Unai Emery Lacked His Usual Pragmatism in Liverpool Defeat

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Unai Emery
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Unai Emery, Manager of Arsenal instructs his team during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield on August 24, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Arsenal met Liverpool on Saturday with the clubs being the final two in the English top-flight to have won both their matches in the young season. However, the Gunners left in defeat thanks to a goal from Joel Matip and a brace from Mohamed Salah. What was more striking than the result was the fact that Unai Emery did not, as he would say, act as a protagonist.

Unai Emery Lacked Pragmatism in Loss to Liverpool

Too Defensive From the Start

Arsenal set out to frustrate Liverpool and did so with a simple strategy: stay narrow and organized. While this tactic can work with certain clubs, Burnley for example, the Gunners do not have the requisite personnel.

Emery also combined this defensive approach with a building from the back philosophy in attack. This put his players under the stress of dealing with Klopp’s press all match long.

Unai Emery took a bold decision and played four central midfielders in the centre of the park. While in possession, this tactic was just fine. Out of possession, however, lacking wide midfielders allowed Liverpool as much time and space on the flanks as they desired.

Credit where credit is due, Arsenal defended well during the first half, only allowing a handful of chances. A majority of those came from set-pieces as the backline deflected several crosses and shots behind for corners.

The result for most of the first 45 minutes was a frustrated home side. However, the warning signs were there as Arsenal struggled to clear their lines for long stretches of the game.

Unai Emery Indirectly Liable

The goal itself was not a direct result of Unai Emery’s plans, rather Sokratis Papastathopoulos‘ poor decision to grab onto Virgil van Dijk instead of play the ball. The fact that this situation arose in the first place was due to Emery’s tactics, so he shares some blame.

Liverpool had as much time and space on the flanks as they pleased. Trent Alexander-Arnold should have done better with his opportunities from the right and Arsenal are lucky he did not.

Andy Robertson, on the left, had a much better game and was, therefore, the focal point of much of the Reds’ attack. The two fullbacks combined for 23 crosses in the match, helping their side earn six corners.

Same as the first, the second goal was not a direct consequence of Unai Emery’s tactics. This time it was a momentary lapse of concentration from David Luiz, a player who is known to experience such moments.

While it shouldn’t be understated that the Brazilian is at fault for the penalty, the manager’s decision indirectly helped put the player into that position by allowing his side to soak up so much pressure.

He could have change tactic, even after goal number two, but chose not to do so.

Trying the Same Thing Over and Over

Another blunder committed by Unai Emery is the fact that Alexandre Lacazette didn’t enter the match until late on. On paper, this decision made at least some sense: play both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe in attack and try to spring them with balls over the top to allow them space.

Even after the first goal, it was a viable tactic. After all, Liverpool were never going to be happy with just a one-goal lead. However, the second goal came very early on in the second half and Unai Emery didn’t change his tactics accordingly.

He continued to ask his players to find Aubameyang and Pepe with long balls, but the two find themselves increasingly isolated. This is especially true after the third goal. With the points all but secured, Jurgen Klopp allowed his team to sit back a bit more and just control the ball.

Emery eventually realised the need for a proper target man up front and duly brought on his French striker. Lacazette had an immediate impact on the game and it wasn’t until after his introduction that Lucas Torreira got Arsenal’s consolation goal.

The visitors would have benefitted greatly from his presence on the pitch earlier on. At two goals down, even away from home, a manager should try something different because the original plan is not working. Arsenal were hurt by Emery’s lack of pragmatism.

Silver Lining

To be fair, few would have predicted an Arsenal win or even a draw in this match. So, the performance shouldn’t be too terribly derided and some positives can be taken.

For example, the idea to set up so defensively could have gone much worse, like in previous trips to Anfield. Even in the face of increasing pressure from Liverpool in the first half, the Arsenal backline did not look quite as frail as it usually does in big matches.

The goals were the result of individual errors from the centre-backs, although to differing degrees. It was not an issue with the defensive plan, as has been the case at Arsenal in the past, and should get straightened out on the training pitch to some extent.

The Gunners also created a few dangerous moments in attack, especially in the first half. Pepe was particularly industrious taking four shots, two of which found the target, and completing seven dribbles.

He has yet to play a full 90 minutes with Aubameyang and Lacazette, only in flashes. This performance at Anfield proves that he will create a lot of exciting attacking play this season for Arsenal.

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