Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Clinical finishing sends Gunners into FA Cup quarters

Liverpool could have led 2-0 after five minutes on Sunday. The Reds were the better team but they left Arsenal off the hook. The Gunners converted their only two clear-cut chances to win 2-1 and will host Everton in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. They’re now just three wins away from their first trophy since 2005.

Wenger made five changes from the team that was thrashed 5-1 at Anfield Road a week ago, replacing Szczesny, Sagna, Wilshere, Cazorla and Giroud with Fabianski, Jenkinson, Flamini, Podolski and Sanogo. The biggest surprise was Sanogo’s inclusion in the starting lineup and Bendtner’s absence on the bench. That spoke volumes about the manager’s lack of trust in the Denmark striker. There’s no shame in being Giroud’s back-up but becoming the third-choice centerforward behind a rookie must be embarrassing for Bendtner.

Sanogo has very little experience at the top level. He played eight matches in the French league and 13 in the French second division before joining Arsenal, which is peanuts compared to Bendtner, who has made more than 100 appearances in the Premier League and earned 57 caps for Denmark. Bendtner has definitely more experience than Sanogo, but the Frenchman is a more technical player.

Sanogo’s air shots

Wenger liked what he saw from Sanogo in training and made a bet that paid off in the 16th minute. Sanogo chested down a cross from Ozil before firing goalward. Gerrard made the block but the rebound fell to an unmarked Oxlade-Chamberlain who slammed the ball home for the opening goal. However, the fans should keep their expectations low. Sanogo is just 21, still needs time to adjust to a new league, and will struggle for consistency because of his youth. Sanogo seemed a bit impressed by the big stage as he made two air shots inside the box. That usually happens when a player rushes a bit the timing of his kick.

Chambo was our most threatening player up front. Ozil released him down the right flank in the 48th. Chambo outpaced Agger to cut the ball back for Podolski, who got ahead of Flanagan to shoot past Jones for a 2-0 lead. The Reds have been missing Enrique and Johnson for weeks through injury and I thought Arsenal failed to test their back-ups, Cissokho and Flanagan, at Anfield Road. But on Sunday, Chambo and Podolski finally exposed the fullbacks’ weaknesses.

Chambo’s velocity

Chambo provided a lot of penetration with his runs. Coutinho made a professional foul on Chambo to stop a fast break in the 20th. Then Gerrard killed another counterattack with a cynical foul on Chambo in the 42nd. The Liverpool playmaker should have earned a second yellow card in the 75th when he tripped Chambo, but the referee only gave a free kick. Chambo does not have Walcott’s pace but his velocity is impressive enough to beat a lot of defenders.

A week ago, Ozil performed poorly and let his team down with numerous turnovers. On Sunday, the Germany playmaker showed good ball retention skills and proved instrumental in the transition from defense to offense. After Flamini won a tackle in the 39th, Ozil released Podolski down the left flank. Unfortunately, the Germany winger overhit his cross for Sanogo. It was then Podolski’s turn to feed Ozil in the 55th. From a tight angle, Ozil saw his goal attempt parried by Jones. Another cross from Ozil in the 72nd forced Skrtel to clear the ball into the path of Cazorla, whose half-volley sailed over the bar from 17 yards.

Ozil made the penultimate pass for both goals. I guess the next step for him is to become a more consistent and more complete playmaker. That means creating plays but also providing the final ball and scoring like Zidane and Rivaldo.

Tackling inside the area

The difference between the 5-1 loss at Anfield Road and the 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium was the level of the Gunners’ commitment. It was a bit over the top in the first half with Monreal’s stamp on Allen’s ankle in the seventh minute and Flamini’s late challenge on Gerrard in the 35th.

That commitment nearly cost Arsenal the victory in the second half. Suarez was surrounded by Monreal and Podolski in the 59th. There was no immediate threat but Podolski still tripped Suarez inside the area. Gerrard converted the subsequent penalty to cut the Gunners’ lead. Six minutes later, Suarez collided with Chambo after beating him to the ball. Surprisingly, the referee did not award a second penalty. Suarez’s theatrical fall and the ball rolling toward the corner flag maybe played a role in Webb’s decision. But let us be honest, the referee missed a few calls on Sunday. Arsenal also had a penalty claim turned down in the 81st although Skrtel clearly kicked Cazorla inside the area.

When wingers such as Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain track back to defend, that’s great team spirit. But when they tackle inside the area a player who does not have a scoring chance, that’s poor judgment.

