Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Do the Gunners really want to contend?

“Where do we go? Where do we go now?” would sing Guns N’ Roses after Arsenal’s 4-3 loss to Liverpool in the Premier League on Sunday. The Gunners also lost their opening games in 2013 and 2015, but that was mostly a matter of complacency against Aston Villa and West Ham, whereas they were focused and motivated against the Reds.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool

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

A quick look at the starting lineups showed how both clubs fared in the transfer market this summer. Liverpool started the game with three new signings (Klavan, Wijnaldum and Mane) while Arsenal only had one (Holding) at kick-off. Wenger’s defensive options were limited by Koscielny’s lack of match fitness as well as long-term injuries to Mertesacker and Paulista. I think it was a wise move to leave Koscielny out of the squad since he had not played in any summer friendly.

The manager made more questionable choices in midfield. Wenger was obviously wary of the Reds’ attacking threat and tried to protect the back four by stuffing the midfield with a ballwinner (Coquelin) and two all-rounders (Elneny and Ramsey). That ploy worked in the first half but Klopp adjusted in the second half by attacking down the flanks. I think the manager could have shown more ambition at the Emirates stadium by starting Coquelin, Xhaka and Cazorla in midfield. That’s how the Gunners finished the match.

Losing Ramsey & Iwobi

Up front, Wenger had the choice between Sanchez, Walcott and Akpom. Walcott proved inefficient in the lone striker role last season as well as in the summer friendlies. Akpom is stronger in the air and more physical than Sanchez and Walcott, but lacks experience in the Premier League. In the end, the manager gave the nod to Sanchez, who felt as uncomfortable as Walcott while playing back to goal. The Chile striker’s work-rate could not make up for his weakness in the air and his inability to hold the ball up.

Arsenal lost three points on Sunday but also two players. Iwobi picked up a thigh injury and was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 59th minute before a hamstring injury forced Ramsey to let Cazorla take over the playmaking duties in the 62nd. Both Ramsey and Iwobi will be sidelined for three to four weeks.

Iwobi’s injury was unfortunate since he had a normal pre-season training. On the other hand, I think starting Ramsey was a big gamble. Some fans will say that Kante and Payet played for Chelsea and West Ham respectively last weekend despite reaching the Euro 2016 final with the France team. That’s true. But Kante and Payet don’t have Ramsey’s injury history. I believe Ramsey is like a diesel engine and therefore needs a lot of time to hit match fitness. In my eyes, the fact that Ramsey only played in the last summer friendly against Manchester City was a red flag.

Holding’s inexperience

Chambers’ limitations and Holding’s inexperience really hurt us at the back. If you add Monreal’s poor performance, Arsenal had very little chance of containing Liverpool’s firepower. Holding only made small mistakes, but as you know, it’s all about small margins at the top level. He will need time to adjust to the pace of the Premier League where the game is faster than in the Championship. Holding has decent pace but he really needs to think more quickly. His passing accuracy of 74.1% was too low for a centerback, especially in a club traditionally building play from the back.

Holding only made one foul in Sunday’s game but it gave the Reds an opportunity to level in the closing seconds of the first half. He shoved Coutinho from behind although the Brazil midfielder was back to goal. It was a soft foul, but Holding gave the referee an excuse to blow the whistle by putting his hand on Coutinho’s shoulder. Coutinho curled the subsequent free kick into the top corner to tie the game.

Coutinho created a lot of problems for the Arsenal defense by often drifting inside from our right flank. He pulled Holding out of position in the 49th and played Wijnaldum in with a clever flick. Wijnaldum ghosted past Bellerin and made a cross for Lallana, who chested the ball down to fire through Cech’s legs for a 2-1 lead. All the defenders made a mistake on that play. Bellerin was on the wrong side of Wijnaldum, Holding should have let a midfielder press Coutinho, Chambers was not tight enough to Mane, and Monreal left too much space for Lallana by attempting to compensate for Chambers’ lax marking.

Too slow to turn

Liverpool took a 3-1 lead in the 56th when Coutinho connected with a cross from Clyne for a close-range volley. Monreal failed to stop the cross while Holding was beaten to the ball by Coutinho. Again, football is about winning duels. Monreal only won 54.5% of his duels according to the club’s official website, which is less than Holding (66.7%), Bellerin (75%) and Chambers (80%). Monreal performed well last season but what happened on Sunday is a reminder that he’s already 30 and that the staff will soon have to find an alternative.

Monreal lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 23rd, forcing Bellerin to take the ball away from Firminho with a last-ditch tackle. Two minutes later, Firminho ghosted past Monreal to take a pass from Lallana but had his shot blocked by Chambers. On paper, Gibbs is the logical replacement at leftback. He’s younger and faster than Monreal. Unfortunately, Gibbs often performed poorly when he was given a chance because of lapses of concentration.

