Okay, from now on I’m limiting all predictions to ‘a draw or worse’ as far as big games are concerned. On a more serious note, I accept the comment which says it’s not good to say something like that when many fans visiting a blog want to believe. Not that I’m going to change my opinions, but there certainly are better ways to articulate a point, or three. That the article was written after a whole day of driving to attend a funeral (someone in the extended family, not very close to me personally) cannot be an excuse.
Anyway, let’s start the discussion on the game that was a very good performance from the Gunners resulting in an important win that goes some way in countering the questions raised by defeats against Dortmund and Chelsea. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned often, such wins have to be way more common than defeats or draws if the Gunners have to sustain serious title hopes over the course of the season.
At the moment, that is not the case – partly because the side hasn’t played that many big games, and the next few games will tell us more – so we can’t really read too much into a win of this nature, however enjoyable it is from a personal point of view as a fan.
Most analyses and opinions that I’ve read after the match have done the typical spin-most-things-in-favour-of-winners routine. To me, this was a game which showed why Arsenal consistently finish in the top four despite challenges from various clubs and even when many people write them off, but it was also one which showed why the Gunners haven’t really won anything.
In many ways, Wenger’s side had actually played better in the game they’d lost against Dortmund than they did in this one. That doesn’t mean Arsenal were poor in this game – remember, this isn’t an either-or state where a team is either very good or very bad – but they were certainly a tad lucky at times.
Against Dortmund, for instance, the Gunners were punished on both occasions when they were sloppy. In this game, they got away with six instances for one reason or another. Henderson’s run in the first half, Atkinson stopping a quick restart, the two lapses in concentration by Szczesny and Mertesacker towards the end, Suarez’s run in the 49th minute, and the Suarez shot that grazed the upright.
In the recent past, Arsenal’s ability to minimize quality chances for opponents has been impressive but that was not the case in this game. In fairness, given the individual qualities of Suarez and Sturridge, this was always going to be one of the tougher tests in that regard.
The patterns of play varied as the game went on. There were four long balls in the opening minute as both sides pressed up the pitch and neither got control of possession. Liverpool settled in quicker as the Gunners were perhaps a bit tentative. But the interesting part was that the visitors dropped back into their own half very early in the game, probably in the first five minutes or so.
Instead of pressing on the centre line or inside the Arsenal half, Rodgers’ side were trying to remain compact a good 10 yards or so inside their own half. This was a major tactical win for the Gunners, founded on their obvious technical superiority, and it meant transitions were always going to be that much less dangerous due to the time it would take to turn over.
Even when Henderson broke forward, if you look closely, it seems that the three defensive Arsenal players were keen on protecting a passing opportunity towards Suarez or Sturridge instead of stopping the midfielder’s run from so far out. Mertesacker stayed wide with the Uruguayan while Koscielny stayed towards the Englishman. There was a big gap between the two central defenders but even then Arteta, too, was positioned in the passing channel towards Sturridge.
This worked well for the Gunners in that instance as Sagna had the time to chase back and force a rushed shot. But a better player advancing forward would have caused serious trouble. In fact, one could even argue that the lack of quality behind Suarez and Sturridge was consistently exposed by Arsenal and highlighted technical weaknesses within Liverpool ranks that affected their attacking options and ability to control the ball. This worked in Arsenal’s favour throughout the game.
Liverpool’s formation was part of their problem as it was not suited to pressing higher up the pitch because the wing-backs could not come inside to track Arsenal’s wide players constantly going narrow and swapping positions with other midfielders. The Gunners scored when they bypassed an ineffective pressing attempt. When Arteta received the ball there were five Liverpool players pretty high up inside the Arsenal half. But their pressing lacked cohesion and the Spaniard was able to advance down the pitch with relative ease. Sagna, too, was able to break forward into space while Cazorla came into the box unmarked.
There was an element of luck in this goal for the Gunners as the ball could have deflected anywhere from the upright but it came into Cazorla’s path. Then again, it can be argued that Arsenal made their own luck by exploiting space with appreciable coordination and precision.
Arsenal’s midfield dominance was also seen in the numerous combination plays that led to shots on target or near misses with the final ball lacking quality. Their wing-backs stayed so wide they were hardly useful while Lucas and Gerrard had a hard time in front of the flat back three. This is where Rodgers’ reluctance to play Agger is very surprising as he is someone who can step up to make a difference but that’s only a minor side note in this analysis.
The visitors improved in the second half with the introduction of Coutinho for Cissokho as they got one more body in the midfield and their defence was spread out more efficiently. The Brazilian was erratic but his passing did get more out of the attackers, particularly Suarez.
It’s not a surprise most of Liverpool’s quality moments came in the second half and they looked a much better team in that period.
Even then the Gunners had their own spells on counter-attacks – Giroud could have done better on a couple of occasions – and continued working impressive combinations involving three or more players. If anything, I was a little disappointed Arsenal didn’t have more efficiency in their attack as they could have scored four!
Ramsey’s goal was a bit special and reflective of his current form. The way he waited for the ball to drop perfectly instead of snatching at the opportunity was a sign of confidence and composure. Liverpool’s inability to close him down despite the waiting period betrayed their structural and individual weaknesses.
