While Liverpool's 2-2 draw against Arsenal didn't do much to quiet the chorus of criticism facing Brendan Rodgers, the manager's initial tactics deserve praise. Rodgers identified Arsenal's biggest weakness -- the defensive midfield -- and set up to exploit that area of the pitch with an unconventional lineup.
Due to multiple injuries, Arsenal were forced to start the game with a three man central midfield devoid of defensive quality. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, known for his pace and attacking ability, was placed in a deep lying position alongside slow-footed Mathieu Flamini. Just in front of those two sat Spanish playmaker Santi Carzola.
Rodgers anticipated that Carzola and Oxlade-Chamberlain would push forward to leave Flamini isolated in the defensive midfield, so he lined Liverpool up in a fluid 3-4-3 formation that positioned his three best attackers in front of Arsenal's defense. Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, and Raheem Sterling cycled through the attacking midfield, taking advantage of the acres of space that Flamini and Arsenal allowed them.
Furthermore, Lazar Markovic excelled down the left wing, jetting beyond the Arsenal defense when it collapsed on Liverpool's trio in the center of the pitch.
Here's an example of this strategy in action:
Even from a throw-in situation, Arsenal's defensive midfield is nonexistent, and a simple turn from Sterling collapses the defense and gives Markovic a decent scoring opportunity on the wing.
Oftentimes it's counter productive to have multiple players operate in the same general area. However, Liverpool's trio offered three distinct qualities that complemented each other, and the end result was a dominant first half display in terms of possession and chance creation.
Coutinho was primarily responsible for receiving the ball from deep and driving forward at the Arsenal defense. He's excellent with the ball at his feet in space, and so he thrived on the dribble throughout the match. Moreover, his quickness was a constant nuisance for Flamini, and after 15 minutes he coaxed Flamini into a yellow card offense with this nifty move:
That should have been step one of two in the quest to get Flamini sent off, but referee Michael Oliver later decided that a blatant elbow to Lallana's head was not enough to warrant a second yellow.
Sterling complimented Coutinho's dribbling with off-ball movement, using his pace to draw defenders away from his Brazilian teammate. His complimentary movement led to Liverpool's first goal.
Sterling's run is simple but intelligent, and ultimately vital to Coutinho's goal. Right as Coutinho receives a pass from Jordan Henderson, Sterling breaks across the box, dragging Per Mertesacker with him. Coutinho sees this and cuts into the vacated space to unleash a pinpoint strike off the post and into the net.
Meanwhile, the third member of Liverpool's centralized trio served as supplier to Coutinho, Sterling, and at times Markovic. While the others looked to create for themselves, Adam Lallana displayed his unselfishness as he created five chances for his teammates. Here's his chance creation chart via stat zone:
Lallana struggled a bit with his overall passing accuracy (75%) and lacked a tremendous volume of passes (40). However, the passes that he did complete often led to key chances for the Reds.
Together, Liverpool's attacking trio terrorized Flamini and the empty space in Arsenal's defensive midfield. Coutinho, Lallana, and Sterling complimented each other's talents and worked together to make things happen, which was a welcome change from some of the fragmented, individualistic play that took place earlier in the season. It was also encouraging that Rodgers recognized his opponent's main weakness and adapted his game plan to exploit it.
His strategy wasn't without holes though, and the next step for Rodgers is to modify his new preferred formation to be more horizontally balanced and defensively stable.
Henderson was misused on the right wing against Arsenal, as his lack of forward thrust forced Liverpool to attack disproportionately down the left, with just one scoring chance occurring on Henderson's side of the pitch. He still had a decent game and is a fantastic player, but the right wing isn't his best position to succeed.
It makes much more sense for Henderson to play in the defensive midfield -- a place that Liverpool have struggled all season -- where he was one of the best players in the league last season. Emre Can deserves a look too, as his young legs and herculean frame make him an ideal candidate to protect the shaky back three.
Here's one potential improvement to the current set up (created on OOTB):
In this formation, Henderson moves to the middle and is joined by Can. Markovic switches to the right, Alberto Moreno enters down the left, and Brad Jones gets yanked in favor of Simon Mignolet. While Markovic has played better on the left this season, the boost of Moreno over Henderson in a wide position gives Liverpool better overall options on the wings. More importantly, Hendo/Can inspires more confidence than the much maligned Gerrard/Lucas pairing.
But even if Rodgers trots out the same starting eleven against Burnley on Friday, the substantial tactical progress made over the past few weeks can still be celebrated. The decision to play Coutinho, Lallana, and Sterling in the hole against Arsenal was a masterstroke that sparked a positive attacking performance and left this Liverpool fan feeling optimistic about things to come.