Arsenal moved closer to securing a top-four finish in the Premier League by smashing Liverpool 4-1 on Saturday. The Gunners scored three goals in an eight-minute span to virtually knock the Reds out of the race for the Champions League spots.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Gunners are slowly changing the narrative defining the club. They struggled badly in the first half of the season because of their inconsistency. The longest winning streak they could achieve in the league then was two games. Much has changed since Jan. 1. The Gunners have racked up more points than any other team this year and Saturday’s result was their seventh straight victory.
Last season, Arsenal looked ridiculous against the teams that finished in the Top 5 with 1 win, 3 draws and 4 losses in the matches against Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton. The Gunners have improved this term with 2 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses in the matches against Chelsea, the two Manchesters and Liverpool. I’m assuming here that these clubs will take the top five spots at the end of the season. Arsenal will also host Chelsea in three weeks and visit Manchester United next month.
Saturday’s game wasn’t as one-sided as the scoreline would suggest. Liverpool enjoyed 51 percent of ball possession but Arsenal had 16 shots compared to 13 for the visitors. What made the difference was the efficiency in the final third. The Gunners had 10 goal attempts on target while the Reds only caught the frame twice.
Liverpool outplayed Arsenal in the 2-2 draw at Anfield in December by crowding the midfield with a 3-4-3 system. Oxlade-Chamberlain had a high turnover rate in that game while Chambers struggled at rightback and Welbeck had very little impact in the midfield battle. Rodgers used the same tactics on Saturday, but the Gunners looked better with Ozil’s ball retention skills, Bellerin at rightback and Ramsey drifting inside from the right wing.
Arsenal got off to a good start by pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. Cazorla took a pass from Sanchez in the fourth minute to fire an angled shot that Mignolet stopped. A minute later, Toure lost possession under Giroud’s pressure and the ball fell to Ramsey. Clean through on goal, the Wales midfielder had his low strike saved by Mignolet. Ramsey should have scored from 13 yards but his left-footed effort lacked power to trouble the Liverpool goalkeeper.
Most teams can usually press for 15 minutes before feeling the need to recover physically. That’s when the Reds enjoyed their first spell of domination. With his electric pace and sudden change of direction, Sterling was the obvious threat for Mertesacker and Koscielny, who were lucky to get away with a couple of positional mistakes.
I was worried when I saw the Gunners play a high defensive line in the first half. Mertesacker stopped a counterattack in the 12th by tackling Sterling near the touchline. A minute later, Sterling was wrongly flagged offside while chasing a through ball. TV replays showed Koscielny had played Sterling onside.
Coquelin in no man’s land
Liverpool nearly opened the scoring in the 19th when Coutinho played Markovic in. The Serbia winger could have taken his chance from 16 yards but he preferred to set up Sterling for a tap-in. Markovic overhit his pass and the ball rolled out of play. Our defending was really poor on that play. Nobody marked Coutinho and Markovic in midfield. Coquelin was in no man’s land, standing between Coutinho and Markovic because Mertesacker and Koscielny were both marking Sterling. Koscielny should have marked Markovic to allow Coquelin to take care of Coutinho. Koscielny’s positional mistake gave Markovic plenty of space for his run. Mertesacker also showed poor decision-making by executing the offside trap while there was no pressure on the ballholder, Coutinho. In that situation, the right choice for Mertesacker would have been to drop back.
The Arsenal defense was again exposed in the 25th when Cazorla made a sloppy pass to Coquelin. Markovic picked out Sterling, who dribbled past Koscielny but missed the target with an angled shot. On the stroke of halftime, Markovic found a gap in our back four. However, Ospina quickly came off his line to collect Coutinho’s long ball for Markovic.
In the end, Ramsey’s missed chance didn’t prove as costly as Markovic’s poorly weighted pass. Down 3-0 at halftime, Rodgers switched to a 4-3-3 system by replacing Markovic with Sturridge and forcing Can to play at rightback. I thought the Reds were less dangerous in the second half with a Sturridge lacking match fitness whereas Markovic made some good plays with Coutinho and Sterling in the first half.
