The Gunners scored 3 goals in a five-minute span to draw 3-3 on Friday and stay 1 point behind fourth-place Liverpool in the Premier League. In a thrilling game, the poor defending from both teams also showed why they are not contending for the title. With 9 shots on target to 4, the Reds were the better team, making more interceptions, winning more tackles, and having more successful dribbles. The Gunners were so badly outplayed in the first half that they could have trailed 3-0 at halftime. But Arsenal capitalized on Liverpool’s drop in intensity after the second goal to take the lead against the run of play with some clinical finishing.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made no change to the side that edged Newcastle 1-0 a week ago. The Arsenal midfield looked like gruyere cheese again because there was no natural ballwinner in the trio formed by Xhaka, Wilshere and Ozil to stop the Reds’ counterattacks. A poor corner kick from Sanchez in the 48th minute led to one of these fast breaks but Cech saved Salah’s low effort. Four minutes later, Maitland-Niles was dispossessed by Gomez near the Liverpool corner flag. Gomez slipped the ball to Milner, who found Salah. The Egypt forward ran 40 yards unchallenged and swapped passes with Firminho before curling a shot past Cech to make it 2-0. In the closing minutes, Wijnaldum also led a counterattack and fed Salah, who fired into the side-netting.
Friday’s game showed why the manager switched to a back three at the end of last season. The Arsenal defense simply doesn’t get any protection from the midfielders, who get bypassed too easily. With 3 centerbacks, you have some room for error if one of the centerbacks is pulled out of position. With a back four, if one the centerbacks is drawn out of position, the holding midfielder must cover him.
Liverpool used Firminho as a bait for the opening goal from a throw in the 26th. Milner sent a long ball toward Salah, whose cross deflected off Koscielny. The ball fell into the path of Coutinho, who beat Cech with a looping header. The Reds had a bit of luck for the first 2 goals since Salah’s curling shot also took a deflection off Mustafi. Still, that doesn’t excuse the Gunners’ defensive naivety.
Pulled out of position
For the opening goal, Monreal made the mistake of following Firminho deep into Liverpool’s territory. That left a huge space at the back with Koscielny and Bellerin in a 2v2 situation with Mane and Salah. See the screen capture below. In hindsight, either Wilshere or Xhaka should have marked Firminho on the throw-in. Maitland-Niles also had a lapse of concentration, looking at the ball and failing to spot Salah’s run in behind. Coutinho finished off the play by running into the space created by Firminho. Wilshere and Xhaka were on the same line as Coutinho when Milner hit the long ball but they lost the foot race with the Brazil midfielder. With a back three, the third centerback could have covered Maitland-Niles or won the header against Coutinho.
Bellerin and Koscielny in a 2v2 situation as Maitland-Niles and Monreal are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Reds pulled the same trick again in the 62nd. You have to question the Gunners’ lack of commitment since it started with a basic goal kick played short by Mignolet. The ball travelled down our right flank where Coutinho made a crossfield pass for an unmarked Mane, whose volley was parried by Cech. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Salah dropped back to pull Koscielny out of position. Mustafi was also drawn out of position as he covered Bellerin by marking Coutinho. That forced Maitland-Niles to drift inside and mark Firminho, leaving Mane completely free on the left flank. In hindsight, Xhaka or Wilshere should have closed down Salah on that play. When you have a forward playing between the lines, your holding midfielder must be able to play like a third centerback and mark that forward. I just don’t think that Xhaka or Wilshere can be that holding midfielder.
Mane, circled, is unmarked while Koscielny and Mustafi are out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)
While the opening goal resulted from the poor defensive contribution of the Arsenal midfielders, the last goal was pub defending at its best. Liverpool had a corner in the 71st and implemented gegenpressing after losing the ball. Salah dispossessed Sanchez and slipped the ball to Can, who had plenty of time to play Firminho in. From 16 yards, Firminho shot past Cech, who could only divert the powerful strike into his own net. As you can see on the screen capture below, no one closed down Can. When Wilshere reacted, it was already too late. But the worst part was the space given to Firminho. He was in front of goal and no one seemed to realize that he was the main danger. What were Koscielny and Mustafi doing?
Firminho, circled, given acres of space by the Gunners. (Photo credit: Sky)
Monreal had a poor game. He won no tackle and made no interception in the first half. The Spaniard showed his limits as a centerback in a back four. His qualities are better suited for a back three because of his relative lack of pace and weakness in the air. He picked up a knock in the 34th and was replaced by Mustafi at halftime.
Bellerin’s good performance
For his return from injury, Mustafi produced a decent performance, winning 80% of his duels, the highest percentage for an Arsenal defender according to the club’s website. However, there are still question marks over his partnership with Koscielny. The France defender had 2 dodgy moments on Friday. He was unlucky for the opening goal. But his slip in the 44th nearly cost his team a second goal. Koscielny attempted to intercept Milner’s through ball for Mane and ended up diverting it into the path of Salah, who was denied by Cech. The rebound fell to Mane, who wasted the chance with a useless bicycle kick instead of controlling the ball to have a better shot. Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal are clearly past their prime, which means that 2 centerbacks should be signed next summer.
