Sometimes, when you’ve suffered so much through bad luck, such a win is immensely enjoyable despite all the frustrations. Pure delight!
That’s how I felt after the win at Anfield. It wasn’t a great performance but it was a terrific result. The effort was there but it wasn’t – predictably – as well structured as needed and thus resulted in an inefficient game that was, ironically, capped by super efficient supply and finishes.
Liverpool’s energetic pressing and slick movement had Arsenal in knots, especially in the first half. Van Persie questioned whether Arsenal “deserved the win” and Szczesny acknowledged the Gunners “…got killed all over the park” in the first half. But one could just as easily ask whether Liverpool deserved to win that game. When you consider the fact that Dalglish’s side have had similar problems all through the season, it’s hard to say there aren’t certain basic problems with the way they play; finishing chances being the most obvious one. Let’s not forget, at the end of the day Arsenal had more shots on target than the hosts who managed to test Szczesny with only 4 efforts, two of which came from that terribly botched penalty and it’s tame rebound. Even if you include the shots that hit the other Poles in the Arsenal goal – which is technically incorrect but does add an extra degree of perspective, the Reds still managed fewer shots on target.
The broader patterns of play were predictable. Arsenal were trying to push forward but couldn’t handle Liverpool’s urgency which exposed certain oft-discussed technical and tactical deficiencies in the side. This left the defence exposed time and again and allowed Liverpool the opportunity to stretch the back four over vast spaces. The Reds looked good at it but didn’t really create that many quality chances. This seems like an odd thing to say but, as mentioned above, Szczesny wasn’t making as many great saves as, say, Almunia did against Barcelona. And let’s not forget the penalty was a really generous gift from the Ref.
Nevertheless, such an opinion should not be interpreted to mean Liverpool weren’t the clearly dominant side in the first half, just that their dominance resulted – in part – from certain inherent weaknesses in the way Arsenal play and was marred by basic problems in their own game.
One of the problems for Liverpool was that they relied a lot on width and crosses, as inefficient an attacking tactic as can be. If they’d cut Arsenal open through the middle they might have had a better probability of scoring. Ironically though, the Gunners did get their equalizer from a cross, their only successful one from eight attempts! This brings us to the differences between Suarez and Van Persie.
Limiting it only to their efforts on the pitch, it would seem the Uruguayan is a right handful with his movement and tricks with the ball at his feet. But he is anonymous as far as an aerial threat goes and is generally wasteful. Suarez could only hit the post from a tight angle whereas Van Persie found the back of the net from a much more difficult volley where he also had to beat the Keeper. The Liverpool striker also succeeded with only 3 of his 11 attempts at taking defenders on.
As a side note it’s important to record that Reina’s positioning was very poor. Even the best Keepers in the world make mistakes.
Van Persie is a much more complete striker. He got the better of Carragher for the first goal. I’d mentioned in the preview he’ll fancy his chances more against the Englishman than he’d have against Agger. A host of such small details make the big differences over the course of the season. The Dutchman’s movement, awareness, technique, and composure were truly extraordinary for the second goal. He went in behind and wide to the left before moving forward ensuring his momentum was towards the goal. While doing this he’d already stolen a glance at the goal to see Reina’s position which, in turn, allowed him to place the ball without applying any real force on the shot. It was all about timing – timing of the run, timing of the look, timing of the strike. And who can say the timing in the context of the game could have been any better!?
In stark contrast, Liverpool’s goal, although it came from a cross from the Right, was essentially a blunder from Koscielny as he was under relatively little pressure. The defender went for force instead of calmly guiding the ball behind for a corner. This put him off-balance and was the major factor behind his attempt being mistimed/scuffed. He will learn with experience. Arsenal used to make such errors more often in the past but have slowly developed this ability and willingness to concede corners and throws when under pressure. It is, at least in part, linked with their ability to defend such situations and that has certainly improved.
To an extent, one could also argue Kelly’s miss at the back post – from Liverpool’s only real chance of the second half – was very similar to Koscielny’s mistake for the own goal. The defender was under relatively less pressure than you’d expect an attacking player to be in such a situation but he lost composure and completely fluffed his effort. The youngster might also have lost sight of the ball momentarily due to the movement of defenders between him and the ball. That’s just one of the factors that makes crosses so inefficient.
Arsenal were better organized in the second half but rarely developed a spell of sustained pressure. Reina was forced into a couple of big saves by Walcott, one in each half, and there were other occasions when the Gunners found the target but it wasn’t an exceptional attacking display by any means. Liverpool’s ability to push Arsenal back and their cohesive pressing in the middle of the park ensured their defence wasn’t constantly under pressure. Van Persie though, with superb assists from Sagna and Song, had more than enough quality to make the difference.
Looking forward, it’s difficult to say both sides will not see a repeat of such scenarios in other games. Liverpool will create chances there is no doubt about that. But will they finish them any better? Arsenal will continue to have defensive issues but in most cases their attacking quality will have a say in the result.
