five were pinned back by just three Liverpool forwards …
… rather than Gabriel marking Salah and allowing Zinchenko to push on, which would in turn allow Xhaka to push on as well, Arsenal became more and more content with sitting back. But they did so without applying pressure on the ball even when it became dangerous. In the image above, Ben White is miles from Andy Robertson as he receives the ball, with the back five sticking together to handle just three Liverpool players.
And Robertson finding space to cross was an issue for the goal a few minutes later as well, with the entire back five (Zinchenko is out of shot to the right) again pinned back by just three Liverpool players.
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