That was the perfect storm, if there can be such a thing on a football pitch.
Arsenal’s individual and tactical mistakes all came to the fore in the just right manner to accentuate Liverpool’s corresponding strengths. Throw in a tiny but crucial dollop of luck for the home side and you get the recipe for a disastrous spell of football from Arsenal’s point of view. For Liverpool it must have been a dream come true.
The first goal is so important in these games. Conceding in the first minute is essentially the worst start a team can make. Look back at the goal and a number of minor details stand out. It started with a throw-in deep inside Liverpool territory. The ball flew over two visiting players who both misread the power of the throw. What if one of them had just got a glance on it to knock it out for a throw?
Even then, it went straight to Mertesacker who could have easily lumped it forward to eliminate any possibility of immediate danger. What if someone gave him a shout to say Suarez was sneaking in behind just as the big German let the ball run across his body in a way that made face his own goal? On another day the assistant ref might have flagged Skrtel offside. Thinking of other days, we’ve certainly seen Arsenal defend such set-pieces better.
Everything fell in place for Liverpool at the start and it just got worse for the Gunners. I didn’t expect Arsenal to win this game, that much should have been clear from the pre-game write-up that mentioned the likelihood of the Reds scoring two or more among other details, but I didn’t expect such a tame collapse from Wenger’s side either.
There are some interesting aspects to discuss from that 20 minute phase of play,
1) Liverpool’s intensity and efficiency.
Rodgers has most likely realized that he doesn’t have the players to perform in a possession based system. It seems to me he’s changed his philosophy from a Barcelona-esque death by possession routine to Dortmund’s waspish stinging rhythm. And it’s working for them.
Normally, if a team scores 4 goals in the first 20 minutes, one would think they had all the play. For instance, Arsenal’s dominance over Napoli was clearly reflected in the passing stats.
Almost three times the total passes and an even greater ratio for those in the final third shows Arsenal were completely on top. From this degree of superiority, Arsenal managed three shots, all on target, and two goals (While many couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe the Gunners that day, I think I was one of the few who thought Arsenal were inefficient in that game!)
Guess how the figures look in this game,
Once the risk-reward equation changed for both sides after the opening goal, Liverpool could play a counter-attacking game that best suits their players. Even then scoring 4 goals from those kind of passing numbers is just mind boggling. Liverpool were ruthlessly clinical.
Arsenal had similar number of passes in the final third and had two or three half-chances of their own. Giroud got into a great position in the second minute itself. Monreal got in behind once that resulted in a corner and on another occasion Mertesacker’s header went wide of the far post. If Skrtel’s header had been a few inches higher and the German’s effort had sneaked in, it would have been 1-1 after 15 minutes. That’s how fine the margins can be.
I’m not saying the Gunners deserved to be level, mind. Far from it. The difference between the sides was just too big. But the hosts scored 4 goals and created another 4 good chances from 10 completed passes in the final third and a handful of well-taken set-pieces. Rodgers could not have scripted this himself.
I thought Liverpool’s main strength, which was augmented nicely by high quality free-kicks and corners, was the deadliness of their transitions. Speed of their attacking players was obviously important and very visible. That, however, was not the primary reason for their effectiveness. Sturridge and Suarez played in the reverse fixture too. Did they break free as often and with such impact?
The way they pressed and won the ball back in the central third of the pitch, along with Arsenal’s stunning tactical immaturity on a collective scale, formed the platform on which their quick and clinical players could perform to their strengths.
The way Henderson pressurized Özil into a mistake, the way Coutinho read an opportunity to intercept a pass, the zip with which Sterling and Suarez chased the ball, and the accuracy of their long passes, were all a key part of the equation. They took a fair amount of risk with such an approach because Arsenal could have found a way through with better play. Refer to the half-chances mentioned above and think what a bit more composure could have done for the Gunners. Nevertheless, it is important to be brave and Liverpool should get credit for their willingness to go for it. Wenger’s side made numerous mistakes but Rodgers can definitely claim that his side’s intensity forced many of those.
2) Arsenal’s tactical immaturity.
Okay, crazy things happen and you concede a goal in the first minute. Can’t change that but key is what do you do next? There’s still 89 minutes to play.
It’s simple. Pick up a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. In other words, Don’t Panic.
When a team is trying to raise the tempo and has a clear advantage in terms of pace and individual skills like dribbling and finishing, the smart choice for an opponent with technical advantage is to avoid a vertical end-to-end battle. Stay compact at the back, control the distance between the lines, but keep passing the ball to tire the opponents out.
