It was a strange game wasn’t it. I don’t think anybody could have predicted this one would turn out the way it did. Who could have thought the mugsmashers will play us off the park? Granted that we haven’t done too well against the big teams in the recent past, but never have we been outplayed the way we were in the first half. I don’t think even Arsene would have found an excuse if Liverpool had taken a three goal lead by half time.
After seeing the team look disjointed and dispirited in the first half, only the most loyal supporters would really have believed in a turn around. How many would have predicted that the hosts will fail to get a single shot on target in the second half given their dominance in the first period? The only thing the believers amongst us could have predicted in this match was that Arshavin will have a moment or two of individual brilliance.
There has been enough media coverage about the half time team talk. I am assuming that you have, by now, read what Arsene said and how the players reacted. I think more than the team talk, Wenger’s tactical change made a big difference. Most people are calling it a swap of wings for Theo and Nasri. I think it was a change of formation. We changed to a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1.
In the first half we were too narrow in the middle and the wide men were caught out of position while attacking or defending due to constant pressing from Liverpool. Whenever we got the ball they closed us down in numbers and then switched the play to the other flank, where they always had a man free and a full back running in support. In case you hadn’t noticed, just check again how many times Liverpool switched the play with cross field balls.
I thought Arsene changed to four in the midfield and Nasri and Denilson did a good job of staying wide on the flanks to counter their threat. The scousers don’t really have a team that can move the ball as well as we do. They do have a team that can close down and tackle. They also thrive on finding wide players in free areas. By closing this avenue for their attack, we limited their options and they couldn’t get any attack flowing. Just see how many of their cross field balls in the second half were intercepted.
The other advantage was that it spread the play for us and allowed us more room to pass making Liverpool cover a much larger area. This opened the game up a little and negated their advantage of pressing in numbers. Suddenly it wasn’t so easy for them to get the ball and create a fast attack from the flanks.
The third advantage was that Agger and Carragher had another striker to deal with and it allowed Arshavin a chance to drop deep at times, giving us a man in the hole when needed. The Russian also had more freedom to move as there was a target man available even though Theo didn’t get many touches.
We also saw Nasri move to the right and he was able to focus more on attacking. In the first half he had to spend a lot of time tracking back to cover Johnson. Theo was having a poor time on the right and our flanks had been rendered useless. Nasri, with his better first touch, helped us keep the ball and create a few half chances.
Finally, Denilson was able to do a much better job of stopping the hosts from creating much from their right wing. I am not a big fan of the Brazilian but he does put in a decent shift and does what is asked of him rather efficiently. We didn’t create much from the left but that was acceptable.
In the past I have been critical of Wenger for his tactical decisions but this one was a masterstroke. I am happy that no one talked about the tactical decisions after the match although top managers will certainly have seen the change. It will be interesting to see if Wenger changes tack more often.
There were many talking points in the game. Torres showed he was rusty with a poor finish when through on goal. Gerrard got payback for his diving in the past. Incidentally, Rooney was booked for a blatant dive against Villa on Saturday. Is this weekend ominous or what!?
Almunia had a bad time in goal. He looked really short of confidence just like the whole team. But a goalkeeper’s mistakes are generally more costly. If he doesn’t get his act together, I can see a recurrence of his chest infection in the near future.
Our first goal showed the advantage of drilling a low cross across the opposition penalty box. We don’t have the height, at the moment, to compete with high balls in the box. It’s imperative that we put more balls between the defence and the keeper. Whenever defenders have to clear low crosses while facing their own goal, there is always a chance of a mistake or indecision.
Arshavin once again showed the importance of class. We have suffered in the past when the likes of Drogba or Ronaldo have taken their half chances. It’s important to have someone who can give it back just as good. The Russian will always be dangerous in and around the penalty box. A central role suits him in that sense and does not burden him with tracking back to the defensive third. Arsene should seriously consider tactics that give Arshavin more freedom, particularly in the big games.
I must say I am surprised Liverpool didn’t show any desire in the second half. In some ways it was similar to our disheartened efforts against Chelsea. Hopefully they will still beat our rivals when they visit Anfield.
Almunia: Very low on confidence, needs to see a sports psychologist.
Sagna: Worked hard and showed he is the best right back in the league at the moment.
Gallas: Looked nervous and made a few indiscreet tackles. I still think we need a better center back.
Vermaelen: Had a great game. He has set a high benchmark and such performances are expected from him. He shields Gallas’ weaknesses to some extent.
Traore: Had a difficult time. Was decent in the defensive third but looked lost while moving forward. Can’t complain too much about a third choice left back.
Song: Did a great job of breaking play. Should have released the ball faster in the first half.
Denilson: Got lost in the crowd in the first half. Was solid in the second.
Cesc: Had to drop deep in the first half and didn’t have anyone ahead of him. Got more room to express himself after the change of formation.
Walcott: Clearly out of touch! Was a mistake to start with him. He is not a natural footballer and will always take time to get his touch right after any long break.
Nasri: Was stifled in the first half. Came into his own in the second. I think he can still do better but he has been moved all over the pitch and it must be difficult to adapt so quickly. Given the way he adapts, he can be a real star in the coming years.
Arshavin: Was taken out of the game by Liverpool’s center backs in the first half. Class is class at the end of the day.
Subs: Diaby lacked focus but wasn’t fatal. Silvestre and Rambo hardly got time.
I didn’t want to put a random number against each player as I can never make up my mind about that. Feel free to leave your ratings.
Now, we have to build on this foundation.