Liverpool retained top spot with a dominant 3-1 victory over Arsenal at Anfield last Saturday.
Goals from Joel Matip and a Mohamed Salah brace were enough to wrap up the three points for the Reds, despite Lucas Torreira pulling a goal back for the Gunners in the 83rd minute.
A prominent feature of the victory was the efficient, choreographed and intense pressing of Jurgen Klopp’s team.
One player, in particular, who felt the full brunt of the European Champions claustrophobia-inducing pressure was Arsenal’s new boy, Dani Ceballos.
The Spaniard, on loan from Real Madrid, was intensively and consistently hunted by the Liverpool players and was forced to cede possession three times by direct pressing. In total, like a pack of rabid dogs smelling a packet of ham, Klopp’s charges snaffled at the 2018 Champions League winner 23 times and were successful 19 times with an efficiency of 86%. That is according to statistics collected by Anfield Index’s Under Pressure podcast.
The extent to which the former Real Betis playmaker was targeted by groups of the home team’s players, a match topping seven, was reminiscent of the harassment Mesut Ozil endured in the North London sides 5-1 shellacking at Anfield in 2014.
The German was repeatedly harried and hassled by Brendan Rodgers’ title challengers press and such intensity was the cornerstone of the massive victory.
A visual representation of Liverpool’s gang-pressing of Ceballos arrived in the first half. Going against all coaching instruction, the Spanish U21 international was forced to pass across the face of his own goal and into the path of Sadio Mane.
The Senegal star shot wide, but that the 23-year attacking midfielder had no other option — with all his potential passing lanes clogged by Red clad players — is a strong indicator of how well organised the recently crowned European Super Cup champions are off the ball.
The €18M Real Madrid 2017 signing from Betis is far from a bad player. The midfielder starred for Spain in their recent U21 Championship victory and put in a man of the match display in the Gunners 2-1 victory over Burnley last week.
But the ferocity of the Reds’ attacking off the ball intensity — encouraged by the raucous Anfield atmosphere — has made better players melt and Ceballos was the latest in the long line of its victims.
The plight of the 23-year-old, who was tasked with linking Arsenal’s midfield with their attack provides a living, breathing example of why Klopp reneges on signing players who could be deemed as a playmaker and a team’s primary source of creativity.
Instead, the German looks for universality in his engine room. Of the midfield three picked on Saturday, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, all have played — either at Liverpool or at former clubs — in varying midfield roles and are comfortable at fulfilling a number of disparate duties.
Often, the Reds — who drew seven times last season — have their midfield critiqued for a lack of creativity but, in defence of the squad, their two most creative midfielders, Keita and Oxlade Chamberlain, have suffered long term or persistent injuries.
To spread the responsibility for attacking, transition and defensive phases among the three midfielders prevent situations like what occurred to Arsenal is simple.
The equation is simple; if you stop the playmaker, then you stop the team.
With the creative responsibility delegated among the three midfielders and the two full-backs, the chances of opponent’s shutting down Liverpool are comparatively less.
As Klopp once famously quipped, “the greatest playmaker is the gegenpress”.
As evidenced by Saturday’s off the ball masterclass by the Reds, the German’s words are salient.