Rather predictability the much-hyped ‘Red Monday’ (as Sky Sports dubbed the clash between Liverpool and Manchester United) turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. With defeat almost unthinkable for Mourinho and United, it was always going to be the case that they were going to set up to be hard-to-beat first, and only look to take all three points if the chance emerged.
There was no real surprise in the way that Mourinho set up his team; after all he has been doing this in big matches for pretty much his entire career; the system and tactics employed offered almost a carbon-copy of the game plan used when his Chelsea team went to Anfield in March 2014 and all but ended Liverpool’s championship aspirations. They clogged the midfield to prevent Liverpool passing through them, went long and direct every time they had the ball at the back to negate Liverpool’s high press, committed persistent niggly fouls and deliberately walked to throw-ins and free-kicks to disrupt the flow of the game and eat up the clock.
However for me it wasn’t just a case of United’s negative tactics frustrating Liverpool, enforced personnel realignment through injuries to Lallana and Wijnaldum forced Klopp to depart from his ideal line-up. For all his talent in and around the penalty area and goalscoring threat, Daniel Sturridge is either incapable or unwilling of fulfilling the requirements of the central striker in Klopp’s high-tempo genegenpressig style and his selfishness in possession and failure to make incisive off the ball runs to provide an outlet for his teammates, contributed to Liverpool’s bluntness in attack. It was certainly noticeable that when he was replaced by Adam Lallana, and Coutinho and Firmino were restored to their more suited roles, Liverpool looked vastly improved and carried much more of a threat. Ultimately though United got what they came for and avoided defeat. It will be interesting to see how Mourinho approaches this Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge to face his old employer, it might be logical to assume that it will be more of the same; but equally with Mourinho always looking to prove a point about his own greatness, it may well be that he may look to make a real statement and go all out for a win.
Strange things are afoot at Emirates Stadium, the team that was amongst the most wasteful in front of goal last season, something that probably explained another failed title challenge as much as any lack of mental toughness or stomach for the fight; has somehow reinvented itself and is currently scoring goals for fun. The Gunners have so far scored a total of 32 goals in 12 games this season or an average of 2.7 goals per game; in 2015/16 the average across all competitions was 1.7 goals per game.
The failed pursuits of Higuain, Suarez, Benzema and Vardy, which followed the realisation that Lukas Podolski wasn’t entirely suited to the central striking role, hinted that Arsene Wenger has been looking for a different type of central striker to alter the balance of the team’s attacking play. Harsh though it is, it feels as if Olivier Giroud was only ever intended to be a Plan B, a player to use to vary things when chasing a game and needing a different option upfront. The Frenchman’s physicality is his key strength and he is more than simply adequate as a target man and at holding the ball up to bring teammates into play, yet it is the qualities that he is missing that always seem to go against him, explicitly his lack of pace and mobility as well as the fact that he is a competent at best finisher, but often very wasteful in front of goal.
The purchase of Danny Welbeck at the close of the summer transfer window in 2014 suggested an attempt to add more mobility up front, but his opportunities have been hampered by serious long-term injuries; although a brief run of games last spring hinted at Wenger’s vision for the team’s attacking play, and was really promising until Welbeck succumbed to injury once again.
Whether by default or deliberate strategy, Wenger went into the 2016/17 season with the intention of readopting the plan to use Alexis Sanchez as the central striker. While at first this wasn’t completely convincing, as the season has developed it seems to be more and more logical. Alexis will never ever be a traditional central striker, it is simply not in his make-up; he is however a maverick, a jack-in-the-box type of player whose perpetual movement and seemingly boundless energy can wreak havoc at the heart of opposition defences. As has often been said, it is difficult as a defender to anticipate what an attacker is going to do next if you suspect he is not entirely sure what he is going to do himself. His style and the way he seems to be developing into the role has drawn comparisons, most notably from his manager, to those other South American dynamos Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero.
Beyond Alexis’s goals and his own performances, his approach to the central striking role is having a massively beneficial effect on two other attacking players in particular: with Mezut Özil now often finding himself the furthest man forward and amongst the goals as a result of Alexis operating as a False 9 and Theo Walcott looking like a man transformed this season. There seems to have been a realisation by Walcott that if he was ever going to blossom into a top player, it was him that needed to change (well done Theo it only took you 10 years!); and it is noticeable how his work rate and defensive contribution have been ramped up beyond recognition this season. However the fluidity of the front line and the preference for Alexis, Özil and the highly talented Alex Iwobi to build up play and focus their work on the left hand side opens up space for Theo to make those out-to-in runs between the left back and central defender that he is so fond of. Rather than being an entirely new tactic, the approach echoes the attacking structure of the Invincibles with Theo benefiting from the creative work of others in the same way that Freddie Ljungberg used to with those late trademark diagonal runs into the area. It still feels that this current Arsenal side are a work in progress and still have to negotiate the traditional tricky November and a run of big matches; but so far the signs are more promising than we thought after the opening day defeat to Liverpool.