Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: Arsenal more disciplined despite a rotated side

February 18, 2014

The starting line-ups

Arsenal narrowly won an extremely open cup tie.

Arsene Wenger rested various players ahead of the meeting with Bayern on Wednesday. The most interesting inclusion was striker Yaya Sanogo, making his first start.

Brendan Rodgers brought back Daniel Agger in place of Kolo Toure, selected Joe Allen rather than  Jordan Henderson, and also gave a runout to reserve goalkeeper Brad Jones.

Arsenal were much improved compared to last weekend, particularly in terms of positioning and organisation.

Gerrard freedom

The game’s first obvious feature was the freedom enjoyed by Steven Gerrard when Liverpool had possession. He sat deep in front of his centre-backs and hit some excellent forward passes – often to the flanks, but he also played a brilliant through-ball to Daniel Sturridge for the game’s first chance.

Mesut Ozil had little interest in shutting him down, and it was also significant that Arsenal were playing with two deep midfielders who protected the defence, rather than more attacking central midfielders (like Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey) that might have pressured higher up. Arsenal’s two banks of four were solid, but Gerrard created from in front of them.

Sturridge runs

While Arsenal dominated the first half, in the opening stages they struggled to cope with Sturridge, who had two fine chances at 0-0. The timing of his runs is excellent, and he often starts them from deep positions which means he’s up at full speed when breaking past the defence, so his opponents are unable to react quickly enough.

Sturridge’s pace meant Lukasz Fabianski played a very proactive goalkeeping role – he rarely swept up outside his box, but was always alert to the need to dart forward. The same, incidentally, was true of Jones at the other end.

Arsenal organisation

Compared to last week, Arsenal’s full-backs remained in much deeper positions and ensured the centre-backs weren’t forced out wide, and equally crucial was the use of both Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini. Although their conservative positioning helped allow Gerrard freedom, he wasn’t really their responsibility anyway – and this was the first time this season Arsenal didn’t look exposed against Liverpool between the lines. Even in their 2-0 victory at the Emirates earlier in the season, Ramsey’s forward running left Arteta isolated.

The use of Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was, interestingly, a return to the format used on the flanks in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory at Anfield last season, which is one of Arsenal’s most controlled victories over the past couple of seasons, despite the fact they happily conceded possession, rare for a Wenger side. This is a Liverpool team now less obsessed with possession dominance, but Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain proved useful counter-attackers once Arsenal were 1-0 up – illustrated nicely by the way they later combined for Arsenal’s second goal.

First goal

Scoring the opening goal was crucial for Arsenal – and, like last weekend when Liverpool scored first through Martin Skrtel, Arsenal got their breakthrough following a set-piece.

This shaped the rest of the game, meaning Liverpool had to dominate the contest more, leave space to counter-attack into, and inevitably had less space to break into themselves, too. Combine this and Manchester City’s victory over Chelsea the previous day, and the importance of the first goal is clear.

Gerrard uncomfortable defensively

Although Gerrard was impressive with his distribution, he remains uncomfortable defending against quick counter-attacks solo, which was problematic with his two midfield partners pushing high up the pitch.

His foul on Oxlade-Chamberlain towards the first half was interesting, because Gerrard made no attempt to go for the ball and instead chose the cynical option, underlining his lack of confidence when left protecting the defence. He also fouled Oxlade-Chamberlain later in the game, in a similar incident to the penalty concession at Anfield last week, and it’s clear that to accommodate his good distribution from deep, Liverpool will always be taking a risk defensively.

Liverpool dominate second half

Liverpool were the dominant side after the break, with possession dominance assured and the forwards given more freedom to rotate – Luis Suarez had surprisingly been in a fixed right-wing position for the first half, and the improved movement between he and Sturridge created some decent half-chances.

Without so much space to break into behind the defence, though, Liverpool managed few clear-cut chances compared to last weekend (or the start of this game). This seemed to trouble Coutinho the most – whereas his through-balls last weekend were devastating, here against a deeper defence he didn’t create any chances.

Subs

After an hour Rodgers made a bold substitution, removing Aly Cissokho and introducing Jordan Henderson. This necessitated a reshuffle – Jon Flanagan switched to left-back, and Raheem Sterling was moved into an attacking right-back position.

This caused Arsenal problems in the ten minutes after the switch. Podolski, who rarely lasts 90 minutes and had already brought down Suarez for the penalty, didn’t look comfortable defending against Sterling’s forward charges, and it was surprising that Wenger didn’t immediately rectify this problem. He removed Podolski but brought on Cazorla instead – the man whose drifts inside had exposed his compatriot Nacho Monreal last week at Anfield.

Five minutes later Wenger realised the situation unfolding and called for Kieran Gibbs in place of Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Cazorla moving to the right and Gibbs protecting Monreal. This has been Wenger’s favoured defensive substitution this season, playing two left-backs in tandem, and although it took him a while to make the switch it was highly effective, as Sterling’s influence on the game was minimal with Gibbs tracking his runs.

Arsenal were never entirely comfortable, but equally Liverpool lacked a true plan B upfront to trouble Arsenal’s centre-backs in a more physical sense, and the away side’s best late chances came from Gerrard set-pieces and long balls.

Conclusion

Arsenal were unquestionably better than last weekend, but they depended upon a couple of early Sturridge misses to keep the score at 0-0. From then, though, Arsenal were solid, with the full-backs and wingers deeper and the central midfielders barely advancing. There wasn’t a great deal of attacking threat from Wenger’s side, apart from at set-pieces and on counter-attacks.

Liverpool didn’t do much wrong. On another day Suarez and Sturridge would have produced a goal from nothing, and a draw wouldn’t have been unfair. Rodgers’ attack-minded change was very brave, although once Gibbs was introduced to track Sterling, perhaps Rodgers should have changed something again – perhaps to put Sterling at left-back instead, with Flanagan returning to the right, or even removing Flanagan and bringing on Iago Aspas or Victor Moses, with Henderson going to right-back.

The absence of a tall central striker is another weakness in Liverpool’s squad, and while Rodgers had little interest in keeping Andy Carroll at the club, once opponents realise Liverpool increasingly depend upon breaking into space, a more direct striker could be a wise purchase.


Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: Arsenal more disciplined despite a rotated side

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