Liverpool vs. Arsenal: Old defensive frailties resurfacing in 3-1 loss

What was he thinking? That was the reaction from a lot of fans on Saturday when Wenger benched Sanchez in the first half of the 3-1 loss to Liverpool. In a crucial game against a rival for a Top 4 finish, you would assume that the manager would start his best player. But Wenger didn’t, and the move backfired as the Gunners dropped to fifth place in the Premier League, 2 points behind Liverpool and 5 behind Manchester City.

liverpool-vs-arsenal

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

The manager claimed after the game that he benched Sanchez to have more directness with Giroud and Welbeck. That explanation still doesn’t justify why Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain got the nod over Sanchez. In a 4-2-3-1 system, Giroud would have led the line, Sanchez and Welbeck would have started on the wings, and either Iwobi or the Ox would have played in the hole.

I guess Wenger’s game plan was to evade Liverpool’s high press by using Giroud and Welbeck as targets for long balls. That plan had mixed success with Giroud and Welbeck combining to win 4 of 6 aerial duels outside the area, according to Squawka. When Arsenal had the ball, the plan was either to hit Liverpool on the fast break with the pace of Welbeck, Iwobi and the Ox or feed Giroud if the Reds had already retreated in their own half. Unfortunately, the Gunners couldn’t create any chance in the first half because Liverpool quickly closed down to kill any counterattack while Giroud had no decent service. Set pieces are potential scoring opportunities for a player who is strong in the air like Giroud, but neither Xhaka nor the Ox could beat the first man with their corner kicks.

Men vs. boys

Down 2-0 at halftime, Wenger had no choice but to replace the ineffective Coquelin with Sanchez while shifting the Ox from the right wing to central midfield. The team suddenly looked more dynamic. Giroud met a cross from Monreal in the 48th minute for a header that Mignolet palmed onto the bar. Then Sanchez capitalized on a counterattack in the 57th to slip a through ball to Welbeck, who cut the deficit to 2-1 by chipping Mignolet. But in the end, it was too little too late.

The scoreline could have been more humiliating if Cech had not made a couple of fine saves and if the Reds had produced better finishing. The stats don’t lie: Liverpool completely outplayed Arsenal with 14 chances to 6 according to Squawka. It almost looked like men vs. boys in the first half. Wenger claimed after the game that the Gunners lacked rhythm because of the 11-day break between the FA Cup tie against Sutton and the Anfield match. That’s quite a surprising statement from such a seasoned manager. Most clubs play against their own academy teams to stay sharp. The Arsenal U23 side also had a gap in its schedule and was therefore available for a friendly with the first team.

What really hurts in the 3-1 loss is that some old defensive frailties are resurfacing. The opening goal came from a Liverpool goal kick in the ninth minute. Koscielny challenged Firmino in the air but both missed the ball, which was redirected by Coutinho into the path of Lallana. The England international released Mane down our left flank while Firmino sprinted into the box. Unmarked at the far post, Firmino controlled Mane’s cross-shot before blasting the ball into the roof of the net.

Struggling to defend set-pieces

Let’s analyze that goal. The first mistake comes from Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball. Firmino plays like a false nine, often dropping back to be involved in the passing game and create space for his teammates. In that kind of situation, I believe Coquelin or Xhaka should have challenged Firmino in the air. If Koscielny gets pulled out of position, he must be sure to win the header otherwise he’s leaving a big gap at the back. As you can see on the screen capture below, Koscielny’s decision to go for the ball makes the Arsenal defense more vulnerable with a dangerous 3v3 situation developing.

liverpool-a1edKoscielny’s missed header leads to a 3v3 situation. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

The second mistake comes from the way the Gunners are retreating. They are all focused on Mane and nobody is paying attention to Firmino. As a result, Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal are running toward the near post while Bellerin is alone at the far post dealing with three Reds (Coutinho, Lallana and Firmino). If you look at the screen capture below, the poor distribution of resources becomes obvious with the red line that I’ve drawn. This has been a recurrent issue for Arsenal this season: they tend to commit too many defenders at the near post and therefore leave the far post exposed.

liverpool-a2edBellerin alone at the far post vs. 3 Reds. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

This goal is also symptomatic of our struggles in defending set-pieces. Liverpool nearly scored from a Coutinho free kick in the 76th. Matip beat Mustafi to the ball for a tame header that Cech saved. Seven minutes later, Origi got the better of Bellerin to head a free kick against the post. Why was Bellerin marking Origi? Koscielny was marking Matip and Mustafi was busy with Klavan, but Xhaka and Perez, who are stronger in the air than Bellerin, could have dealt with Origi instead.

A soft midfield

Mustafi and Koscielny did not get much protection from the midfielders on Saturday. They had a low passing accuracy of 70.8% and 72.2% respectively because of Liverpool’s high press. Koscielny won 0 of 2 tackles and 10 of 12 aerial duels and made 5 interceptions and 3 blocks, while Mustafi won 2 of 3 tackles and 1 of 4 aerial duels and made just 1 interception and 1 block.

In that centerback partnership, Koscielny is the key component. The Frenchman is the one who made Mustafi look good in the first half of the season. Partner Mustafi with another defender and his weaknesses become obvious like in the second half of the Bayern Munich game. Koscielny was at fault for the opening goal but Mustafi could have also cost his team a goal or two. Mustafi fouled Wijnaldum on the edge of the box in the 29th but the referee played advantage and Coutinho fired a strike that Cech tipped over the bar. On the stroke of halftime, Coutinho ghosted past Mustafi to collect Lallana’s deflected ball over the top and shoot straight at Cech.