Had Arsenal kept this game at 1-0 at the end of 20 minutes, things would begin to change. Liverpool didn’t have a particularly solid back four and their midfield isn’t made up of great defensive midfielders. Even their wide players have more of an attacking mindset. They’d have tired and gaps would have opened up.
One of the keys to success of the short passing game is to have many players around the ball so that you have more options to pass but also to close the ball down if it’s lost. Arsenal moved away from the basics and spread out way too much adding an unnecessary element of risk to their game while sacrificing control. The situation was exacerbated by incorrect choices on and off the ball as well as lapses in concentration.
The players at this level have to know that they must keep their cool at all times. Even at 2-0 down there is a lot to play for and they don’t have to get back into the game immediately. We’ve seen more composed performances from Arsenal against smaller teams this season. It seems they are not doing enough in the first half and then they raise the bar after the break to create the decisive moments. Had they trusted their quality and wrested tactical control from the hosts, they could still have come back into the game or at least gone down in a much more tightly fought contest.
3) Arsenal’s individual mistakes
When things go so horribly wrong, it can never be the fault of one or two players. Almost everyone had a role to play and they didn’t do it well enough. There were numerous errors, mostly minor ones, but the kind that came together to contribute to the perfect storm in conjunction with aspects discussed above.
For instance, Mertesacker could have cleared that ball or simply headed it out for a throw. Koscielny could have done better to mark Skrtel for the second goal. Giroud could have done more with the chance he had early on. And so on…
Having said that, I’d still say two players were chief culprits in this game. That both are exceptionally skillful and were probably trying very hard to help the team cannot be an excuse.
Özil’s mistakes were obvious. He lost the ball for the third and fourth goals as well as a chance for Sturridge. The German magician is a lot of things but he is not a guy who is going to shrug of an physical pressure from an opponent with any amount of ease. The fact that he dropped deep to pick up the ball showed his desire to get involved but it also exposed the team.
There was a time, a few years ago, when Fabregas used to start as the highest midfielder. If the opponents pressed hard, Cesc would drop back and that would be that. It was extremely rare that he’d lose the ball. That was a natural part of his game. It is not the same with Özil.
The point here is not to say one is better than the other but to identify differences in playing style and understand its impact on the patterns of play. The probability of potentially lethal turnovers increases significantly if the German drops deep in midfield against a team that is set up to play on quick transitions.
In keeping with the calmer and more mature tactical approach to the game discussed above, Arsenal should have ensured that Özil plays higher up the pitch. On his part, the star signing should have showed greater awareness to danger which would be visible in safer choices on the ball and greater concentration. For instance, he could have played the ball back and wide towards Koscielny when Henderson was pressing him instead of trying to hold on to it and beat his man when the defence was exposed. Similarly, the two misplaced passes that led to a goal and a big chance were both with his right foot. I’d love to know how often he uses that appendage and whether his success with that varies significantly when compared to his natural foot. He has to weigh up the options in a highly risk averse manner if he wants to pass with his weaker foot in those areas.
Then there’s Jack Wilshere. Regular readers know I don’t see the youngster as a finished article many claim he is. And I don’t see him as a great option deeper in midfield, particularly in tough games. This article brilliantly articulates many of my common gripes against England’s next great hope in a manner I cannot. I strongly recommend reading it if you haven’t already done so.
The boy is undoubtedly talented. He produces many positive moments for the team. I don’t doubt his commitment or desire even for a moment. But he doesn’t seem to fully understand the impact of his movement and choices on the balance of the team.
Özil dropping deep was inextricably linked to Wilshere moving up. In games against smaller teams that can work well as we saw against Villa when the German put Monreal in behind and Wilshere was able to advance forward to finish the chance. Against a team better prepared to defend the centre line and one with the ability to punish mistakes, this is a recipe for disaster.
Part of it is of course down to the manager’s choices as I’ve no doubt Wenger encourages Wilshere to get forward and express his attacking qualities. However, knowing when to move forward and where to go is just as important as the skills he has on the ball. Right now Wilshere gets into areas that would be better left for his more creative and effective teammates far too often. The tendency to dwell on the ball or try too much when quicker, better options are available doesn’t help either.