In tight games, the opening goal can come from an unexpected move. You don’t often see a fullback penetrate inside the box in open play. Yet, that’s how Monreal broke the deadlock in the FA Cup match against Manchester United. Bellerin also displayed his technique in the 37th by taking a pass from Ramsey to cut inside Moreno and beat Mignolet with a curling shot into the far corner. I really liked Bellerin’s close control and footwork on that goal. The technical gap between the Spaniard and Jenkinson and Chambers is so obvious that it’s no surprise the manager finally gave him his chance this season.
The second half was more testing for Bellerin after Rodgers sent on Sturridge, forcing Sterling to play on the wings. On paper, Bellerin vs. Sterling is a better matchup for Arsenal than Mertesacker vs. Sterling. However, Mertesacker relied on his experience to survive Sterling’s pace in the first half. By contrast, Bellerin’s youth cost his team a goal in the second half.
We all know Bellerin is the quickest player at the club. But Sterling is one of the fastest forwards in the league and Bellerin should have been a bit more cautious in his duels with the England international. The yellow card Bellerin received in the 70th for holding Sterling should have kept him on his toes. But it didn’t prove enough in the 75th when Bellerin gave away a penalty with a mistimed tackle.
That was poor decision-making. Sterling was driving toward the by-line to square the ball back. All Bellerin had to do was to stay with Sterling and block the pass. But for a split second, the Spaniard thought he had an opportunity to knock the ball away and dived in. I’ve seen Bellerin perfectly make that kind of tackle several times this season. But none of the forwards he faced had Sterling’s pace. Hopefully, Bellerin won’t make that mistake again when he marks Hazard. Henderson converted the subsequent penalty to cut Arsenal’s lead.
Ozil’s target for next season
It was too little too late for Liverpool to repeat the miracle of Istanbul. Ozil doubled the lead in the 40th with a free kick from 25 yards that dipped into the bottom corner. Sanchez made it 3-0 on the stroke of halftime by taking a pass from Ramsey to cut inside Toure and fire a powerful strike a couple of inches under the bar.
It was interesting to see Wenger play Ozil in the hole and Ramsey on the right wing. The Gunners lost a bit of penetration but gained more fluency in their passing game. A year ago, the manager would have done the opposite. Despite his wide position, Ramsey still managed to set up two goals. Meanwhile, Ozil notched his fourth goal in 15 league games this season. It’s definitely a good ratio for a playmaker and that should encourage him to be more decisive in the final third.
If Ozil stays healthy, his target should be to reach 25 goals or assists in a Premier League season. He had 23 Liga goals or assists in his best season at Real Madrid. To put things in perspective, Fabregas had 24 Premier League goals or assists in the 2007-08 season and 28 in the 2009-10 season. I think it’s very clear what Ozil must do to win over every Arsenal fan.
Liverpool lost any hope of staging an improbable comeback when Can picked up a second yellow card for a tackle from behind on Welbeck in the 84th. The Gunners capitalized on their numerical superiority to round off the scoring. In the 90th, Monreal combined with Welbeck to cut the ball back for Cazorla, who hit the post from 15 yards. A minute later, Giroud won a high ball to connect with Sanchez. The Chile forward played the ball back to Giroud, who stepped inside Toure to fire into the top corner. Giroud had a good game and could have also scored in the 55th. The Frenchman outjumped Toure to meet a cross from Ozil but Mignolet denied him with a one-handed save.
Injuries to Koscielny and Ramsey were the only negative from Saturday’s game. Paulista came off the bench to replace Koscielny in the 49th while Flamini took Ramsey’s spot in the 61st. The Gunners next play Burnley on Saturday, which means that Wilshere, Debuchy, Diaby and Arteta still have a bit of time to get sharper. The quatuor played with the Under-21 team last Tuesday.