Chambers headed home Cazorla’s free kick in the 75th to cut the deficit to 4-3 but his inability to turn quickly was badly exposed against the Reds. Firminho toyed with Chambers in the 58th before making a low cross for Coutinho, whose first-time effort was saved by Cech. Coutinho lost Holding inside the box on that play. Then Mane outpaced Chambers down our left flank in the 63rd and cut inside Monreal to beat Cech with a curling shot into the top corner for a 4-1 lead. Chambers also had a couple of silly turnovers, sending a long ball to Bellerin straight into touch in the 27th and having a sloppy pass intercepted by Firminho in the 40th. Firminho’s interception led to a tame low strike from Wijnaldum that Cech easily saved.

Sanchez struggling up front

The Gunners pressed high up the pitch in the first half to dominate possession. Somehow, they lost their compact shape in the second half as Liverpool proved more aggressive in midfield and capitalized on the poor defensive contribution from Iwobi and Walcott to make the difference on the wings.

Wenger used Ramsey as a free-floating midfielder like Wales did in the Euros. Ramsey took a reverse pass from Sanchez in the seventh minute to poke the ball straight at Mignolet. He was about to pull the trigger in the 14th but was denied by a last-ditch tackle from Moreno. The Wales midfielder played a role in the opening goal by making a decoy run to create space for Walcott. Still, Ramsey’s activity in midfield couldn’t make up for the lack of a playmaker who could feed Sanchez. It’s quite telling that Cazorla had more key passes than any other Arsenal player despite playing just the last 30 minutes.

Up front, Sanchez struggled in an unfamiliar role, winning only 28.6% of his duels and getting caught offside 4 times. His weakness in the air prevented the Arsenal defense from relying on a target man to evade Liverpool’s pressing game. Lovren easily outjumped Sanchez whenever there was a long ball. In the end, a lack of service combined with a poor reading of the plays explain why Sanchez could only muster one shot off target. I just think that Sanchez’s qualities are better used when he plays on a wing.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s solo goal

The manager seemed to give up on his idea of turning Walcott into a centerforward as the England international started on the right flank. Walcott did his bit in the first half, winning a penalty in the 29th that he failed to convert before opening the scoring with a diagonal shot in the 31st. The trouble is that Walcott completely disappeared in the second half. In the closing minutes, Walcott took a pass from Bellerin but the ball stayed under his feet and the chance was gone.

Iwobi started on the left wing and didn’t do much besides his assist for Walcott. The challenge for the Nigeria international will be to be more consistent in his performances this season. The Ox came off the bench to replace Iwobi in the 59th and scored a solo goal by dribbling past Clyne, Lallana and Henderson to fire past Mignolet in the 64th. He just turned 23 this week and I believe it’s the perfect age for him to show more composure in the final third and have a breakthrough season like Ramsey did in 2013.

The defeat against Liverpool is not just three points dropped. It also reflects Arsenal’s poor performance in the transfer market this summer. There are four persons who can be blamed for that disaster: Kroenke, Gazidis, Law and Wenger.

Laughing stock in the transfer market

Kroenke and Gazidis are responsible for the transfer budget. Liverpool and Chelsea did not even qualify for any European competition, yet they’ve spent at least 20 million pounds more than Arsenal in the transfer market this summer. That’s a joke knowing that the Gunners topped the list for Premier League prize money last season with 100 million pounds and will get at least 20 million pounds for playing in the Champions League group stage this year. The club has more maneuvering room financially since Ozil’s signing but it looks like it only wants to spend 50 to 60 million pounds per year in average on transfers despite increasing revenues.

Law is another culprit. Arsenal shouldn’t be waiting for key signings at the end of August. That’s unprofessional. The two Manchesters acted quickly enough in the offseason to have their squads ready for opening day. It just shows that the Gunners are completely inefficient in the transfer market. As the club’s chief negotiator, Law is responsible for the transfer policy. He doesn’t have great ties with agents and is known for being difficult to deal with.

Starting from scratch again?

The club’s bid for Lyon striker Lacazette clearly hints at Law’s poor understanding of the market. The bid matched Lacazette’s official market value, which is about 29 million pounds. French clubs expect more money from English clubs than from other European clubs. Wenger is aware of that financial reality and would have never made such a low bid. Arsenal’s only chance to convince Lyon of releasing Lacazette would have been to offer at least 40 million pounds. That sounds like a crazy amount of money, but you have to remember that Manchester United paid a fee of 38.5 million pounds to sign Martial (with bonuses possibly inflating that fee to 61.6 million) and that Chelsea spent 33 million pounds this summer to get Batshuayi, who’s not as prolific as Lacazette.

Kroenke, Gazidis and Law are making Wenger’s job much harder. But the manager must also take responsibility for taking too long to realize that the scouting staff has done a poor job over the past few years. Arsenal signed Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s head of technical scouting, in February. However, it will take more than one scout to improve the detection of transfer targets. Which means that the club’s only option this summer is to spend if it wants to contend this season. Otherwise, it will lose its best players next summer and will have to start from scratch again with a project a la Dortmund.

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