Wenger's Sanchez snub backfires as rampant Liverpool hurt Arsenal
Arsene Wenger's decision to bench Alexis Sanchez backfired at Anfield on Saturday, although that was not the only tactical factor behind Liverpool's 3-1 win.
The Frenchman claimed he ditched Sanchez in favour of Olivier Giroud as part of a direct gameplan designed to bypass Liverpool's pressure, yet the influential Chilean was not played on the wing either until a flat first half display prompted Wenger to put him on for the second period.
By that stage Jurgen Klopp had also used route-one tactics by ordering Simon Mignolet to hit it long, the aim being to avoid defensive errors. This surprisingly led to the opener, which came after Arsenal had failed to clear a simple goal-kick. The second goal was triggered by Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum overloading the Arsenal backline with runs from deep.
Sanchez lifted the visitors in the second half and engineered a goal by setting up Danny Welbeck, who kept drifting into central positions from the right. But then Wenger decided to take off Welbeck and Giroud, which yielded no returns late on. Instead another substitute, Divock Origi, found Wijnaldum for 3-1 to make Klopp the first Liverpool manager to do a Premier League double over Wenger since Gerard Houllier in 1999-00.
Liverpool escape Arsenal pressure
Since arriving at Anfield, Klopp has generally sought to play out from the back, but the German feared Arsenal's pressing and told Mignolet to kick it long.
Liverpool actually sent their forwards into more aerial duels than Arsenal did: Sadio Mane went up for 10 and Firmino for seven, while Giroud competed in six. "Both teams tried to play high pressure -- that was the reason for a lot of long balls, which made sense," said Klopp.
"But after winning the second ball, both teams tried to play football."
That they did, though Klopp had surely not anticipated getting a goal directly from it. On nine minutes, Laurent Koscielny should have cleared a goal kick in a duel with Firmino, yet instead flicked it backwards to Philippe Coutinho, who started a move in which Mane found Firmino for 1-0. Arsenal could have conceded a similar goal after the interval too, when Coutinho took down another flick and won a free kick outside the box, though it eventually came to nothing.
Giroud plan backfires
In an uninspiring display, what will have disappointed Wenger in particular was how Arsenal created so little from long balls themselves, despite having an actual target man. He sought to support Giroud by playing Welbeck (left), Alex Iwobi (centre) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (right) off him in a 4-2-3-1. Defenders launched long balls, Petr Cech lofted goal kicks forward and widemen swung crosses into the box.
Arsenal were particularly keen to build attacks down the right, perhaps in a bid to unsettle makeshift left-back James Milner. Iwobi regularly drifted over to join Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Hector Bellerin motored forward as well, giving Arsenal three right-footed players on the same side capable of whipping in crosses. Within four minutes Bellerin had already provided a delivery cleared at the far post just ahead of Giroud.
But the early promise fizzled out. Liverpool adjusted to Giroud quickly, dispatching Emre Can to wrestle with him for goal kicks and Joel Matip to mark him inside the box. The striker won only one of his six aerial duels.
Only three minutes into the second half did he first threaten, producing a fine header from Nacho Monreal's delivery that Mignolet did well to save. When Giroud was taken off on 74 minutes, that remained Arsenal's only successful cross.
Midfielder runners overwhelm Arsenal
By that stage Liverpool had already capitalised on the formidable dynamism of their central midfielders. Can had broken up attacks, while Lallana and Wijnaldum had surged forward from deep positions.
This was very much the driving force behind the second goal. On 40 minutes, Milner attracted Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left, with Coutinho in a deeper zone. Arsenal should have had control here, since Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Monreal watched Firmino and Mane. But then Wijnaldum popped up to get the ball off Milner in front of Koscielny.
Now Arsenal had Mustafi and Monreal to pick up Firmino and Mane, but as Wijnaldum found Firmino, Lallana hared forward to occupy Monreal. This created a numerical overload that left Mane unmarked on the outside, and he duly scored from Firmino's pass. Thanks to their two midfield runners, Liverpool had turned an initial three-vs-two situation into three-vs-four.
Lallana and Wijnaldum performed other functions too. When Liverpool built attacks, they would often run out wide to stretch play and allow Mane and Coutinho to cut inside. Particularly Wijnaldum did this often down the left, enabling Coutinho to fire off six shots from central areas.
Sanchez sub works, but others don't
At half time, 2-0 down, Wenger sacrificed Francis Coquelin in order to introduce Sanchez on the left, move Oxlade-Chamberlain inside and put Welbeck on the right. Only three minutes had gone before Giroud tested Mignolet; about 10 minutes later, Sanchez slipped a pass in behind Ragnar Klavan that Welbeck dinked over Mignolet.
Welbeck kept making these runs inside from the right, leaving Bellerin alone out wide. This was a productive variation, as Bellerin remained a threat and burst forward to deliver a low cross that Sanchez smelled just too late. Yet then Wenger decided to change the dynamic. On 74 minutes, he took off Giroud and Welbeck for Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott, leaving Arsenal with a more traditional right winger and no target man. Earlier this season, Wenger has often called on Giroud to salvage points late on -- here he decided to do it the other way around.
This clearly removed a major threat from crosses, plus the runs of Welbeck. Arsenal create little else, with even Sanchez struggling to find teammates in advanced positions.
Instead it was Klopp who got his changes right. With 10 minutes left he sent on Origi for Coutinho to add pace on the counter, and the Belgian assisted Wijnaldum for 3-1 in stoppage time.
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