This game was going to tell us the state of the rebuilding projects at each club and it did just that.
Arsenal have a strong foundation to build on. They’ve put up a solid defensive show once again and this time against very proactive, technically-oriented, and crafty opponents. The new signings are clicking, slowly but steadily.
Liverpool, on the other hand, have made their worst start to a season in half a century. Their game had energy, desire, effort, and guile but it lacked precision and composure in the vital attacking areas. They’ve also bitten the defensive mistakes bug that had afflicted Arsenal in the seasons past.
The patterns of the game were quite predictable. Both teams started with a high tempo and forced mistakes from the opponents. Initial passing and decision making was erratic on both sides. Mertesacker was forced into a professional foul on Suarez and picked up a booking as early as the 6th minute.
The Gunners quickly realized their pressing wasn’t cohesive and therefore wasn’t sufficiently effective. So Arsenal dropped deeper into their half leaving Liverpool defenders free on the ball. The hosts on the other hand were intent on pressing higher up the pitch and were effective for most parts in at least slowing Arsenal down or in disrupting the visitors’ rhythm.
In the last few seasons the Gunners have looked vulnerable when their passing game doesn’t quite work as expected. But in this game they showed many marked improvements.
Firstly, the midfield – Arteta and Diaby in particular but ably supported by the wide players – played really close to the defence. This minimized the gaps between the lines and eased the pressure on the centre backs who were able to concentrate on reading the game. In turn, this helped them make many vital interceptions, clearances, and blocks.
Secondly, Arsenal showed the ability to hold on to the ball to ease the pressure on many occasions even if it didn’t eventually lead to attacking opportunities. We didn’t see the instances so common last season when the ball was hoofed up the pitch only to return to the defensive third within seconds. Apart from making timely interceptions, strong tackles, and winning duels, all the midfielders clocked over 90 percent passing accuracy. This helped on both fronts mentioned above.
Thirdly, Arsenal were compact through the middle and didn’t allow clear passing channels open. All the players seemed to read the game well.
Arsenal’s zonal marking on set-pieces looked effective.
In all, Arsenal’s defending wasn’t haphazard, reliant on last gasp tackles, or desperate attempts to block. The Gunners looked assured at the back forcing Liverpool to prove they had the creativity and accuracy to break them down. The hosts failed. Most of Liverpool’s possession was in front of the Arsenal defence and they hardly found any time or space in threatening attacking areas.
At the other end, Liverpool too were well organized for most parts of the game. It wasn’t as if Reina was forced into making one great save after another. But crucially, Rodgers’ men made fundamental mistakes as the back, the kind of which we’ve often seen from previous Arsenal sides. And the Gunners punished them with clinical and ruthless finishing.
Arsenal’s first goal is a classic example of many of these points. It started with a comfortable interception by Vermaelen who was composed and in a good position to read the game. The defender combined an interception and a forward pass into one touch. Podolski received the pass halfway inside the defensive half. He was able to turn without any pressure.
At that moment, the positioning of many Liverpool players was abysmal. Allen and Sahin were in a no man’s land. Johnson was wider on the flank whereas Podolski had drifted inside. But the biggest problem for the hosts was that their central defenders were 20-25 yards behind the midfield, deep in their own half. Cazorla had acres of space in which to receive a pass and drive forward.
Poldi was also able to burst forward without effective tracking from Johnson. Allen and Sahin, it’s important to note, were jogging back. It was a measured but simple enough assist consummated by a well-placed but routine finish. There’s no doubt about the quality that Cazorla and Podolski possess but they didn’t have to produce something extraordinary to score. Liverpool have a lot of work to do on the training ground.
For the second goal the two new signings combined again but this time they swapped roles as Podolski turned provider while Cazorla opened his Arsenal account. Not to take anything away from the quality of the move and finish but once again Rodgers must be deeply disappointed with the effort of some of his players. Shelvey, to name one, arbitrarily stopped tracking the Spaniard’s run. Reina should really have done better with the shot but once you get an attacker shooting directly at goal from that distance it’s always tough for the Keeper.
