It was such a good game for the most part. There was good possession, fluidity, number of chances created, and a couple of very enjoyable goals. And then there were the moments of madness. Predictable, infuriating, expensive.
Arsene started with a fairly well-balanced line-up. As was discussed in the preview, there were some calls that were always going to be tough to make. He went with Mertesacker in defence and Giroud up front. In the middle, Wenger left Diaby on the bench with Ramsey kept his place in the least-attacking midfielder role.
The opening patterns of play stuck to the script. Liverpool put pressure on the Gunners and tried stopping the build-up in the Arsenal half. They succeeded in preventing Wenger’s side from establishing any sort of a rhythm.
Soon enough, we had a comedy of errors – or is it tragedy – at the back.
Agger is able to bring the ball well into the Arsenal half without any pressure. Then Suarez fluffs his attempted pass, which in turn wrong-foots Sagna. Johnson’s advanced position is not tracked by Walcott. The full-backs cross goes past Mertesacker before Vermaelen produces a stunning air-kick while attempting a tougher clearance with his weaker foot instead of simply attacking the ball with the outside of his left foot. Sturridge can only hit Szczesny, who does well to make himself big. Ramsey attempts an ill-advised back heel or something of that sort when he could have tapped it back towards Mertesacker or Sagna. Henderson recovers possession and Suarez scores via a deflection – a shot that was otherwise probably headed straight towards Szczesny.
It’s another one of those freaky goals, the kind that Arsenal specialize in. Vermaelen’s was the primary error but there were a number of people who could have done better to defend the goal.
It was a fairly open game after that but Liverpool retreated into their own half as the game progressed. Walcott could have levelled it in the very next minute but he couldn’t beat Reina from close range. Sturridge had a half-chance a little later from a good counter-attack but couldn’t hit the target.
Arsenal then had 10-15 minute spell of possession that resulted in some promising moments. Vermaelen, in particular, missed a very good chance when Cazorla found him in the box following a set-piece situation. It seemed to me the Belgian wasn’t expecting that pass because of Cazorla’s tendency to shoot from such positions, and it took him a moment to realize what an opening he had. And in that moment the defenders got the time to close him down. It could also be that the Spaniard was too clever for everyone. Walcott forced a good save after Vermaelen’s effort was blocked.
In general, Arsenal were able to create some pressure and chances from their set-pieces.
A terrible pass from Mertesacker broke this spell and led to a corner for Liverpool. Szczesny came for it and was woefully short. Podolski cleared Agger’s header on the line.
Rest of the first-half followed similar patterns. You could see Liverpool were not able to compete with Arsenal in midfield and they did not want to spend all their energy in pressing higher up the pitch. They conceded possession and territory, often having 9 men back in the defensive third. Even Suarez was working hard tracking Sagna deep into his own half. But it was also evident that these tactics didn’t suit the Reds. Arsenal had enough chances and more were sure to come. There were goals in it for the Gunners. Only thing was, every time Liverpool got a chance to build some sort of an attack, the hosts looked vulnerable at the back.
The second-half was virtually a repeat of the first. Liverpool started brightly and had a couple of chances that were not taken. Then they dropped back and the Gunners had a few opportunities of their own.
The second goal was just as bad as the first. Vermaelen was pulled up the pitch by Sturridge and then given the run-around. Henderson got in between Mertesacker and Santos who both got into terrible positions, made wrong choics, and couldn’t show any strength or determination in the duels. Ramsey’s effort to block the shot was commendable but ultimately fatal. Without his intervention, it’s quite possible that Szczesny would have saved the initial shot. After the block, a deflection off Santos took everyone out of the game and opened the goal for Henderson. Again a freaky sort of goal, so typical of Arsenal.
This time the swift response registered on the board. The first goal was simple enough. Nicely floated free-kick was guided home by a well-positioned striker. The build-up of the second was a bit more intricate. Cazorla’s pass in to Giroud, the striker’s soft touch, and Walcott’s blistering finish were all perfect.
