By Daniel Moxon – @dmoxon_
“We were a bit surprised about the system the opponent played. I don’t think we could have known that they would play with a diamond here. I think we watched seven or eight games – there was no diamond involved.”
In a post-match interview, Jurgen Klopp openly admitted that Arsenal caught them by surprise with the way they set up at Anfield. Unai Emery sprung a tactical surprise on the Reds, but his side were still unable to stop the Reds as they won comfortably.
While the fixture – the one that has produced the most goals in Premier League history – was billed as a battle of the ‘front threes’, the Gunners showed up at Anfield with one of their fearsome forwards on the bench.
Liverpool took no chances, with Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino – who loves playing against Arsenal – all on the pitch from the off. The visitors, on the other hand, decided to begin the game with Alexandre Lacazette among the substitutes.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and new signing Nicolas Pépé were on the pitch, but Emery sacrificed the Frenchman for an extra midfielder as he decided a diamond would be the way to go. Joe Willock started with Matteo Guendouzi, in front of Granit Xhaka and behind playmaker Dani Ceballos.
The plan was clear – they wanted more bodies in midfield to be able to overload Liverpool’s trio in the centre of the park and provide more space for the duo up front. In an attacking sense it worked at times. Aubameyang was anonymous for most of the evening, but Pépé caused a lot of problems in the first half with his pace and power.
But defensively it left an already creaky defence with even less protection at times. So often you see teams double up on Mané and Salah out side such is the danger they pose – but the lack of width in midfield left Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal horribly exposed.
Klopp may not have seen it coming, but his players will have made him so proud in the way they adapted to the unexpected situation. Much of their preparation in the week leading up to the game will have gone out of the window, but their on-pitch response was excellent.
They took note of the extra bodies in midfield, they saw the gaps out wide, and so they made sure to get Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold forward and involved at every opportunity.
No player on the pitch had more touches than the Liverpool full-backs, with the Englishman finding himself on the ball 108 times. The Scot on the opposite flank was in possession a further 98 times, showing just how involved the wide defenders were.
These two are always happy to get forward and are a key asset for the team. We won’t know exactly how Klopp prepared his lads to beat the Gunners, but for sure he will not have expected his wide players to enjoy so much space on the wings.
The boss and his backroom staff have proven for a few years now that they are excellent tacticians. They are more than capable of preparing the team to beat any opponent.
What the players proved against Arsenal was that they are capable of adapting themselves to a new situation, even if the coaching staff haven’t prepared them for it. It’s just another weapon for an already lethal squad.
Talent and ability will take a team a long way, but intelligence and adaptability on the pitch is what turns a good squad into a great one.