Couple this with his inability to read the defensive aspects of the game consistently and you’ve a player who compromises the output of the team at both ends. Look at the fourth goal. After Özil plays the pass, Wilshere takes a step and half while Coutinho takes four steps to nick it. The Brazilian is anticipating that pass and is on the move. Wilshere is looking around and doesn’t realize he is best placed to receive that ball. Nor is he aware that the central defenders are about 20 yards behind him and have another 40-50 unprotected yards behind them. Had he done so, Wilshere would have gone for that ball and not backed out of the challenge. He had to hold possession or break that play up. There was no other choice.
For the sake of his development and long term future at Arsenal, I hope Wilshere learns the little tactical details that separate a great potential from a great player.
There are many more details that can be discussed but I think these three points cover the bulk. The rest of the game was incidental. Arsenal will get a chance to set things right in the FA Cup tie. Hopefully, the Gunners will have learned their lesson but I’ll only believe it when I see it.
Manchester United – Something’s Gotta Give
Arsenal have only 1 win from their last 10 games against United. Granted, the Ferguson era seems so far away based on United’s current form that such stats can be rendered meaningless. But the reverse fixture showed us that something akin to tactical memory can be enough to force an adverse result. The Red Devils know how to play against Arsenal and there aren’t many teams in the Premier League who remain so steadfastly loyal to their style as the Gunners are under Wenger. Consequently, there is always a chance that United will grind out a result.
On the other hand, Moyes has not won an away game against the erstwhile big four in 48 attempts. It’s hard to imagine he’ll break that record given their recent struggles.
Will Arsenal break United’s stranglehold over them or will Moyes break his duck?
Just as I’ve said about some Arsenal players in the past and even in this article, there is a feeling in my mind that Moyes is trying too hard. He needs to go back to the basics and make his team hard to beat. For large periods, the ability to negate the opposition in order to keep clean sheets was one of Ferguson’s biggest weapons. Moyes has done that with Everton often enough for us to know he can do it. If you can’t win, don’t lose. And if you don’t lose, you give yourself a good chance of winning.
United have to follow Liverpool’s template with a few adjustments. They don’t have the same pace on the break but the technical quality of their attackers, particularly Van Persie, Mata, and Rooney, is exceptional. They can score from half chances and create something out of nothing.
A lot of teams, including Ferguson’s United and Moyes’ Everton, have had success against Arsenal (in relative terms) by controlling the central portion of the pitch in their half. They don’t let the Gunners come into those vital creative zones but instead force them wide. Do it consistently and it severely limits the quality and quantity of chances Arsenal can create which can lead to frustration and riskier moves. It’s a lot of hard work but is not exactly rocket science, which is a way to say it can be done with discipline and determination.
For Arsenal, the key will be in finding the right balance in midfield. It’s very likely that Wilshere will again start in a deeper role in midfield. If so, the points discussed above could again come to the fore. The Gunners have to keep things tight and ensure they don’t concede the first goal. Patience and belief in their own ability to break through later in the game can make the decisive difference.
It could be useful if Sagna stayed a bit deeper and narrow instead of camping on the flank 10 yards inside the opposition half when the ball is on the other side.
I feel De Gea is not very comfortable with low shots very close to his body. Getting his hands down hasn’t worked well so he’s started kicking those balls away. It remains a suboptimal solution and I hope the Gunners test him on that.
In the other penalty box, Wenger’s side will have to be wary of United’s deep crosses. My dislike for crossing as a tactic is well documented on this blog but the response to Moyes’ tactics and United’s current plight has brought this issue into the spotlight now. That said, Arsenal are not particularly good at winning the second or third ball in the box from open play. Few teams get enough players forward to test Arsenal on this but don’t be surprised if back post crosses or even deeper ones trouble the Gunners in this game.
Wenger talked about not making too many changes and trusting the players he has. It’s usually good to have a couple of changes at least, just to have some fresh legs if nothing else, but it’s hard to see where the changes can be made.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Cazorla.
Rosicky can be a big player but where does he fit in? In place of Wilshere or Chamberlain? I’m not entirely sure why Wenger doesn’t play Rosicky deep in central midfield anymore these days because he does a decent job when he drifts into those areas.
Arsenal’s record in big games is not very good and it’s understandable why many fans will be apprehensive about a collapse from the Gunners. Then again, Wenger’s side have recovered from disappointing defeats on more than one occasion this season and that certainly gives hope to those that believe the team can win the title.
I’m not completely sure how this season will end. Can Arsenal win the title and will Arsenal win the title are two separate questions. The answer to the first one is obviously yes. The team has the capability to win it. That isn’t always enough because others are capable too. Answering the second question is much harder. The same questions can be raised about this game and the response won’t be any different.Follow @goonerdesi