Broadly speaking, the patterns of play were as anticipated. Liverpool did have a couple of penalty shouts but I haven’t had a chance to see them closely (honest, not pulling an Arsene here!) so I don’t have a firm opinion on either. My first impression was that Mertesacker pulled Suarez back but this is a tricky one. I do like to see strong action from the referee in such situations but it’s happened against Arsenal so often that I’ve also lamented the Gunners’ inability to get away with such tussles when defending. So part of me is happy that Mertesacker did what he did and dealt with the situation while the other thinks Liverpool had a strong shout against the defender. And that’s without seeing the replays.
This game was always going to be about who makes the most mistakes and who makes the most of opponents’ mistakes. Liverpool did the former and Arsenal the latter. 0-2 seems like a convincing score line and the hosts should thank Giroud it’s not worse.
Mannone: Was extremely shaky against some aerial balls into the box. Palmed one shot straight back into the dangerous area. Did make the saves he had to even if they were straightforward. Once again, a strong and well-organized defence made the Keeper look good.
Jenkinson: Very strong defensive display against a young but tricky opponent. Won 4 of his 6 tackles and 7 of his 9 ground duels. Passing suffered under pressure and better is needed. Only completed 72 percent of his passes. He’s done reasonably well in a conservative role and has helped the side retain its defensive shape.
Mertesacker: Lacked his usual composure. Picked up an early booking as he was easily turned by Suarez. Struggled throughout the game with the movement of the nimble Liverpool attackers. Passing accuracy wasn’t in the usual mid-nineties either as he was pressurized by opponents deep inside the Arsenal half. Flirted with danger but got away with it. Did get his foot on the ball in certain situations that could have turned lethal in or around the box.
Vermaelen: An aggressive but controlled display from the Belgian. Was almost always in the right place to make vital clearances. Started the move for the first goal as described above. Did a good job of covering for other defenders, especially Gibbs.
Gibbs: Bombed up and down the pitch with boundless energy showing appreciable decision making. Got into good attacking positions but could have done better with the choice/execution of the pass/shot on more than one occasion. Another one who did a good job defensively in terms of getting into good positions and showing composure to retain the shape.
The back four were well protected and used that cover to remain organized and largely impenetrable. It’s still a long way from perfect but this was the first game after a long time where the Arsenal defending looked assured and reliable.
Diaby: MotM in my book. Absolutely immense in the midfield. Dominated the areas he was in irrespective of the actual position on the pitch. Was able to hold on to possession under pressure, often from more than one player. Passing was crisp not slow or laborious. Produced a number of driving runs and should have had an assist. Very committed defensive effort as well.
Cazorla: Crucial part in both the decisive moments of the game. Inch perfect ball that found the run of Podolski was followed up by an excellent circular run, a precise give-and-go, and a powerful finish. Another player who was comfortable on the ball under pressure and helped the defence through his calmness, movement, and understanding of various game situations.
Arteta: Close second for the MotM. Another superb defensive display from the Spaniard. Positioning was virtually textbook. Helped move the ball at speed when Arsenal had to deal with intense pressing. Just knew what to do in each situation.
Balance has been the buzzword in the Arsenalsphere for a while now and on this blog for close to two years. This was a delightfully balanced midfield performance with responsible defensive work, energetic ball rotation, and opportunistic and effective attacking.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Wasn’t able to influence the attack in a manner that Wenger probably wants from the right flank. Provided a fair bit of defensive cover and was strong in tackles and duels.
Giroud: Very disappointing. Missed three very good chances; one from a Diaby break, another from a corner, and a late one-v-one from a long ball. Movement and effort was commendable but that isn’t enough.
Podolski: Right up there with Arteta and very close to Diaby as far as this game goes. Extraordinary display of pace and power to charge forward for his goal which was taken almost nonchalantly at the end of a lung bursting sprint. Linked brilliantly with Cazorla and other players in the attacking areas. Very useful defensive shift.
Subs: Santos and Ramsey completed all their passes and helped take the sting out of any late Liverpool pressure. Koscielny hardly got any time on the pitch.
Wenger: It was a battle of similar philosophies for a change and Le Boss came on top. But along with the manager, Steve Bould deserves credit for the work done with the defence. I was reluctant to praise the former Gunner after the first couple of games as the opponents offered no real threat but in this game genuine improvement was visible. Nevertheless, without consistency it will amount to nothing more than a few moments of joy. This was just the first step on a long walk.Follow @goonerdesi