Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal: Liverpool see more of the ball, but Arsenal have the finishing touch
Robin van Persie had two chances and scored two goals, and the gap between the teams is now ten points.
Kenny Dalglish rewarded Stewart Downing and Dirk Kuyt for their good Carling Cup final performances with starts. Steven Gerrard was unfit to start, Jay Spearing was used in the holding role, and Jamie Carragher replaced the injured Daniel Agger.
Arsene Wenger had fitness worries over Tomas Rosicky, Thomas Vermaelen and Robin van Persie, but all three started – so Arsenal were unchanged from the win over Tottenham last week.
Van Persie admitted after the game that Arsenal didn’t truly “deserve” to win the game, while Wojciech Szczesny says they were “killed” in the first half. Liverpool did more in the final third but consistently failed to hit the target.
Liverpool’s team selection suggested they’d be playing 4-3-3 rather than 4-4-2, but it was more like the latter. Kuyt drifted around to the right of the pitch but close to Luis Suarez, while Jordan Henderson shuttled across the pitch on the right of a midfield four.
With Stewart Downing staying wide on the left, it meant Liverpool’s shape was lopsided. And the same went for Arsenal – they had Theo Walcott wide on the right, and Yossi Benayoun coming inside (though seeing little of the ball) on the left. That meant that the teams were playing down the same flank – Liverpool down the left, Arsenal down the right, summed up by the below graphic at half time, which also shows how dominant Liverpool were:
It was difficult to find a key area this game was contested in – the sides both looked too open and lacked structure in midfield. One interesting battle was Theo Walcott against Jose Enrique – Walcott got in behind for an early chance, but from then on the Spanish left-back kept him quiet by using his strength. Martin Skrtel played to the left of the centre-back duo, meaning Carragher’s lack of pace wasn’t exposed when Walcott came inside.
At the other end, Arsenal were pushing their defence high up the pitch, and Liverpool continually had problems with the trap, bringing attacks to a premature end. Suarez was the main danger, and although he won a penalty and went on a mazy run to create a good chance for himself, he often conceded possession when trying to beat an opponent, generally when picking up the ball in the channels.
But Liverpool were the better side, pressing well and making Arsenal’s passing sloppy. Henderson had a decent game by bringing energy high up the pitch, and the one area Arsenal should have capitalised on more was when Spearing moved forward to close down Alex Song or Mikel Arteta – that created space for Rosicky, but he didn’t have a great influence on the game.
What changed in the second half? In terms of personnel, very little. Dalglish surprisingly waited until the 88th minute to make his first change, while Arsenal’s substitutions didn’t have a key impact.
Arsenal were much improved in the second half, though, and Liverpool’s midfielders became wayward in possession – Charlie Adam tried too many of his long diagonals, Spearing seemed to be under more pressure when he got the ball, and Henderson simply wasn’t involved – attempting less than half the passes he did in the first half.
Alex Song’s game was a microcosm of his season – not great positionally, defensively suspect, but a couple of excellent passes through or over the defence – the assist for van Persie was reminiscent of his pass for the winner against Everton in December. Surprisingly, Song plays more successful through balls than any other player in the Premier League.
In the end, the game was decided by nothing more than efficiency in the box. Liverpool had more possession (54%-46%), more shots (12-10), played more passes in the attacking third (134-79), played more crosses (38-8) and won more corners (12-0). Yet Arsenal managed to get more shots on target (7-4). This is the story of Liverpool’s season, particularly at home – they dominate the game but fall down when it comes to goalscoring. Usually that’s been enough for a 0-0 or a 1-1, but van Persie’s sheer ruthlessness in the box meant they suffered their first home defeat of the season.
Not a game with much tactical interest. Both sides named their expected sides, and then neither coach made any key substitutions. Dalglish’s decision to go for more of a 4-4-2 shape was interesting, especially as Liverpool dominated possession early on, but they seemed to tire in the second half.
Arsenal have played better and lost this season – they didn’t do much particularly well here, aside from two excellent balls and two excellent finishes.