On Saturday afternoon, Arsenal beat Liverpool on penalties at Wembley, adding thus the Community Shield to the FA Cup they had previously won after only eight months of Mikel Arteta at the helm. All the Gunners successfully dispatched their shots from the spot, while the powerful one from Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster smashed against the crossbar.
It was a good game, despite the obvious but expected signs of rust on either side. Both coaches deployed their forces in their usual shapes, Arsenal 3-4-3, Liverpool 4-3-3.
Arsenal stifle Liverpool threat from wide areas
It is by now a well-known thing that ever since the departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018, Liverpool have mostly been hurting their opponents from wide areas. This approach has led to their fullbacks being among the most notable assist providers in the Premier League, with Trent Alexander-Arnold setting up his teammates to score 25 times in the last two seasons, and Andy Robertson close behind with 23.
It should be said at this point that Alexander-Arnold missed this clash through injury and was replaced in the team by 19-year-old Neco Williams, which probably helped Arsenal in their mission to limit this segment of Liverpool’s attacking game to a minimum.
But the main thing here remains that both Liverpool’s fullbacks were outnumbered on the flanks for most of the game. On one side, Williams and Mohamed Salah constantly had to deal with Kieran Tierney, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The young Reds defender had a torrid time against the Gunners captain, and it was not too surprising when the Gabonese forward charged at him and fired a sublime shot past Alisson Becker in the 12th minute.
On the other side, the same happened with Robertson and Sadio Mane who were up against the trio of Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Bukayo Saka.
Minamino, Keita introduction changes things
A minute before the hour-mark, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp withdrew Williams and James Milner to make way for Takumi Minamino and Naby Keita in his team.
Up until that moment, the Premier League champions were constantly failing to make use of the advantage in numbers of the middle of the park given to them by Arteta’s plan to stop his opponents out wide. The trio of Fabinho, Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum was repeatedly stopped by the marvelous efforts of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka in that area.
But at that point, Joe Gomez moved out wide to take up the right-back spot with Fabinho dropping into the heart of defence, and facing Minamino and Keita in the middle with Wijnaldum taking up the ‘six’ was a different prospect for the Arsenal duo. Minamino especially worked very well, continuously interchanging positions with Roberto Firmino who is known for his tendency to drop deeper and make his impact from there. The change of approach resulted in the few occasions when Liverpool successfully broke through the middle and the Japanese eventually managed to send the ball past Emiliano Martinez into the back of the net in the 71st minute.
Liverpool would have, perhaps, equalized sooner and turned the game around completely, had Mane not shown the signs of rust in the two great chances he had.
Liverpool need Thiago Alcantara
Liverpool have been heavily linked with Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara, whose superb recent performances helped the Bavarians win the Champions League. Bayern reportedly still expect Liverpool’s move for the player, demanding €30m to give his services up with his contract in the final 12 months. The Merseysiders are believed to be reluctant to pay that fee now, given that they could potentially sign the player for free next summer.
However, Klopp himself admitted after the match that his team lacked sufficient quality in terms of final-third passes, which is something the 29-year-old Bayern man is renowned for. His ability to split defences open with deadly balls for runners to latch onto has been well documented over the years.
Liverpool do have sufficient numbers in the middle of the park. Apart from the players already mentioned, captain Jordan Henderson is about to return to full training following a knee injury. Winger Xherdan Shaqiri is also very capable of making a contribution in that area, as is young Curtis Jones. Klopp might have to wait a while for former Arsenal player Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to rejoin his ranks, however.
But none of the players already at Klopp’s disposal boast such quality in passing as Thiago does, and there can be very little doubt that the rest of this team would benefit hugely from his presence; especially the usually lethal front three they have.
There is still more than a month of the transfer window to go, so let’s see what happens.
Arteta not in Guardiola’s shadow
Ever since Arteta left the role of assistant manager at Manchester City and took charge at Arsenal, fans, reporters and pundits have been grabbing onto anything that would enable them to point out a similarity between his own tactics and those of Pep Guardiola. But though he has undoubtedly learned quite a lot from his ex-boss, it seems Arteta has adapted well to the qualities of his own team and developed a fine defensive approach – something Guardiola was never obliged to do.
And just as Klopp found a way to frustrate Guardiola and located the weak spots in his extremely formidable City team, Arteta now appears not only to have done the same to his mentor – there to see in their FA Cup semifinal contest, but he also appears to have found a perfect antidote to Klopp as well.
Both of the experienced coaches will likely now seek a fresh way to outwit the newcomer in the trade, but be that as it may, Arsenal promise to be a very interesting team in 2020/21.
Maitland-Niles to stay at Arsenal?
Maitland-Niles, who turned 23 on the day of this match, has been linked with departure from the Emirates this summer. It was first reported that he had formed a plan to leave in search of game time, then Brighton and Hove Albion expressed an interest in his services, before Arsenal reportedly rejected a £15m bid from Wolverhampton Wanderers for the versatile wide man.
However, speaking to the press after this game, Arteta made it very clear that he has a high opinion of Maitland-Niles, which he believes he has proven by giving him much game-time recently. He also feels the player has so far repaid his trust, but that he should continue to do so on a regular basis.
With regular game-time at Arsenal appearing available to Maitland-Niles after all, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he changes his mind and stays put for the time being.
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