Arsenal vs. Liverpool: Gunners show defensive nous in 1-1 draw

Are the Gunners improving under Emery? Well, they salvaged a point in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool and looked more solid defensively than in the losses to Manchester City and Chelsea at the start of the season. Those are definitely small steps in the right direction. The Gunners are no title contenders, but they have a decent shot at a Top 4 finish. They slipped to fifth place in the standings, 1 point behind Tottenham but 3 clear of Manchester United. It’s important for Arsenal to perform well against the big clubs because results against the Citizens, the Red Devils, Liverpool, Spurs and the Blues will determine their chances of a Top 4 spot.

Arsenal vs. Liverpool.jpgPhoto credit: http://www.arsenal.com

The Gunners were switched on defensively, winning 51.6% of the duels and making 10 interceptions to 4 for Liverpool, according to the club’s website. They also showed good discipline by conceding only 7 fouls. But it’s not completely Emery’s team yet. Arsenal enjoyed 62% of Wengeresque sterile possession with Xhaka (97), Holding (82), Mustafi (81) and Torreira (64) finishing the game as the players who made the most passes. The Gunners especially suffered from a lack of penetration in the final third with just 5 successful dribbles to 13 for the Reds, according to whoscored.com. Nelson’s return next season will be a huge bonus since he’s the only natural dribbler in the squad. The English teenager notched his fifth Bundesliga goal in Hoffenheim’s 4-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

Having a clearer idea of what is the best team

Emery anticipated Liverpool’s high-energy style of football as he injected some freshness in the starting lineup by making 9 changes to the side that edged Blackpool in the League Cup with only Mustafi and Mkhitaryan retaining their starting spots. Maybe the more important figure is the 2 changes he made to the side that drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace the previous weekend with Mkhitaryan and Kolasinac replacing Iwobi and Guendouzi in the starting lineup. Emery seems to have a clearer idea of what his best team is.

In midfield, Emery seems to believe that Torreira, Xhaka and Ozil are his best options. At the start of the season, Emery toyed with the idea of playing Ramsey in the role of a free-roaming midfielder, but that experiment bore no fruit. He therefore moved Ozil from the right wing to the No. 10 position. In central midfield, Emery started Guendouzi alongside Xhaka in the first 5 games. However, it proved a flawed tandem because both players were too similar and the team simply lacked a true ballwinner to protect the defense. Emery therefore played Torreira alongside Xhaka in a more complementary partnership.

In the front three, Emery initially trusted Aubameyang to lead the line. But the Spanish manager had a change of heart and Lacazette has become the first choice for the centerforward position since the Cardiff game. Because of his goalscoring abilities, Aubameyang seems to have a small lead over Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Welbeck for the wide positions.

At the back, there hasn’t been much stability because of injuries. The only certainty is that Emery prefers Bellerin and Monreal to Lichtsteiner and Kolasinac in the fullback positions. Sokratis and Mustafi were Emery’s favorite centerback pairing at the start of the season, but Holding’s recent performances and Koscielny’s return from injury could change the situation this month.

The importance of positional play

Xhaka and Torreira were the main reason why Arsenal seemed less open than against Manchester City and Chelsea. They combined to win 4 of 7 tackles, have 1 turnover and make 1 block, 2 interceptions and 25 recoveries, according to the club’s website. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 80% of his duels. He made a timely tackle on Salah in the 32nd, cleared a rebound to prevent a tap-in from Gomez in the 45th and outperformed Fabinho in the midfield battle. While Emery showed patience and eased Torreira into a new league, Klopp hasn’t enjoyed much luck with Fabinho, who wasn’t up to speed on Saturday.

Torreira obviously focused on his defensive tasks but he nearly scored in the 63rd minute, playing a one-two with Mhkitaryan before testing Alisson with a powerful strike from 18 yards. The Uruguay international left everything on the pitch and even suffered from cramping in stoppage time. The only blemish in his performance was his positional play in the 18th when Mane’s goal was disallowed for offside. Firmino plays as a false nine, which means that he will often drop off in the space between the defense and the midfielders. Torreira should have tracked Firmino instead of letting Mustafi deal with a 1v2 situation.

A week after Xhaka gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge on Zaha, there were some jitters in the crowd when the Switzerland international made a sliding tackle in the 22nd. But Xhaka cleanly knocked the ball away from Salah and that duel set the tone for the rest of the evening. Emery will probably show Xhaka the positional mistake he made on the opening goal, failing to patrol the edge of the area as Milner pounced on a rebound in the 61st to fire home from 16 yards. Offensively, Xhaka mustered a tame low drive in the 14th and created a chance in the 39th.

Adapting to Emeryball

Both Xhaka and Torreira had to work their socks off because Ozil and Aubameyang contributed very little defensively. Ozil and Aubameyang combined to make 0 tackle, 0 interception, 0 block and just 5 recoveries, according to the club’s website. By contrast, Mkhitaryan still managed to win 1 tackle and make 6 recoveries in 68 minutes.

Ozil led all players with 4 key passes. The German playmaker cut the ball back to Bellerin for what could have been the winner in the 88th, but Bellerin couldn’t catch the frame with his weaker left foot. We all know that Ozil will never dominate a big game like Zidane, so it’s a small consolation that he didn’t disappear from this one.

