Defensive tightness has been the key to Arsenal’s title bid this season. But on Saturday, the Gunners were punished for poorly defending set pieces and for not getting back into a solid position after losing possession. The game was over by the 20th minute when Liverpool was already leading 4-0. In the end, Arsenal lost 5-1 at Anfield Road to surrender the top spot in the Premier League to Chelsea.
Wenger outfoxed Rodgers in November when the Gunners won 2-0 at the Emirates, taking advantage of a 3-5-2 system that left the Reds vulnerable on the wings and in midfield. But on Saturday, Rodgers did not play with three centerbacks and outfoxed Wenger by opting for a 4-3-3 formation, a bit different from Arsenal’s 4-5-1 system. While Rodgers started two pure forwards on the wings with Sturridge and Sterling, Wenger was a bit more cautious by fielding two attacking midfielders with Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Rodgers’ more direct approach
Wenger’s approach emphasized ball retention and control of the game whereas Rodgers surrendered a bit of possession to gain more sharpness in the final third. Liverpool was clearly set up to hit the Gunners on the fast break. The effectiveness of Rodgers’ plan depended on the defensive contribution from the three forwards. Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling worked their socks off to track back and press high up the pitch. The Reds often outnumbered Arsenal in midfield and won most of the duels in the first half. Rodgers’ bet on directness paid off as the Reds had six shots on target in the first half to none for the Gunners.
There’s a certain similarity between this defeat and the 6-3 loss at Manchester City, where the Gunners conceded goals from turnovers and lost duels. Arsenal did not play as a unit on Saturday, leaving too much space between the defenders and the midfielders. Things worsened after Liverpool’s opening goal as the Gunners panicked a bit with misplaced passes from Arteta and Ozil. Chasing an equalizer also led the team to forget about its defensive duties.
Lack of focus
The Reds are title contenders and have a strong record at home. So you kind of wonder why Arsenal’s focus and commitment were so poor in the opening minutes. On a throw-in, Mertesacker did not realize Suarez was behind him and let the ball bounce. The Uruguay striker won the ball, forcing Mertesacker to make a professional foul. Skrtel beat Koscielny to the ball to volley home the ensuing free kick after barely a minute of play.
Mertesacker and Koscielny have received a lot of praise for Arsenal’s tight defense this season, but they really stank at Anfield Road. Sterling and Sturridge exposed Mertesacker’s lack of pace while Koscielny’s poor marking cost his team two goals. Defending set pieces has been a recurrent problem in the past seasons. Bould and Wenger tried to fix it by introducing zonal marking. But on Saturday the issue was man-marking. I don’t know what are the squad’s defensive drills, but man-marking is not just about following a player but also about attacking the ball. Koscielny has definitely improved since his arrival in London. He no longer makes reckless tackles but he still needs to work on his marking and decision-making.
That opening goal set the tone for the entire first half. Skrtel escaped Koscielny’s marking in the 10th minute to head in a corner from Gerrard for a 2-0 lead. Koscielny was late on the ball and could only stretch out a leg to attempt a block. Some poor marking in the 13th also allowed Suarez to control a corner before striking the post from 25 yards. The Gunners were lucky to see Toure hit the rebound wide.
Ozil’s worst performance
Monreal and Ozil did not cover themselves in glory either. The Spanish leftback was deputizing for Gibbs, who has recovered from a calf injury but is still lacking match fitness. Sturridge cut inside Monreal in the fifth minute to fire a low drive that Szczesny stopped. Four minutes later, Sturridge fed Flanagan, who outpaced Monreal but was denied by Szczesny. To be fair, Monreal did OK afterwards.
Ozil arguably produced his worst performance at the club on Saturday. The Germany playmaker was guilty of several turnovers that led to dangerous counterattacks by Liverpool. Ozil lost a duel in the 12th, allowing Suarez to send Sturridge clean through on goal, but the England forward missed the target. Henderson then outmuscled Ozil to win the ball in the 17th. Arsenal failed to stop the counterattack and Sterling converted Suarez’s low cross to make it 3-0. Sagna failed to track Sterling on that play, forcing Mertesacker to deal with both Sterling and Sturridge at the far post.
Three minutes later, Ozil’s sloppy pass to Wilshere was intercepted. Coutinho slipped a through ball to Sturridge, who outpaced Koscielny and Mertesacker to beat Szczesny for a 4-0 lead. Ozil has a reputation for going missing in the big games and Saturday’s performance won’t help prove his critics wrong. He’s an outstanding passer but he definitely needs to toughen up his game. The Premiership is the most physical league in Europe, which means that Ozil needs to be stronger in duels.
Lack of pace up front
The third and the fourth goals were the kind of goals Arsenal used to score with Van Persie and Walcott. Van Persie joined Manchester United last season while Walcott’s season is over because of a serious knee injury. Now we just have Giroud and Bendtner as lone strikers and both are relatively slow. A pacy forward is clearly the club’s top priority in the transfer market this summer.
Maybe it would have been a different story if the Gunners had quickly leveled. Giroud took a pass from Ozil in the third minute and tried to cut inside a defender instead of attempting a first-time effort. The Frenchman lost possession and the chance was gone. Wilshere then sent a ball over the top for Monreal in the eighth. Mignolet came off his line but punched the ball into Flanagan, forcing Skrtel to make a clearance under Monreal’s pressure. Arsenal’s only goal attempt in the first half came from a Cazorla corner in the 15th. Mertesacker beat Skrtel to the ball but headed wide.
Wilshere’s return from injury
The second half allowed Arsenal to score a consolation goal. Arteta converted a penalty in the 68th after Gerrard had tripped Oxlade-Chamberlain inside the box. Chambo and Wilshere were among the few Gunners who performed decently. Mignolet stopped a low drive from Chambo in the 58th and a longe-range strike from Wilshere in the 61st. The Liverpool goalkeeper also palmed away a low free kick from Arteta in the 72nd after Flanagan had fouled Wilshere. Wilshere was returning from an ankle injury and seemed a bit rusty at times, but his desire on the pitch could not be questioned.
Unfortunately, the second half also showed Mertesacker’s sluggishness. Sterling outpaced Mertesacker to collect a long ball from Toure in the 52nd. Szczesny denied Sterling but the English teenager tucked the rebound home. Sterling then dribbled past Mertesacker in the 86th and outpaced Gibbs to be clean through on goal but Szczesny saved Arsenal from further humiliation. When you know that Szczesny was our best player on Saturday, you then realize that the scoreline could have been more flattering for Liverpool. The Poland goalkeeper palmed away a Suarez free kick that was heading for the top corner in the 63rd after Koscielny has fouled Sturridge. He also stopped a low strike from Coutinho in the 74th.
This was Arsenal’s heaviest defeat in the Premier League since the 8-2 debacle at Manchester United in August 2011. To a certain extent, Saturday’s loss hurts more because our team is more mature than three years ago and because we have better players this season. Obviously, the key question is whether the Gunners can bounce back from such a disastrous performance. The stakes suddenly get higher for Wednesday’s match against Manchester United. A second straight loss and you can be sure the news media will start talking about a crisis at Arsenal.
The Liverpool game was the first of five matches in 15 days. Wenger will need a bit of rotation to avoid fatigue and injuries. The manager definitely had an eye on the next match by replacing Giroud, Ozil and Monreal with Podolski, Rosicky and Gibbs in the 61st. Giroud and Ozil especially looked jaded, having played 33 and 29 matches respectively for the club this season. Wenger will need to trust a bit more the other players to give Giroud and Ozil a break. Relying too much on them could lead to poor performances again and possibly injuries. See what happened with Ramsey.
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