Liverpool’s second goal in the 40th really showed how soft is the Arsenal midfield. The ball travelled from our right flank to the left flank, where an unmarked Mane fired a low diagonal strike past Cech. Our midfielders lacked defensive awareness on that play. See the screen capture below. Iwobi failed to track Wijnaldum, who had plenty of time to take Milner’s pass. Then Xhaka was a split second late to close down Firmino, who slipped the ball to Mane. And Coquelin failed to mark Lallana, forcing Monreal to cover him and leave Mane free.

liverpool-b1edIwobi, Xhaka and Coquelin fail to close down Wijnaldum, Firmino and Lallana. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)

If one of those three Arsenal midfielders had done his defensive duty, Mane would have not enjoyed a free shot. In the end, Koscielny tried to close down Firmino while Monreal marked Lallana, who made a decoy run to pull the Spaniard out of position and free some space for Mane. See the screen capture below.

liverpool-b2edKoscielny and Monreal trying to make up for the midfielders’ mistakes while Mane is free. (Photo credit: ww.Arsenal.com)

The work-rate from our midfielders is simply not good enough. Coquelin, Xhaka, Iwobi and the Ox made no interception while Can, Lallana, Wijnaldum and Coutinho combined to make 5 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Lallana rushed back inside the Liverpool area in the 84th to put off Perez, who headed Bellerin’s cross wide. Can anybody imagine Ozil or Iwobi doing that?

Searching for a complementary duo

Cazorla has made Coquelin look good in central midfield but the Spaniard’s absence has exposed Coquelin’s limitations and especially his average positional play. Lallana dispossessed Coquelin to start a counterattack in the 32nd. Two minutes later, Coquelin was booked for a cynical foul on Lallana, who had intercepted a sloppy pass from the Frenchman.

Iwobi finished the game with a passing accuracy of 97.1%, the highest percentage among all the starters. He also won 2 of 3 tackles, more than any other Arsenal midfielder according to Squawka. There’s no doubt that Iwobi has great potential, but at 20 and with a poor run of form, he shouldn’t be in the starting lineup. He still needs to work on his defensive awareness.

Partnering Xhaka in central midfield after the break, the Ox led Arsenal players with 2 key passes and 3 successful dribbles, according to whoscored.com. He also led the team with 5 turnovers, which is a bad stat in such a key position.

It’s obvious that Wenger hasn’t found a decent alternative to the Coquelin-Cazorla tandem in central midfield. Injuries and suspensions have not helped the manager in his search. Since the beginning of this year, Wenger has started 6 different partnerships: Coquelin-Xhaka (3), Xhaka-Ramsey (3), Xhaka-Elneny (2), Coquelin-Ox (2), Coquelin-Ramsey (1), and Ox-Maitland-Niles (1).

The manager seems to believe that Xhaka should be the cornerstone of his midfield. But none of the combinations involving Xhaka has really been impressive. Xhaka & Coquelin were terrible against Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Bournemouth. Xhaka & Ramsey produced wins against Burnley, Swansea and Preston but did not provide much solidity. And Xhaka & Elneny did OK against weak sides like Sutton and Crystal Palace. Surprisingly, the Ox-Maitland-Niles tandem has been the most complementary one this year but it’s also the youngest pairing.

Vulnerable to the fast break

Liverpool’s third goal in stoppage time exposed Arsenal’s inability to kill counterattacks. Lallana toyed with Xhaka in midfield and pulled Mustafi out of position with a quick turn before releasing Origi down our left flank. Origi cut the ball back for Wijnaldum, who slotted into the bottom corner to put the result beyond doubt. Origi was marginally offside on that play, but what really matters is how Xhaka was unable to stop the fast break and how Xhaka, Mustafi and Bellerin lacked defensive awareness by letting Wijnaldum run past them.

Xhaka’s relative lack of pace becomes an issue in games played at a high tempo. The Switzerland international won none of the four tackles he made. To a certain extent, he reminds me a bit of Arteta, whose sluggishness prevented him from stopping counterattacks. The Gunners have worked hard to fix that problem since the 6-0 loss to Chelsea and 5-1 loss to Liverpool during the 2013-14 season. But it looks like that vulnerability to the fast break is coming back to haunt them again. You might think that Arsenal threw the kitchen sink in the closing minutes to level and therefore didn’t care about defending, but quite a few times during the game the Gunners were split in two when Liverpool initiated a counterattack.

As I’m wrapping up this analysis, reports have emerged that Wenger benched Sanchez because of a bust-up on the training ground. That makes more sense than the tactical explanation given by the manager in his post-game press conference. It’s not a surprise since Sanchez’s body language has been quite negative lately. The Chile striker has probably realized that he won’t win the league with Arsenal. At 28, Sanchez won’t have many opportunities left to lift a trophy and a departure this summer becomes therefore more likely. Sanchez might be upset but he’s a top professional. He gave everything on the pitch against Liverpool, whereas some Chelsea players hurt their club last season by performing poorly on purpose. Cynics will say that Sanchez is marketing himself to get a raise at his next club. Fair enough.

Injecting competition within the squad

That bust-up also shows that the chemistry in the dressing room is not great. Consecutive losses to Watford and Chelsea must have dealt a significant blow to the team’s morale. But the lack of competition within the squad could be a factor, too. Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott and Ozil have been automatic starters lately despite a poor run of form. I think the manager needs to give more weight to merit in his team selection if he wants to save Arsenal’s season. That means starting players who really show hunger and are willing to work their socks off.

Tuesday’s Champions League game against Bayern Munich is coming at a tricky time. On the one hand, another spanking would further damage the team’s confidence. On the other hand, it could be a good opportunity to make experiments against top opposition. In any case, the Gunners need to fix their defensive frailties quickly, otherwise they have no chance of finishing in the Top 4.

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