Mkhitaryan is struggling to adapt to Emeryball. The Armenia international only has 1 goal and 1 assist from 8 league games this season. That’s not good enough for a player of his quality. Mkhitaryan made 2 key passes on Saturday but no defense-splitting pass. He set up Aubameyang in the 31st and Torreira in the 63rd for long-range efforts. Emery made the right call in the 68th by replacing Mkhitaryan with Iwobi. The Nigeria international brought more directness, making a teasing cross that Ozil couldn’t meet in the 76th. Although Iwobi moved to the leftback position in the 81st when Welbeck replaced Kolasinac, he still found a way to have an impact in the final third. Iwobi slipped the through ball that led to Lacazette’s equalizer in the 82nd.

Same situation, different decision

Up front, Lacazette had a disappointing game until that stroke of genius. He connected with a cross from Kolasinac in the fourth minute only to flick the ball straight at Alisson. In the past seasons, you can bet that Giroud would have done better with those flicks at the near post. Lacazette had another chance in the 39th but from a much tighter angle. Ozil diverted a lobbed pass from Xhaka into the path of Lacazette, who fired wide of the far post. A minute later, Mustafi knocked the ball down for Lacazette, who volleyed home from close range, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position from the German defender. Then Lacazette made a decisive run in the 82nd, beating Alisson to the ball. Running toward the corner flag to shield the ball, Lacazette was almost in a situation similar to the play that led to Crystal Palace’s equalizer. But instead of playing the ball back to a Gunner outside the area, Lacazette spun to curl a shot into the far corner.

Emery prefers to use Lacazette as a false nine, coming short to link up play, instead of relying on Aubameyang’s pace to lead the line. To a certain extent, Emery has given Aubameyang the Walcott role: a forward making diagonal runs in behind but with a limited contribution in the build-up play. The big difference is that Walcott could still cross with his stronger foot from the right flank whereas Aubameyang has to play on the left wing because Ozil and Mkhitaryan are more comfortable on the right wing.

Aubameyang had a poor game, winning only 20% of his duels and having a passing accuracy of 55.6%, the lowest percentage for any starter. He also led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. The Gabon striker had efforts deflected out in the 14th and 31st and mistimed his jump to head a cross from Ozil over the bar in the 39th. Aubameyang’s best contribution was the cross he made for Mkhitaryan in the 16th. Mkhitaryan beat Alisson to the ball but missed the target with his 11-yard header. Emery yanked Aubameyang off to send on Ramsey in the 73rd.

Leno’s mistakes

At the back, Kolasinac struggled in his return from injury, winning 40% of his duels and 0 of 2 tackles while making 0 block, 0 interception and 1 recovery. Salah had Kolasinac in his pocket and the Reds could have caused more damage if they had created more situations isolating Salah with Kolasinac. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international lacked defensive awareness in the 69th, allowing Mane to run in front of him. Fortunately, Salah overhit his cross for Mane. Then Van Dijk lost Kolasinac in the 74th to meet a corner and force a save from Leno.

On the opposite flank, Bellerin was a doubt before the game but managed to play with his right thigh strapped. Bellerin did OK, winning 33% of his duels and 2 of 2 tackles while making 1 block, 1 interception and 3 recoveries. The Spaniard lost a key duel in the 70th when Firmino outjumped him to head a corner wide. Because of his recovering thigh and Mane’s threat down the right flank, Bellerin was more cautious with his forward runs. He still produced a through ball for Mkhitaryan in the 51st but Van Dijk outmuscled the Armenia international.

Leno made a couple of fine saves, denying Van Dijk in the 23rd and saving Robertson’s low strike in the 24th, but he also made 2 high-profile errors. The German goalkeeper was in no man’s land when Van Dijk headed a free kick against the post in the 45th. That was really poor decision-making from Leno to come off his line since Van Dijk was 14 or 15 yards away from goal. Then Leno should have either caught Mane’s cross in the 61st or knocked the ball toward the touchline. Redirecting the cross toward the middle of the box was the worst option as Milner pounced on the rebound to open the scoring. Leno also tried to play out from the back with goal kicks, but Liverpool’s high press forced him to opt for a long kick in the 26th. That was smart decision-making since the Reds were prepared for that kind of situation and you can’t afford any mistake near your area with players like Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Holding stepping up

Sokratis’ injury has given Holding the opportunity to prove himself again after shaky performances under Wenger. On Saturday, Holding and Mustafi made their 6th start together this season. When Sokratis is fit, it will be interesting to see which centerback combination Emery prefers.

Holding had stats as good as Mustafi. The English defender won 70% of his duels and 3 of 4 tackles and made 1 block, 2 interceptions and 6 recoveries, compared to 90% of duels won, 2 of 4 tackles won, and 1 block, 4 interceptions and 2 recoveries for Mustafi. Both had their good and bad moments. Holding headed out Robertson’s cross for Firmino in the fifth minute and blocked Salah’s final ball for Mane in stoppage time. However, Holding also made a sloppy pass in the 34th and lost a key duel against Van Dijk in the 45th.

After his error against Crystal Palace, Mustafi had to try and convince his doubters again. Mustafi made a timely tackle on Firmino in the fifth minute but a couple of plays exposed his weaknesses. He showed poor decision-making in the 18th by playing the offside trap instead of tracking Firmino. Mane’s goal would have stood with VAR technology. Then Van Dijk ghosted past Mustafi to meet a cross from Salah in the 23rd but was denied by Leno. Mustafi was definitely guilty on the Liverpool goal as Mane outpaced the German defender to make his cross.

The Gunners next play Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Wolverhampton in the Premier League on Sunday. Those are both home games so Emery might decide to limit rotation, especially since there’s an international break afterwards. Arsenal would secure qualification for the knockout phase of the Europa League with a victory over the Portuguese side. Such a scenario would allow Emery to play more youngsters for the remaining games against Vorskla and Qarabag.

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