Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: game over after 20 minutes thanks to superb one-touch football

February 10, 2014

The starting line-ups

Liverpool produced the best spell of football the Premier League has seen this season, and recorded a crushing victory over the (former) league leaders.

Brendan Rodgers named an unchanged side, despite the option of fit-again Joe Allen. He’s still without four key defenders.

Arsene Wenger brought Jack Wilshere into the side, moving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out to the right flank. Nacho Monreal continued at left-back.

This was such a convincing victory, and the game was won so quickly, that it almost defies analysis. Liverpool established their lead from two set-pieces but continually opened up Arsenal in open play, and were always ready to pounce on the counter-attack.

Set-pieces

Liverpool’s first two goals were scored from set-pieces, a result of poor Arsenal marking, and Steven Gerrard’s excellent set-piece delivery. In this sense, there was a similarity to Liverpool’s recent win over Everton at Anfield, where Gerrard himself nodded home the opener to put Liverpool in command.

By going 2-0 up from two dead ball situations, Liverpool had essentially earned the chance to play on the counter, and while it isn’t the most attractive thing about this performance, it’s worth underlining the importance of those set-pieces to break the deadlock. In fact, Liverpool have scored 17 set-piece goals in the Premier League this season, three more than any other side (and, by way of comparison with their opponents here) 12 more than Arsenal.

To a certain extent this is separate from the overall tactical battle, but being punished so immediately had an obvious impact upon the confidence levels of Arsenal, and put Liverpool in charge.

Liverpol immediately in charge

Liverpool being ahead from the second minute meant it was impossible to analyse the sides’ starting strategies. In all probability, the game would have taken on a similar pattern – but Arsenal immediately had to chase the game, and Liverpool could afford to be reactive.

Particularly impressive about Liverpool’s first-half performance was the way they continued to attack relentlessly rather than killing the game with possession dominance. This was partly due to the type of players they used in midfield – with Steven Gerrard knocking diagonals to the flanks, Coutinho supplying neat through-balls and Jordan Henderson charging forward into attack. The omission of Allen was a slight surprise given Arsenal’s midfield quality, and on another day Steven Gerrard would have been overloaded between the lines.

In fact, the frantic nature of the early exchanges gave Arsenal opportunities to break themselves – in the second minute, Arsenal attacked 4 v 4 and Skrtel found himself making a last-man tackle on Giroud to prevent a one-on-one. This was arguably even more crucial than his headed opener, considering the consequences had he brought down the Frenchman. Giroud lacked the burst of speed so obvious at the other end in the coming minutes.

But Liverpool justified Rodgers’ brave approach with their stunning attacking play, repeatedly cutting through Arsenal, who always had too many men in advance of the ball when moves broke down – a consequence of them chasing the game from an early stage.

Arsenal errors

The game state shouldn’t excuse Arsenal’s blatant errors throughout the game, particularly their sloppiness in possession. However, Liverpool can take a large amount of credit for winning the ball so regularly in midfield, because their pressing throughout the first 20 minutes was extremely intense. Henderson always seems to press effectively against Arsenal from a central position, and Coutinho continues to impress in a slightly deeper role where he’s battling as much as creating.

Ozil v Gerrard would have been Rodgers’ main concern before the game, but simply by shutting him down quickly, Liverpool coped nicely. Although Liverpool’s defensive record this season isn’t particularly good, they appear to be excellent at highlighting and negating the threat of the opposition dangerman – they also did a good job on Yaya Toure earlier in the campaign, and surrounded Ozil here. Gerrard played a more physical role than usual, notably using his strength to unsettle Arsenal’s midfield.

Indeed, Ozil was dispossessed for Liverpool’s third and fourth goals (and for the move that resulted in Sturridge missing a one-on-one at 2-0) and because Arsenal’s system depends on good ball retention to get the full-backs forward and pin sides back, they were in an awful defensive position, unable to defend Liverpool’s quick breaks, and particularly vulnerable to the pace of Liverpool’s three attackers.

That said, the advanced positioning of the Arsenal full-backs nearly resulted in an early equaliser, when Monreal’s run in behind resulted in a mix-up between Simon Mignolet and Jon Flanagan. Arsenal need direct running from full-back without Theo Walcott or Lukas Podolski, so it’s not unreasonable for them to play so high up the pitch.

Liverpool attacks

However, they probably took it too far. Liverpool used the ball extremely quickly, often looking to their right flank, because Santi Cazorla had drifted inside and created room to break into. Sturridge cut inside and shot from range, before Flanagan supported Sturridge him brilliantly on another quick attack, which led to the corner for Skrtel’s second goal. The third came from the right, too, with Suarez assisting Coutinho – both assist and shot were played first-time.

The chance Sturridge missed at 2-0 was actually a better representation of Liverpool’s play than any of their goals – they won the ball quickly in midfield, Coutinho immediately chipped the ball to Suarez who touched it into the path of Sturridge. Arsenal shouldn’t have conceded possession but it’s difficult to see how they could have defended any better – Per Mertesacker wasn’t in a very good position but probably would have been outpaced anyway. Again, it was just stunning, one-touch passing football from the home side, following good midfield pressure, and the same was true of the fourth goal.

Amazingly, Arsenal managed to prevent Suarez from scoring – he came closest from scorching long-range shots impossible to defend, and a little like Lionel Messi, scoreless in Barcelona’s famous 5-0 win over Real Madrid in 2010, played a backseat role as a supplier rather than a goalscorer.

Sturridge and Sterling were the main attackers – Sturridge charging towards goal from an inside-left position, and Sterling always popping up on the left, at the far post, as if Arsenal given 100% of their attention to the SAS and forgotten about the third man running. His five shots were taken from absurdly close-range positions.

Interestingly, Liverpool’s front three were in completely different roles from the win over Everton, even accounting for the fluidity. Sterling, for example, was on the opposite flank permanently, while Sturridge led the attack rather than Suarez. Considering all three were so effective, it’s difficult to know which zone of the pitch Rodgers was concentrating on when deciding to make this switch.

Realistically the game was over by half-time, and you get the impression both managers would have shaken hands there and then – Rodgers to be assured of a huge victory, Wenger to prevent further embarrassment and to rest his players ahead of a tough few weeks. The second half was played at half-pace, with the contest long since decided.

Conclusion

Arsenal were not good – that much is obvious. But whereas in Liverpool’s 5-0 win over Tottenham, they barely needed to play particularly well and Spurs’ strategy was so baffling it resulted in their manager being sacked the next morning, this was all about Liverpool. Some of their goals were sublime in terms of pace and precision on the break, and there were other – often better – moves that didn’t result in goals, too.

There’s been a growing feeling throughout Rodgers’ 20 months in charge that Liverpool are better the more direct they’re able to play, and this was the finest example yet. Liverpool did everything quickly, from winning the ball in midfield to releasing it in behind, and produced a level of performance not seen at Anfield for some time.

ZM elsewhere:

Tottenham were terrible despite beating Everton

Chelsea v Newcastle: Matic, Hazard and Sissoko



Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: game over after 20 minutes thanks to superb one-touch football

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