The sequence of events in the build-up to and culminating in Lukas Podolski’s first Arsenal goal provides some interesting talking points.
It starts with a Pepe Reina goal-kick.
This frame has been frozen just after Sahin kicked the ball back to Reina following a quick short goal-kick from the Spaniard that found the German on the edge of the box.
Let’s look at the positioning of the players closely. Skrtel (top left) and Agger (not visible, outside the right edge of the image) have moved wide and Sahin has dropped deep. Giroud (bottom right) and Podolski (not visible, out on the left of the image) are in good positions to block passes to the Liverpool centre-backs. Cazorla is getting close to Sahin. Joe Allen can be seen in the bottom left part of the image.
Rodgers wants his team to focus on retaining possession and Liverpool are in a classic shape for a team that wants to play the ball out from the back. They’ve spread out and are trying to make the pitch as big as possible. We’ll talk more about this as we move into other snapshots that highlight the positions of other players. In this context, it’s worth noting that Reina completed 21 of his 24 passes in this game as against 7/16 for Mannone.
Somewhat surprisingly, Arsenal can be seen pressing really high up the pitch. This was atypical of their approach during this game where they sat back for large parts as Zonal Marking astutely noted. As has been typical in recent months though, the Gunners were, and this was crucial to the goal, not cohesive with their pressing. In other words, there was no one following up on the high press of the three attackers.
In the snapshot above we see Joe Allen receiving the ball somewhere in the centre of the picture, i.e. just outside his penalty box.
Podolski can be seen towards the top in a position where he could close Skrtel down. Cazorla had moved forward as he followed the ball from Sahin to Reina, which is a natural run when pressing, and can now be seen around the penalty spot in the Liverpool box.
The problem for Arsenal was that they did not have anyone pressing Allen. Arteta is seen on the left of the image as he was rushing forward at speed to close the Welshman down but that was merely a reactive measure. The Gunners didn’t apply a full-court press, so to speak, and this negated any advantage that could have been gained from having three players pressurizing defenders on the edge of the opposition penalty box.
The team that does not have the ball should ideally be trying to make the pitch as small as possible but, through their incoherent pressing, Wenger’s team actually offered the hosts an opening that they could have exploited by clever use of the space behind the players pressing. As the Gunners had three players deep inside Liverpool territory, the back four should have pushed up to the centre line and squeezed play in the opposition half with the help of the midfielders. But Vermaelen and Co. stayed deeper with Diaby and Arteta stranded.
Allen had enough time to control Reina’s pass, turn, and then find Johnson who was stretching the playing area of the pitch by hugging the touchline. Huge space opens up in front of Arsenal’s back four as the first line of defence is easily bypassed.
At this point, Diaby can be seen wide on the left trying to close Johnson down. Arteta and Podolski are sprinting back to help the vulnerable defence. Gerrard sees the space and darts forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain is also inside the Liverpool half virtually parallel to Gerrard but further towards the right of the pitch (his head can be seen towards the bottom of the image).
In short Arsenal had five players in Liverpool’s half. The gaps between the lines were huge. It could have developed into a 5-v-5 in the Arsenal half. With intelligent movement and passing the hosts really could have made the Gunners pay.
But things start going wrong for the Reds.
As Johnson moves forward with the ball, Gerrard and Suarez get into the same space. Suarez has vacated the space in front of Arsenal’s central defenders. If he’d stayed there, the Uruguayan international would have had a great chance of running in behind or linking with his captain. Gerrard would also have had more space to manoeuvre the ball. Vermaelen and Mertesacker might have had a real problem here but the Liverpool duo compressed space for them through their inefficient movement.
Gerrard then tries a first time pass but his touch is poor. This technical mistake presents Vermaelen the opportunity to nick the ball and prevent a dangerous situation from becoming worse.
If we pause for a moment and give it a second thought we see that events thus far have been a collection of mistakes and poor choices by both sides rather than great football, although Liverpool’s tactical approach worked early on in the move. The Premier League generally has faster and more end-to-end style of play but some people feel the Italian and Spanish league’s have better technical and tactical qualities. The above seems a good example of the same.
