The major Liverpool tactical problem exposed by Arsenal - and how things could get worse

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Losing to Arsenal didn't just dent Liverpool's Premier League title challenge - it also exposed problems which simply have to be addressed.

Liverpool’s rather chaotic 3-1 Premier League defeat at the Emirates on Sunday didn’t just put a substantial dent in their title challenge – it also revealed a major problem that the Reds may have in the near future, as they transition into the post-Jürgen Klopp era. The issue lies in attack, and in particular on the over-reliance they now have on just two players to create the bulk of their goal threat.

From many perspectives, Liverpool did not play badly against Arsenal. They enjoyed 57% of the possession away to a team which typically dominates it and made nearly half as many passes again as their opponent. Individual errors, primarily by Ibrahima Konaté and Virgil van Dijk, created many of Arsenal’s opportunities, and those are not players who make a mess too often. But for all their possession and territory, Liverpool were toothless going forward, especially down the right.

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Mohamed Salah is one of the players that Liverpool simply cannot perform as well without. In his absence, the right-hand side of Liverpool’s attack struggled badly, and the numbers behind Cody Gakpo’s performance make pretty concerning reading, especially given the chance that the Egyptian leaves for Saudi Arabia at the end of the season. It’s hardly a shock that Liverpool are worse for Salah’s absence, but the extent of the issue should be a worry.

In his stead, Gakpo struggled to find space or impact play at all in the final third. He managed just 24 touches across the entire game, 3.3% of his team’s total, and fewer than half of those came in the final third. Just one of those touches resulted in a shot. He made just six of 11 attempted passes and racked up a total of just 0.06xG and xA combined.

But the Dutchman’s poor individual performance was only one symptom of a structural issue which saw them struggle to find attacking balance down that flank. Looking at touch and pass maps, Liverpool had far more support down the left from their midfield, especially from Curtis Jones, who got into a lot of good areas in support of Luis Díaz. On the right, Ryan Gravenberch barely got on the ball at all, which left Gakpo isolated for large periods of the game

The compensation for the lack of joined-up play down the right normally comes in two ways – firstly, they have Trent Alexander-Arnold’s bombing forward runs and high quality of delivery, but when that doesn’t work the need to push him high up the pitch to create any kind of threat creates problems at the back.

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With Alexander-Arnold in full attack mode by necessity, he was forced to leave acres of space in behind for Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian was put one-on-one against Konaté time and again, and made mincemeat of him. He scored one, indirectly assisted another, and more or less got the Frenchman sent off on his own. It was a massacre which was set up because Konaté was forced to cover a huge swathe of the field all by himself.

You can pull Alexander-Arnold back to prevent that problem, but then you lose all attacking impetus down his side. Against Arsenal, Liverpool failed to find the right balance, and because Gakpo and Gravenberch were simply unable to link up play together, there was no choice for Klopp but to keep attacking and hope that Martinelli couldn’t make hay from the space in behind. That hope disappeared at pace.

The second way that Liverpool typically make it all work is that they are able to get joy down the right thanks to Salah’s ability to create a ton of penetration individually. Gakpo is a good player but is simply not on the same level as Salah when it comes to beating his man one-on-one both with and without the ball.

It is very likely that Al-Ittihad have another go at signing the world’s most famous Muslim player for the Pro League project, and it still remains unclear as to whether Liverpool will be able to hang on to their best player. Given the announcement of Klopp’s departure, speculation over Salah’s future will only intensify, and Sunday’s game strongly suggested that they have no replacement for him already within the ranks. If he leaves, Liverpool will need to find a whole new paradigm for attacking down the right, because the alternatives right now are high risk and low impact.

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The other player that Liverpool looked bereft without is summer signing Dominik Szoboszlai. Although not played as a proper number ten, he is often the furthest midfielder forward when he plays and is certainly the most creative presence Klopp has in his midfield. Only Alexander-Arnold has more successful progressive passes and outside of the front three, only the right-back has generated more shot-creating actions.

Szoboszlai hasn’t provided too many assists – just two in the league this season – but his intelligent passing gets the ball into Salah and the other forwards into dangerous areas more efficiently and with more regularity than anyone else in the heart of the park. Without him, Liverpool lost attacking balance. Players like Jones and Gravenberch and fine all-round players with a good passing range, but they don’t have the same eye for a dangerous pass in behind or the same skill at finding pockets of space in behind the attack. With the Hungarian missing, Liverpool had plenty of the ball but no outlet with which to use it.

Of course, the last time these two sides met, in the FA Cup third round at the beginning of January, Liverpool triumphed without Salah and Szoboszlai – but that game required some good fortune. Then as on Sunday, Arsenal generated more and better chances, and Liverpool needed a somewhat lucky own-goal to get on the scoresheet before hitting their second goal of a 2-0 win deep into added time.

Salah will be back soon enough and is only likely to miss one more match, the home tie against Burnley next weekend, while Szoboszlai’s muscular injury is believed to be even less severe, and he may well play at Anfield this coming Saturday. The concerns revealed against Arsenal are unlikely to derail their title challenge this season – but they demonstrate pressing problems which will need to be concerned next season, most especially if Salah leaves. Even if the Egyptian stays, then Sunday’s game still suggests that squad depth is a major issue going forward.

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Liverpool’s individual errors will generate the most coverage and may give the Reds an opportunity to brush the systemic issues under the carpet – but the defeat was not a consequence of Konaté’s rough ride or Van Dijk and Alisson’s comical mix-up alone. Liverpool have been excellent this season, but you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find problems with they have to address if they’re going to turn a strong season into silverware.

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