Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Failure to defend set pieces costs Gunners 2 points

We could be talking about the Gunners showing fortitude to win ugly. But the closing minutes of Sunday’s match at Anfield Road have brought back the old narrative of mental weakness instead. Arsenal had a 2-1 lead over ten-man Liverpool when a downward header from Skrtel in the seventh minute of stoppage time took the victory away from our hands. I’m too gutted to count the number of points we’ve dropped from winning positions this season.

Liverpool vs. Arsenal

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

Wenger made one change to the side that routed Newcastle 4-1 the previous weekend with Chambers replacing Bellerin at right back. Rodgers opted for a 3-4-3 system that turned into a 5-4-1 formation when Liverpool developed plays from the back or didn’t have the ball. Those tactics allowed the Reds to outplay the Gunners with 64 percent of ball possession. Liverpool also won more duels and hit 27 shots to only 7 for Arsenal. When the Reds were chasing an equalizer in the second half, Rodgers switched back to a 4-4-2 system by replacing Toure with Lambert in the 81st.

Last season, Liverpool thrashed Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield Road by capitalizing on turnovers and set pieces. The Reds are weaker than a year ago because of Suarez’s departure and Sturridge’s recurrent thigh injuries. But Coutinho’s movement and Sterling’s pace still caused a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense on Sunday.

Outnumbered in midfield

One of our priorities was to protect the slow-footed Mertesacker from lightning-fast counterattacks. We therefore played a low defensive line to prevent the Reds from making runs behind our pair of centerbacks. At the exception of the second minute, when a fast break led Mertesacker to trip Coutinho, Liverpool had no real opportunity to expose the German defender’s lack of pace. The downside of that approach is that we gave the Reds plenty of space between our defenders and our attacking players, which explains why Liverpool so easily outnumbered us in midfield and forced turnovers.

Coutinho was arguably Liverpool’s most dangerous player. The Brazilian playmaker often escaped marking to play between the lines. He benefited from his team’s numerical superiority in midfield as Flamini had to deal with both Coutinho and Lallana. Flamini received a yellow card in the 13th for bringing Coutinho down with his trailing leg and was lucky to avoid a second yellow card in the 43rd for throwing an arm at Lallana while missing the ball for a header.

The hosts opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime after Giroud made a sloppy pass to Cazorla. The ball fell to Henderson, who found Countinho on the edge of the box. The Brazilian playmaker created some space to his right to fire a diagonal strike inside the far post. Neither Debuchy nor Mertesacker could make the block. We can give Liverpool some credit for pressing high up the pitch to win the ball back, but the Gunners did a poor job to close down Henderson and Coutinho.

Chambers’ slow first steps

The wings are usually the main weakness of a 3-4-3 formation. However, Markovic and Henderson enjoyed plenty of freedom because of the weak understanding between Gibbs and Welbeck on the left flank and between Chambers and Sanchez on the right flank. Markovic got the better of Chambers in the first half, setting up Lallana who fired over the bar in the 12th. Chambers was let down by a poor first touch in the 35th, losing possession to Gerrard, who fed Markovic with a ball over the top. Markovic skipped past Debuchy to be clean through on goal but had his low effort stopped by Szczesny’s leg. Markovic then took a pass from Sterling in the 39th but missed the target from 15 yards with a curling shot.

Chambers improved in the second half but his inexperience proved costly in injury time. Skrtel beat him to the ball to head home a corner from Lallana. Zonal marking is not the reason why Arsenal conceded a late equalizer. The Reds leveled because Chambers and Gibbs showed poor focus. When Lallana kicked the corner, Flamini was standing at the far post while Gibbs was still heading back toward the near post. Basically, Gibbs threw away a chance to clear Skrtel’s header off the line by walking away from the post. Chambers knew Skrtel would probably challenge him on that corner, but he came out too late of the starting blocks to win the header. His slow first steps are becoming a serious concern.

Winning three duels to score

Looking at the bigger picture, you kind of wonder how Arsenal could be under siege despite having an extra man. Borini was sent off in the second minute of stoppage time for lacerating Cazorla’s chest with his studs. Any rational team would force Liverpool to run after the ball. But the Gunners showed poor ball retention skills and preferred to protect their lead by sitting deep in their final third.

There are very few positives from Sunday’s draw. Debuchy got the nod over Chambers at centerback because of his experience. The Frenchman had a decent game but gave Coutinho too much space for the opening goal. He made amends a minute later by outjumping Skrtel to head into the top corner. That equalizer showed a quite unusual desire from the Gunners to attack the ball as Mertesacker headed Sanchez’s free kick across goal toward Flamini, who also won a header to feed Debuchy. The French defender let his experience do the talking in the 47th when he body-checked Sterling to kill what could have been a scoring chance.

Cazorla was Arsenal’s best player despite his team’s lackluster performance in midfield. Shortly after the restart, he produced a mazy run which ended with a wide shot. Giroud then combined with Cazorla in the 65th to give the Gunners a 2-1 lead, whipping the Spaniard’s cutback through the goalkeeper’s legs. Cazorla could have scored the winner in the ninth minute of injury time, but Jones saved his long-range strike.

The odd moment

The Gunners struggled to provide decent service to their three forwards because of Liverpool’s pressing game and midfield domination. Giroud scored but Sanchez had an off day with a high number of stray passes while Welbeck spent most of his time trying to win tackles.

It was also a tough game for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who looked like the player from last season, frequently losing possession in key areas. Sterling capitalized on Chambo’s turnover in the 87th to outpace Chambers and cross the ball for Borini, whose header was tipped over the bar by Szczesny. I guess the most difficult part for a young player when his team is so badly outplayed is to keep his cool and simply play his game. The England international nearly made the difference in the 36th after winning the ball on the edge of the Arsenal box. He broke through the Liverpool midfield before a challenge from Lucas sent the ball into Giroud’s path. The Frenchman was clean through on goal but Jones came off his line to knock the ball into touch.

Szczesny made a couple of outstanding saves but there is always the odd moment that tells you he shouldn’t be Arsenal’s goalkeeper in the long term. Sterling outpaced Debuchy while chasing a long ball from Lallana in the 62nd but still had to beat Mertesacker. Yet, Szczesny came out of his area to attempt an interception. The Poland goalkeeper missed the ball but was smart enough not to foul Sterling, who rounded him. In the end, Gerrard headed Sterling’s cross over the bar from 12 yards.

Arsenal’s season on the line

The draw is a disappointing outcome for us but a fair result. The Reds must be more upset than Arsenal because they are virtually out of contention for a Champions League spot, trailing West Ham by nine points, Southampton by seven, and Arsenal and Tottenham by five. Mathematically, the Reds still have a chance, but they are on pace to finish the season with 49 points and it’s hard to see how they could turn their season around to reach at least 60 points.

The Gunners’ season will be on the line in the next three games. They will host Queens Park Rangers on Friday before visiting West Ham on Sunday and Southampton on Jan. 1. Anything else than a victory against the Hoops would be a disaster while four points against the Hammers and the Saints, two rivals in the race for a top 4 finish, would be a decent return. Arsenal must stay within three points of fourth place after the Southampton game to keep alive its chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

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