The patterns kept repeating. Arsenal had more chances to win the game but Reina wasn’t troubled as much. Giroud missed a great chance for the Gunners in the 87th minute. Suarez almost won it for the visitors in injury time.
Draw seemed a fair result on the balance of play. Both teams can take some positives but a lot of work needs to be done if they even want to stay in this scrap for fourth. Results elsewhere were helpful as only one team between positions 2 and 7 won it’s game.
Szczesny: Good save from Sturridge early on and then from Suarez at the death. Almost conceded a goal while overplaying in the six yard box and that flap from the corner was poor. And when I see Arsenal defending as they are, it’s really hard to give any credence to all the inspires confidence and organizes the defence stories.
Sagna: Unfortunate slip in the build up to the first goal, had a number of strong duels on his flank, wasn’t able to contribute much to the attack, but did a relatively decent job of defending given that he was up against a wily customer like Suarez.
Mertesacker: One of his worst games in an Arsenal shirt. Should have read the danger the moment Sagna slipped and dropped back quickly thus cutting the angle for Johnson, but he was a tad slow to react. Terrible pass led to a corner and a shot on target. Simply awful for the second goal.
Vermaelen: Incredible blooper for the first goal, struggled against the movement of Sturridge all through the game. Missed a great chance in the Liverpool box. Another one who’s had better days.
Gibbs: Liverpool didn’t really try to attack his flank while he was on the pitch. Was a useful presence in the attacking areas. Unfortunate injury but not surprising.
Santos: Was a liability and it was noticeable that Henderson often moved towards his side and the visitors were able to double up on him. Another one who simply has to do better. But can he?
For close to three years now I’ve talked about the importance of collective defending and the need for a good defensive shape. But this season the back four have been very poor. The mistakes we’ve seen in this game are amateurish. It wasn’t amateur hour for duration of the game or Liverpool would have scored half a dozen goal but there were just too many disturbing moments.
Ramsey: Probably his best game in this new role, which is saying something. Very energetic and determined performance. Made the wrong choice for the first goal and was unfortunate for the second but the effort cannot be faulted. Also played his part in some attacking moments.
Cazorla: Good pre-assist for the second goal, created an excellent chance for Vermaelen and some others, was influential in the attacking third of the pitch.
Wilshere: Another strong driving performance. Took players on and won a number of fouls. Good delivery for the assists, created a good chance for Walcott, and put in a decent defensive shift as well.
The midfielders dominated the ball and were largely responsible for Arsenal’s possession and territorial control, which in turn made creating chances easier.
Walcott: Sensational goal, had a couple of other excellent attempts, could have done better in the 6th minute and then with the header in the 54th minute. A small proportion of blame can be put on his shoulders for not tracking Johnson’s run for the first goal and he lost the ball in the build-up to Liverpool’s second. Did have a couple of impressive runs down the right but crosses didn’t find their target. He is developing into a potent attacking weapon but will need more efficiency if the team has to live with some technical weaknesses and lack of defensive work. Alternatively, he can improve his defensive contribution. You just have to see how hard Suarez worked to see the room for improvement.
Giroud: Took his goal well and also had a good assist. His touch, in general, was better as he linked meaningfully with other attackers. Could he have maybe converted one of his other chances, particularly the one in the 87th minute? His physical qualities were useful all over the pitch.
Podolski: Created an excellent chance for Walcott and one for Giroud. Had a couple of powerful shots that just missed the target. Had a good offensive game and cleared a ball off the line but he could probably have done better to support Santos.
The attackers had a good game but it wasn’t good enough. Neither Podolski nor Walcott is primarily to blame for the defensive shambles but they can both improve their defensive contributions.
Wenger: There are just so many niggling issues and the diverse qualities of various opponents seem to bring out different ones in successive games. But he has to find a way to cut out basic individual errors in defence before dealing with the other problems.Follow @goonerdesi