In a recent interview with El Pais (in Spanish) Cazorla said,
Arteta has advised me a lot, he told me football is much faster and less tactical than Spain. It’s more give-and-go.
Backwards Gooner penned (typed?!) a couple of excellent pieces analyzing Barcelona’s brilliance. One of his observations was that the Catalans (also applicable to the Spanish national team) rarely rushed forward in attack. Barcelona always, virtually instinctively, try to ensure they don’t lose their shape and are thus able to compress or expand the pitch at will. Of course, they’ve mastered the possession based game and their players show a high level of tactical maturity as they adhere to the system even at the risk of missing some opportunities. This does make them look slow, dare I say boring, at times and allows the opponents to get men behind the ball, but it also helps them keep their goal well protected.
Liverpool want to play a possession based style and their effort is clearly visible but the principles aren’t fully engrained in the thought processes of their players. In this case they were too direct and rushed forward. This did not allow their defence enough time to push up and close gaps. A technical mistake, that is often harmless in that part of the pitch, proved fatal.
The Gunners, on the other hand, showed better decision making, awareness, desire, and technical execution. It started with Vermaelen’s quick but precise interception-cum-pass that found Podolski in space.
As the events took place at such speed – roughly seven seconds passed between Allen passing the ball to Johnson and Vermaelen making the interception – the Reds didn’t have any time to close their opponents down.
This was another vital detail as Podolski was able to receive the ball in space. He also had the time to turn and weigh his options.
Giroud and Cazorla didn’t chase back and this left them in a 2-v-2 against the Liverpool centre-backs. In the aforementioned interview, the Spaniard also said Wenger has given his greater freedom on the pitch as a second striker,
Moreover, the boss has put me in a position, second striker, with all the freedom I want to have.
Allen and Sahin had pushed up but they got caught in a no man’s land on this quick transition. Jose Enrique was wide on the left, outside this image, providing width on the other flank. Jenkinson, the other player not visible in this snapshot, was keeping him company.
There are a few points worth noting here. Podolski didn’t have a straight pass towards Cazorla as Allen was blocking it. He couldn’t simply play it down the line either as Skrtel would have mopped up. Cazorla read this situation and moved back and across to create an angle for the German who was on the same page and executed the pass perfectly.
Another crucial detail was the run from Giroud who shaped to get in behind Agger. This pulled the Danish defender back. If the Frenchman had been drawn towards the ball, as Suarez had done moments earlier, he might have gotten in the way of Cazorla thereby allowing Agger the opportunity to get a foot in to disrupt the move.
As things turned out Giroud dragged the defender with him, which allowed Cazorla space and time on the ball.
After that it seemed easy but the assist provider and scorer still had to get the pass and finish right. An over hit ball from the Spaniard or a hasty attempt from the German would have led to a wasted chance. But both these players demonstrated their physical and technical qualities in shrugging off the attentions of the defenders to create the major breakthrough.
Often, we tend to think that a team scoring the goal did everything right but in this instance it’s clear the opportunity resulted from Arsenal’s incoherent pressing. On another day the Gunners might have paid the price for the gaps in their defence. Football is a game of percentages and Wenger won’t want his players spread out over the pitch when out of possession as the odds of conceding are higher than those of scoring such goals on the break.
For their part, the hosts started with the right approach. They were looking to stretch the pitch and it appeared to have worked for them when Johnson received the ball. But the Reds reverted to the direct form of football and made a decisive mistake on the ball when the shape was awry. Brendan Rodgers would certainly want a better technical and tactical effort from his players. He probably doesn’t want to (or can’t) emulate Barcelona completely but a better balance between the quick attacking style and the more patient approach is needed.
At the other end, Podolski revelled in a counter-attacking scenario that he’s seen so often with the German national side. Along with Cazorla, the striker made it look easy but their decision making and execution was only possible due to years of training. Both these players, and Giroud, knew how to think and act in this situation. It’s something that cannot be taught easily. And in such moments we can see the kind of value that Arsene Wenger has purchased for a relative pittance.
In the upcoming weeks, don’t be surprised if Liverpool find their defence exposed while the players try to find the balance between the direct style and the possession game. Meanwhile, watch out for more Arsenal crackers on the break.Follow @goonerdesi