Szczesny: His best effort for weeks. Should bring some confidence back. Double save from the penalty was sensational but, more importantly, his judgment and decision making of when to come and what to do after coming was spot on. Would have been MotM in my book on another day but will have to settle for close second in this one.
Sagna: Had a hard time with his passing and runs up the pitch, understandably. But made the vital contribution for the equalizer with a peach of a cross. Had to chase back a lot but won both is tackles and 4/6 ground duels. Also made a couple of timely interceptions. Had the most touches and lost possession most often but it was a fighting display from the full-back.
Koscielny: Bad mistake for the goal, which was a technical and judgment issue, and not an unfortunate moment in my opinion. But he also made a team-high 5 interceptions to go with his tackles (5/6), ground duels (7/12), and clearances (7/9) in a frantic but largely effective defensive effort.
Vermaelen: Was a lot more composed than Koscielny but he too had his weak moments. Did keep Arsenal in the game by winning most of his individual battles – 3/4 tackles, 4/6 ground duels, 2/3 aerial duels + 2 interceptions.
Gibbs: Made a couple of incisive attacking runs but it was another such run that exposed the left side and resulted in the free space for Henderson in the build-up to the Liverpool goal. Had the second highest figure for total loss of possession. Won all three tackles and 7/12 ground duels.
Arsenal’s full-backs lost the ball often, mainly because they were the channel for getting out and had to face constant pressure. They were also pushing up regularly in the first half and ended up chasing back when Liverpool used the space behind them rather intelligently. The central defenders were stretched all over the place but did commendably in their duels reducing the impact the hosts could have had. When everything failed Szczesny stood tall. Arsenal’s defence again looked shaky but it’s a broader technical and tactical issue that is largely not their fault.
Song: Another player who had to put in a massive defensive shift. Wasn’t very effective with his duels, winning only 4/11 of his ground duels, but he kept getting back to plug the holes winning possession back in defensive areas a team-high 7 times. Made the most passes for the Gunners including that, now trademark, chip for RvP and the through-ball for Gibbs.
Rosicky: Little Mozart didn’t have anywhere near the kind of impact he had against Tottenham as space and time on the ball were at a premium. Was as involved as Song and played a big role in defending after Arteta had to be taken off. Had as many touches and made as many successful passes as Song including a couple of pre-assists where he found teammates in space. In the first instance his run towards the centre sucked Downing away from Sagna.
Arteta: Wasn’t at his usual efficiency levels as the whole team was struggling but provided the work rate and defensive shift in front of the back four. It seems he had a concussion, hopefully it won’t have any long term impact.
Diaby: Short cameo from the returning midfielder. Completed all his passes and was efficient in the duels but looked a touch off-pace. It’s hard to say his return wasn’t a rush job after another injury.
Arsenal’s midfield was again regularly caught in a no man’s land. They tried to push up but the Gunners just couldn’t hold the ball up well enough for it to work. Players deserve credit for putting in a hardworking yo-yo shift where they tried to go forward but had to chase back. Also deserve credit for creating the chances despite the constant defensive effort.
Walcott: Did make some intelligent runs. Tested Reina more than once. Also tracked back more than he’d have liked. This is the kind of game where he could have made an impact if he got a chance to play on the shoulder of the last defender but he had to drop deep into the Arsenal half far too often as the system required him to.
RvP: Just world class. Service to him was inconsistent at best and such games can be hugely frustrating for strikers. The way he maintained his work rate and concentration before producing two top quality finishes made him MotM in my opinion.
Benayoun: Was quite poor once again. It’s not hard to see why Arsene didn’t play him earlier. His movement and thinking is not in sync with the rest of the team and that puts him a yard or two behind the pace of the game. Tottenham’s shoddy defence didn’t expose this but Liverpool found him wanting, badly. Attempted only 9 passes in the first half and a total of 17 before he was taken off. Defensive contribution wasn’t noteworthy either.
Arsenal’s front three were isolated for most of the game and Benayoun’s limitations meant that he could never provide the qualities of the additional midfielder that might have helped Arsenal retain the ball when under pressure. This is an area where Arsene has a headache right now. Picking two quick and direct players provides excellent threat down the wide areas but the midfield is overwhelmed when the opposition can match them technically and are well-organized. Starting a player like Benayoun should ideally help but the Israeli hasn’t quite clicked. This diminishes the threat out wide and doesn’t really add to the possession component of the game in the manner that is needed.
Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed with his energy in a central midfield role but he clearly has little or no experience in that area. Gervinho brought some pace and an added threat on the left even when he wasn’t as involved.
Wenger: Can anyone deny the gaps in his tactical system when the side is stretched and pinned back in that manner? But he deserves credit for the improved second half effort and for the quality of goals as they can’t be produced without quality training. Just ask Dalglish!Follow @goonerdesi