Messing up the offside trap

The Gunners won the match but they haven’t really fixed the defensive frailties they showed at Anfield Road. In the second minute, no one pressured Gerrard, who had plenty of time to slip a through ball to Sturridge. The England forward outpaced Koscielny and Mertesacker but was denied by Fabianski. That play was similar to Liverpool’s fourth goal a week ago when Coutinho played Sturridge in.

It doesn’t make sense for Mertesacker and Koscielny to play such a high defensive line, 30 yards from goal, when there’s no pressure on the ballholder. When you have no chance to execute well the offside trap, the only alternative is to drop back, even if it means running 10 or 15 more yards to build the next play.

The Gunners had a bit of room for an offside trap in the fifth minute. Suarez was surrounded by Arteta and Flamini but still managed to make a chipped pass for Sturridge. The England forward rounded Fabianski but fired into the side-netting. Mertesacker poorly marked Sturridge on that play while Jenkinson was poorly positioned, standing behind Sterling at the far post while he should have been between Sterling and Sturridge.

Defending set pieces

Arteta and Flamini then failed to cut the passing channel in the 62nd, allowing Sturridge to take a pass from Coutinho. Sturridge took advantage of Koscielny’s marking mistake to be clean through on goal, but Fabianski dived at his feet to knock the ball away.

In the closing minutes, a free kick from Gerrard looked pretty much like the opening goal at Anfield Road. The Gunners hesitated between executing the offside trap, attacking the ball, and marking their opponents. In the end, Agger beat Fabianski to the ball but headed wide. The defending on that play was terrible. Sanogo initially marked Agger but stopped running. Then Koscielny lost his duel as Agger outjumped him. Finally, Fabianski missed his catch 10 yards from his line.

Fabianski’s great performance

That was Fabianski’s only mistake on Sunday. The Polish goalkeeper turned down a new deal and will leave this summer to get more playing time elsewhere. That will be a big loss for Arsenal as he has become a solid second choice, significantly improving after a shaky start at the club when he was Almunia’s back-up.

Fabianski was arguably the best player on the pitch, pulling off a string of fine saves. Suarez outpaced Monreal in the 43rd but Fabianski saved the low effort from the Uruguay striker. Suarez then dribbled past Koscielny in the 46th but Fabianski stopped Suarez’s low strike with his right foot.

Rodgers felt the momentum was on his side in the second half and shifted to a 3-5-2 system in the 62nd by replacing Cissokho with Henderson. Wenger protected his team’s lead by sending on Cazorla for Podolski in the 69th and Gibbs for Chambo in the 75th. Liverpool dominated possession and finished strong but Fabianski denied Suarez in the 68th and 77th.

The match was overshadowed by the war of words between Mourinho and Wenger. The French manager basically said some clubs don’t want to be considered contenders because they “fear to fail.” Mourinho took it personally and said Wenger was “a specialist in failure.” How ironic now that the Blues are out of the FA Cup after losing 2-0 to Manchester City on Saturday.

Comparing apples and oranges

In hindsight, Mourinho’s comments were distasteful. Sure, Arsenal has not lifted a trophy since 2005 whereas Mourinho has won the Champions League with Inter Milan and domestic titles with Chelsea, Real Madrid and the Italian club. But you can’t compare apples and oranges. The big difference is that Wenger had to start from scratch in 2006 because the club had to reimburse the cost of the stadium (about 500 million euros). That meant selling your best players (Vieira, Henry, Fabregas, Van Persie, Nasri, Song, Cole, Hleb, Adebayor, Toure, Gilberto Silva, Clichy, Ljungberg, Reyes, etc…) while buying underrated or average players.

Mourinho never had to deal with such constraints. In fact, he inherited squads with world-class players and even had a lot of money to spend on players at Chelsea (Drogba, Shevchenko, Essien, Robben, Cech, Carvalho, Wright-Phillips, Kalou, Obi Mikel, Cole, Tiago, Kezman, Paulo Ferreira, Diarra, Del Horno), Inter Milan (Muntari, Quaresma, Pandev, Milito, Lucio, Eto’o, Sneijder) and Real Madrid (Di Maria, Callejon, Modric, Ozil, Fabio Coentrao, Khedira). Could Mourinho have achieved what Wenger did in the last eight years at Arsenal? No, because he can’t develop players like Wenger.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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