The Gunners outplayed Liverpool 2-0 on Saturday to move five points clear atop the Premier League. Some pundits put a lot of pressure before the match by claiming that Arsenal had more to lose than Liverpool and that a third straight defeat at the Emirates stadium could hurt their confidence. But the Gunners showed enough mental toughness to beat a potential contender and shatter the pundits’ negative narrative.
Arsenal played at a high tempo with more intensity and movement than Liverpool, which mostly relied on individual efforts from Sturridge and Suarez. The Gunners’ quick passing game exposed the Liverpool defense quite a few times. Rosicky attempted a one-two with Giroud after five minutes. The pass bounced off Skrtel and back into the path of the Czech midfielder, whose low shot was tipped away by Mignolet. Ozil and Giroud also swapped passes in the 21st, but Ozil’s final ball somehow eluded the Frenchman.
Rosicky was very lively before fading in the second half. He won a tackle to slow down a counterattack in the 21st and Cazorla took his chance from the edge of the box but Mignolet made the save. The Czech midfielder then fed Ramsey, whose half-volley was parried by the goalkeeper in the 28th.
The Reds clearly lost the midfield battle and could only hope for a counterattack to get a scoring chance. Henderson stole the ball from Cazorla in the ninth minute to hit the Gunners on the fast break. But a challenge from Sagna made Henderson lose a bit his balance and the Liverpool midfielder could only muster a tame shot.
Rodgers has enjoyed some success with his 3-5-2 system this season. But it looks much more like a 5-3-2 formation with quite a few flaws. Against a team fielding two strikers, Rodgers’ system provides more security at the back. But against Arsenal’s 4-5-1 formation, one of the three centerbacks becomes useless. Defensively, Skrtel acts as a sweeper covering Toure and Sakho. However, it does not make sense to have both Toure and Sakho deal with Giroud since Arsenal can then outnumber Liverpool in midfield.
Offensively, Toure and Sakho are too limited technically to contribute to their team’s build-up plays. Therefore, Sturridge and Suarez need to drop back to give a hand to their midfielders. In the 31st, Sturridge managed to outpace Arteta in midfield, but then he had no passing option since Suarez was marked by Koscielny and neither Henderson nor Gerrard had made any run. Sturridge ended up dragging a low shot wide.
But the worst flaw in Liverpool’s system is on the wings. Flanagan and Cissokho are badly exposed and need some help from a centerback or a midfielder, which will free some space in the heart of the defense. Arteta drifted to the right to escape Lucas and draw Cissokho in the 19th. The Arsenal captain spotted Sagna’s run and released him down the right flank. Skipping past Cissokho, Sagna made a cross for an unmarked Cazorla, whose 15-yard header hit the post. But the Spaniard beat Skrtel to the ball to slam the rebound home for his first goal since March.
Liverpool’s defensive coordination was poor on that play. Lucas was late to pressure Arteta, forcing Sakho to come out of the area. Giroud was still marked by Toure, but nobody had tracked Cazorla’s run from the left wing. Sakho was still next to Arteta while Gerrard and Lucas were too far from Cazorla. Rodgers acknowledged his tactical mistake at halftime by replacing Cissokho with Coutinho to shift to a 4-4-2 formation.
Giroud nearly added a second goal in the 53rd when he intercepted a backpass from Toure for Skrtel but sent his chip wide from 12 yards. The Frenchman missed another chance in the 57th. Rosicky capitalized on a turnover to find Cazorla to his left and the Spaniard fed Giroud, whose toe poke lacked power to beat Mignolet. The Frenchman is not the most clinical striker but you can’t question his work rate. In stoppage time, he still had enough will to make a run. Monreal connected with the Frenchman, who played Ozil in. The Germany playmaker shot straight at Mignolet from a tight angle while the better option was to square the ball back to Giroud.
Ramsey extended his awesome start to the season with a 10th goal in all competitions in the 59th. The Wales midfielder made some poor decisions in that match. When Giroud fed him in the 33rd, Ramsey refused to shoot with his left foot from a decent position. He cut inside and then made a high cross that eluded Giroud instead of firing with his right foot. In the 56th, Ozil cut the ball back for Ramsey, who had plenty of room to shoot from 18 yards. But the Wales midfielder preferred to get closer to the net and lost possession after a poor touch.
Yet, Ramsey’s self-confidence is so high right now that he quickly got over those missed chances. Ramsey controlled a pass from Ozil in the 59th and let the ball bounce three times before unleashing a swerving shot from the edge of the box that looped over Mignolet for a 2-0 lead. Again, the Liverpool defense did not cover itself in glory. Sakho and Toure came out too late to pressure Ramsey, while Lucas and Gerrard failed to track him.
By contrast, Arsenal’s defensive performance was very good. The Gunners are much better at getting back into a solid position after a turnover than two years ago. Obviously the team is more mature. When Sturridge initiated a counterattack in the 25th, Sagna killed the play with a rugby tackle on Suarez. Sagna received a yellow card, but Liverpool’s chance was gone. Arteta efficiently protected the back four with some great positional play and won numerous tackles for arguably his best performance this season. The few times Koscielny had to deal with Suarez, the Frenchman got the upper hand. Two years ago, Koscielny gave the Liverpool striker too much space. But on Saturday the Frenchman was breathing down Suarez’s neck before he even got the ball.
Liverpool managed to fool the Arsenal defense only twice. Suarez found a small gap in the 69th but Coutinho overhit his through ball. In the 73rd, the Gunners lacked focus and left Sturridge and Suarez unmarked at the far post. Following a poor touch from Sturridge, the ball fell to Suarez, whose side-footed effort hit the post from a tight angle.
The hosts started tiring in the last 10 minutes. The Reds swapped headers inside the Arsenal box in the 83rd before Szczesny stopped Coutinho’s close-range attempt. The Gunners then survived two lapses of concentration. Szczesny had his pass for Mertesacker intercepted by Sturridge in the 88th, but the Polish goalkeeper was lucky to see the ball bounce back into his arms. A few seconds later, Mertesacker made a sloppy pass to Sagna, allowing Suarez to dart forward. But instead of making a low cross to the unmarked Sturridge for a tap-in, the Uruguay striker proved selfish and shot wide.
Arsenal’s squad is depleted but it still managed to increase its lead atop the Premier League. Critics claim Arsenal’s top spot is mainly the result of a soft schedule. Sure, the bench looked skinny with Hayden as our only midfielder and Bendtner and Akpom as our only attacking options. But here’s another way to look at the situation: The Gunners can only become stronger when Wilshere, Flamini, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski and Diaby will no longer be on the disabled list.
Wilshere, Flamini, Podolski and Walcott might be available for Sunday’s match at Manchester United. There’s an opportunity to move 11 points clear of the Red Devils. But Wenger shouldn’t rush them. Arsenal will still keep the lead even if it loses at Old Trafford. It’d be wiser to take advantage of the international break to give them more time to recover. The season is still young. Therefore, a relapse for any player would be worse than three points dropped.
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