Ultimately, the game ended 2-0 but it could easily have been a 2-2 draw or a 4-2 for the Gunners depending on either team’s efficiency.
Szczesny: Didn’t have too many saves to make – somewhat fortunately – but did well to go wide and snuff out the angle on a couple of occasions. Again lacked judgment when coming for a couple of crosses and almost handed the ball on a plate to Sturridge. Can he do better with his long kicks?
Sagna: Excellent run and cross for the goal (It was probably the only cross the Gunners were successful with). Good recovery pace and did well to force Henderson’s error, but one might argue he could have sensed the danger a little sooner. Didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does but was quite judicious in possession. Same can be said about his positioning and choices.
Mertesacker: Often got into very good positions in the box to cut out danger. I liked the way he stayed with Suarez when Henderson was charging forward. Provided stability and calmness at the back. Lucky that his late giveaway wasn’t punished and that remains the only blemish in an otherwise impressive performance.
Koscielny: A lot more aggressive and busier than his partner. It was interesting to see him get tight to the strikers a lot more often and was largely successful in denying them space. But there were two or three occasions when the strikers got the better off him – Sturridge left him on his backside in the first half, Suarez produced an audacious moment to run in behind in the 49th min – and that could have been costly on another day. Passing was very limited but completely reliable.
Gibbs: Probably did enough to deflect that Suarez shot onto the post. Also well positioned when Henderson shot over the bar. Strong defensive game, although did benefit from having a weak opponent in Flanagan. Chose his attacking moments wisely but he can do better with the final ball or choice in a crowded space.
The defenders had a good game and covered well for each other. The full-backs were cautious with their positioning and rarely left the central defenders on their own, which was important against such quality attackers. For instance, when Sturridge went past Koscielny, Gibbs was there to put pressure on him. They did so without compromising attacking intent, which led to a well-balanced performance that gave Arsenal a tactical edge. The central defenders, for their part, were mostly very good at closing the attackers down. Mertesacker might not have made many tackles, but his positioning often broke opportunities down.
Despite that, the five percent or so time when they had a drop could have resulted in a couple of goals for Liverpool and that is something they have to tighten up on, particularly in big games. The truly big teams do not give opponents a sniff.
Arteta: Saw a lot of the ball and was again exceptional on and off it. Easily the MotM in my opinion. Superb defensive support and showed why Wenger calls him the technical leader in a side blessed with such gifted individuals in midfield. Very good at choosing the direction and timing of his passes as well as movement. Provided the foundation for the players in front to shine on.
Özil: Really enjoying his work rate and ability to blend in as just another very good midfielder instead of a prima donna through whom everything must flow. Also love the way he just waits and shift the ball slightly or alters his body position to thread the proverbial eye of the needle. That ability helped with the assist for the Ramsey goal. Had a couple of decent chances to score and shooting remains one of the major areas of improvement. There are moments when he doesn’t seem happy and I cannot quite understand if it’s limited to a mistake by someone or something deeper.
Ramsey: Outstanding goal. Top level work rate. Many very good touches in the attacking areas as he linked beautifully with other more highly rated technicians. But in those areas you could also see room for improving his efficiency, which could make him a seriously scary prospect for opponents.
Cazorla: Very well taken goal, particularly like the way he maintained his concentration after the header and placed the shot intelligently to avoid Skrtel and Mignolet. Created a very good chance for Giroud and work rate was pretty good including some useful defensive moments.
Rosicky: His combinations with others were a delight to watch. Started early with the first shot on target and was involved with many attacking moves. Filled into central roles seamlessly when others moved around the pitch.
All five midfielders played more passes than any of Arsenal’s defenders. That doesn’t happen very often. But in this game it showed two things – the defenders were cautious and focussed on their job of keeping quality attackers quiet, and the midfield took responsibility to establish Arsenal’s dominance through technical superiority. The intelligence with which they interchanged positions without leaving any area truly exposed from a defensive point of view is worth appreciating.
Arsenal will trouble most teams if they can consistently produce attacking moves that involve four or five players. But Liverpool’s lopsided shape was also responsible for the space available to the Gunners so we have to see whether they can retain such offensive quality and defensive balance against even stronger opponents.
Giroud: At this rate he will end the season as the most useful all-round striker in the big European leagues. Not the best goalscorer – again showed he can improve on that front – or the most prolific creator per se, but someone who gets involved at various stages and constantly helps the team function better as a unit. Useful presence in the box when defending set-pieces as well.
Subs: Monreal was reliable in possession and combined well in attacking areas, Vermaelen and Jenkinson had limited time on the pitch.
Wenger: It was good to see more caution from the full-backs. Good defensive layering. The central defenders were also constantly aware of the threat posed by the opposing strikers and focussed their efforts on minimizing those. I don’t know how much of this was a result of conscious decisions taken by the manager and his staff and what part was simply the players knowing what to do. Some of the pressure is eased with that win but it is by no means enough. Bigger tests await and, as he said, the team cannot afford to take a little breather.