Perhaps thinking back to successful matches against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea last year, and trying to fit the pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicholas Pépé, Unai Emery utilized a diamond 442 at Anfield on Saturday. While such a shape usually means giving opposition full backs some space and room, that is preventable by successful pressing and positioning off the ball, and stopping the ball from getting out to the full backs. Indeed, every shape against Liverpool has a potential weakness; using a back three means that you’re dependent on each of your defenders standing up to Liverpool’s front three, and means you can get played around in midfield, and playing 433, and matching up with Liverpool could mean the wide players spend too much time chasing back the full backs, and if they don’t, the midfield can get stretched in the same way Arsenal’s midfield was stretched on Saturday.
For Emery, the intent wasn’t necessarily to sit back: “It’s not all we wanted to do in the match because we wanted to keep the ball and keep possession better, but their pressing was very strong and we didn’t break their pressing of the ball as much as we wanted.” Part of that was down to the quality of Liverpool, a team who lost once in the Premier League last season and are European champions. Yet, there were also structural elements to how Arsenal played, that affected their own ability to dictate terms.
Those structural elements meant that Arsenal couldn’t cut off the passing lanes for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, meaning the two who combined for 23 assists last season continually got the ball, stretching Arsenal’s diamond midfield into a flat four. That had repercussions: when Aubameyang and Pépé got the ball, it was largely in the channels, with no midfielder getting up to support the two strikers. Unable to carry out their game plan, Arsenal did have chances, though largely from Liverpool’s errors. While Liverpool are not the first team to stop the opposition from carrying out their plan, Emery did little to change it at half time, and his first substitution, Torreira for Ceballos at 3-0 down, was clearly a damage limitation exercise.
But with Tottenham coming up next, that means there is little room for error if Arsenal are to do better than their start last season. That means no ambiguity in the game plan and the type of proactivity that Emery displayed in the derby last season. Beyond that, though, is the ever-present debate of what Emery wants Arsenal to do and what Arsenal are capable of doing. Last season, Emery wanted Arsenal to use a back four, and to specifically use a 4231, but ended the season having to play 3412. This pre-season, Emery largely had Arsenal working with a 4231, but has used different shapes throughout the early stages of the season. The shapes themselves are neutral; a back three can be more defensive or more attacking than a back four, and thus, are dependent on other factors set out by the head coach. As Emery prepares to face Mauricio Pochettino for a fourth time, there remains doubt over what Emery says is what he truly means.