On the right flank, I thought Bellerin produced one of his best performances this season. He found the right balance between defense and offense, winning 4 tackles, keeping Mane quiet, and making 1 assist. The Spaniard could have scored the winner in the 78th but Mignolet tipped his angled strike over the bar. If we want to be really picky, maybe Bellerin could have done better on 2 plays. He failed to stop a cross from Coutinho in the 24th and Firminho outjumped Maitland-Niles at the far post to head wide. Then Firminho cut inside Bellerin in the 32nd to curl a shot inches over the bar.
On the left flank, Maitland-Niles did OK. Although he showed his inexperience on the opening goal, I thought he didn’t look ridiculous against Salah. Some supporters keep asking why is he played out of position. Maybe Maitland-Niles is a safer option at leftback than Kolasinac right now. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Wenger has converted a midfielder into a fullback with Lauren and Bellerin as successful examples.
Iwobi’s poor work-rate
In midfield, the Gunners can be outplayed by the big clubs because they have no world-class ballwinner. The Blues have Kante while Manchester City can rely on Fernandinho. We used to have Petit and Gilberto, two World Cup winners, but nowadays we must make do with Coquelin, Xhaka and Elneny. Not quite the same category.
Xhaka made it 2-2 with a 30-yard drive in the 56th, but you expect your holding midfielder to protect the defense first. His poor positional play showed on the counterattack that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Wilshere shone in the Europa League games and against Newcastle, but he had less time on the ball against Liverpool, which explains his 5 turnovers. I think deep-lying playmaker is his best position because he has less pace than Ozil, which is crucial in the final third. Ozil had no influence in the first half because the Reds were so dominant. The Germany playmaker showed his class in the second half by netting Arsenal’s third goal with a chip in the 58th. He could have scored the winner in stoppage time but Mignolet palmed his cross-shot over the bar.
In the front three, I was very frustrated by Iwobi’s poor work-rate. Robertson had so much freedom that he finished the game with 47 passes, the second most for a Liverpool player behind Milner according to whoscored.com. In the 15th, Iwobi completely forgot to close down Robertson, who made a dangerous cross that Koscielny eventually cleared. You would think that Iwobi understood the threat coming from Robertson’s delivery. But he didn’t. The Scottish leftback made a few more dangerous crosses, one that Cech caught in the 20th and another that led to a scoring chance for Firminho in the 22nd.
Rough evening for Lacazette
A few years ago, Waddle accused Walcott of having no football brain. How would you call a player who needs to see several dangerous crosses before understanding that he should close down his opponent? Iwobi also showed a lack of lucidity in the final third, sending passes straight into touch in the 21st, 25th and 33rd, and giving the ball away to Can in the 31st despite having 2 decent passing options. Iwobi got an assist for his sideways pass to Xhaka in the 56th but his end product was really poor. The Gunners can only afford to have one softie against the top teams, and that’s Ozil. Starting two softies like Ozil and Iwobi puts a big strain on the Arsenal defense. If Wenger wants to stick to a back four, playing Ozil or Ramsey on the right wing would make more sense.
On the left wing, Sanchez had an anonymous first half before coming to life in the second. Sanchez cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading home Bellerin’s cross in the 53rd. He also set up Xhaka for a shot that missed the target in the 61st and almost scored the winner with a low strike that lacked power to beat Mignolet in the 83rd. The Chile striker led all players with 3 key passes but also had 5 turnovers, including one that led to Liverpool’s equalizer. Even at 90% of his potential, Sanchez will still give you more end product than Welbeck or Iwobi.
Up front, it was a rough evening for Lacazette. Since the start of the season, I’ve always said that Lacazette would be more comfortable in the role of a second striker than as a centerforward because the Premier League is more physical than the French league where he used to play. Lacazette looked isolated in the first half and got no service because his teammates didn’t see his runs or had not enough time to make the pass.
Poor away form
Hitting long balls is the easiest way to evade a high press. Unfortunately, Lacazette is not Giroud. Liverpool centerbacks Lovren and Klavan exposed Lacazette’s weakness in the air. Lacazette is usually tidy in possession but he was dispossessed 5 times on Friday because of Liverpool’s pressing game. Despite the lack of support and opportunities, Lacazette worked hard for the team and played Ozil in with a clever backheel flick for Arsenal’s third goal.
Lacazette’s lack of physicality might not be an obstacle to lead the line. But he will have to tweak his game a bit. If you look at the top teams, you basically see two types of centerforwards. Morata, Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Kane are strong in the air and can hold the ball up, while Firmino and Aguero play more like false nines, dropping back to create space and link up play. The Gunners haven’t optimally used Lacazette’s potential yet.
A draw is a decent result knowing that Arsenal lost both league games against Liverpool last season. The Gunners will next visit Crystal Palace on Thursday and West Brom on Sunday before hosting Chelsea on Jan. 3. They will need to improve their away form if they want to finish in the Top 4. The Gunners have only won 2 away games this season while Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs have won at least 5 away games. Even Leicester and Watford have a better record on the road than Arsenal.