Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal: Arsenal dominate, but only just grab a point
A crazy game that neither side truly deserved to win.
Arsenal’s side was largely as expected – injuries in the centre of midfield meant Jack Wilshere was deployed alongside Abou Diaby, who played a more conservative role than he likes. Laurent Koscielny made his debut alongside Thomas Vermaelen, whilst Marouane Chamakh also started.
Liverpool played a 4-2-3-1 with Steven Gerrard deep alongside Javier Mascherano and Joe Cole as the link player. Milan Jovanovic played an industrious, Kuyt-esque role on the left, ahead of Daniel Agger in an “unfamiliar” left-back role.
Arsenal started the better in terms of possession and territory, keeping the ball well, but struggling to create chances thanks to Liverpool’s back four who played well, and defended relatively deep.
Although in theory the two sides were playing the same formation, broadly 4-2-3-1, there were noticeable differences in how they operated. Arsenal played higher up the pitch and pressed more intensely, with the two wide players practically alongside Samir Nasri even when they didn’t have the ball. Liverpool’s wide men sat deeper, forming two banks of four and leaving Joe Cole in something approaching a free role, with few defensive responsibilities.
Difference in the performance of playmakers
Indeed, getting Cole involved in play was Liverpool’s biggest problem in the first half – in stark contrast to Nasri, who was probably the game’s central figure before half-time. Nasri completed 25 passes in the first half, compared to Cole’s 7 (below). That central player is pivotal in the 4-2-3-1, generally given the freest role on the pitch, and consequently responsible for a large part of his side’s creativity. To write off Cole’s chances of succeeding in that position would be foolish, but for all the hype about him playing in supposedly his best position, we must remember that never before has he consistently played good football in that position; he reached his heights when wide under Jose Mourinho. This is a new challenge for him.
Despite Chamakh being recruited to give Arsenal an aerial threat, something they lacked last season, he wasn’t particularly successful in this aspect of his game today – of the five aerial duels he contested against Liverpool’s centre-backs, he was unsuccessful on every occasion. He, like Cole, struggled to get into the game, and this summed up each side’s failings. Liverpool couldn’t get their playmaker involved so couldn’t create, whilst Arsenal couldn’t get their goalscorer involved so couldn’t find someone on the end of their moves.
One might have expected Cole’s red card to change the game, but as basic a point this may seem, the fact that he was so uninvolved meant that it mattered far less than many other first-half dismissals do. Even when Cole was on the pitch, Liverpool were looking to the other three attacking players more immediately – Gerrard hit a couple of terrific Xabi Alonso-esque passes out to Dirk Kuyt on the right, and the midfield playing quick, long balls over the top for David Ngog also seemed to be a tactic, although the Frenchman wasn’t timing his runs well enough to beat the linesman’s flag.
Liverpool continue to defend solidly
Since Cole was not particularly involved in defending, that aspect of Liverpool’s game didn’t change, although it allowed Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere more time on the ball deep in midfield. And Liverpool went ahead almost immediately in the second half, when Wilshere’s poor touch presented the ball to Mascherano – he passed forward to Ngog, who finished from a tight angle.
Arsenal then played awfully for the next 15 minutes despite the extra man advantage – they were unable to work the ball into the final third, despite Liverpool being content to sit deep. Roy Hodgson used his wingers very defensively and Liverpool slowed the pace of the game whenever possible. The organisation they showed will be credited to Hodgson, a manager obsessed with refining positioning on the training ground, but it also had hallmarks of Benitez’s reign, when Liverpool frequently defended solidly despite going down to ten men.
The stats back up a tremendous defensive performance from three of the back four – Carragher won three out of four tackles, Agger won four out of four, and Skrtel won five out of five. Only Glen Johnson remains unconvincing, and it was his error in thumping the ball into the stands that indirectly led to Arsenal’s equaliser.
Arsenal push forward
Arsene Wenger was happy to concede his 3 v 2 midfield advantage (clearly feeling Arsenal would dominate possession anyway) as he brought on Theo Walcott and used him as a central support striker rather than in a wide area. He was unable to utilise his pace, though – Liverpool’s deep defensive line denied him space in behind, and Arsenal instead looked to play the ball into wide zones.
Here they found little joy – their two full-backs attempted nine crosses but didn’t find an Arsenal player once, and the deadlock seemed more likely to be broken through Nasri or substitute Tomas Rosicky from a central role. Liverpool were defending deep, but not particularly narrow when compared to, say, the way Tottenham dealt with Arsenal towards the end of last season. Nasri had a thunderous shot that was blocked by Skrtel on route to goal, whilst Rosicky’s wonderful footwork ended with a stabbed shot that Reina tipped over.
Fernando Torres’ introduction helped Liverpool provide slightly more of an attacking threat – Ngog was tired after playing the lone striker role for 74 minutes, and Torres twice threatened to get in behind Koscielny. Another substitute, Maxi Rodriguez, didn’t do much going forward but is extremely disciplined and helped Liverpool keep their shape in midfield.
Arsenal’s goal arrived in such ridiculous fashion that it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions, but we should note that it was a cross towards Chamakh (who scored 80% of his goals last season from headers) that resulted in the equaliser. Reina’s fumble over the line is hard to put down to genius attacking tactics, but maybe Arsenal wouldn’t have been so keen to chuck the ball into the box had they not been playing their new ‘traditional number 9′.
Despite one new manager and four new signings on the pitch, the game was largely as expected. Liverpool defended well but created very little, whilst Arsenal had plenty of possession but couldn’t score without the help of Reina carrying the ball into his own goal.
Arsenal fans will be reasonably confident that the lack of creative spark in the final third will be provided by the returnof Cesc Fabregas and van Persie, though it seems defending deep with two banks of four against them remains the best way to get a result, and they’ll have to break down this type of opposition more convincingly to challenge for the title.
Liverpool can also consider this a positive result having played half the game with ten men. As you would expect given the new manager, they are the side with more question marks about their formation and personnel – will Hodgson move to his traditionally preferred 4-4-2, or stick with this 4-2-3-1 system? Losing Cole for the next three matches might be one of the most important factors in this – if they reshape and find success under a different shape, then Cole’s much-hyped central playmaker role may have lasted only 45 unhappy minutes.Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal: Arsenal dominate, but only just grab a point