Monday, 22 December 2014

Five thoughts on Liverpool 2 Arsenal 2

Liverpool 2 Arsenal 2

Liverpool were there for the taking in the second half
Something I've written about before is about how pressing isn't some kind of absolute good thing, contrary to what many people tell you. And thus it was born out: ten of the Liverpool starting line-up had started against Bournemouth in midweek and having given an enormous amount in energy in the first half to only go in level, they started to tire. Arsenal's best period of the match (admittedly not saying much) was in the third quarter of the game, as Liverpool could not keep up the same intensity of pressing, culminating in Olivier Giroud's goal.

And then Arsenal sat back and started to invite pressure. Liverpool had been dominant but given they had already decided not to track an Olivier Giroud run to the near post, it was pretty evident even in this match they couldn’t defend.

That’s why I can’t abide the people defending Arsenal’s mentality with the argument that “earlier in the season you were calling for more defensive solidity”. Yeah, maybe I was. I’m not even sure I was. But for want of argument, let’s say I was: there’s two important differences. One is that in suggesting that throwing nine men forward against United was a little naive, that doesn’t mean I thought we should throw nobody forward - there is quite obviously a middle ground where you show at least some attacking intent, and I felt Arsenal very much veered towards no intent to score a third goal until Liverpool equalised. But in addition, different football matches are different: against a team which is comically poor defensively and has a terrible goalkeeper, chasing more goals makes more sense than against a team which is less likely to concede. All in all, it’s an absurd argument.

Critically, Arsenal sitting back meant that Liverpool’s lack of energy was not exposed. Kolo Toure was blowing out of his arse well before he was substituted. Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana both looked knackered to me and that’s just those who I noticed in the stadium - it may well have been even more obvious on TV.

Simplistic as this may sound, sitting so deep meant Liverpool didn’t have to do much running around (so lack of stamina became less of an issue) and it also invited pressure. Sure, it might be a different story today if Arsenal had held on - but they didn’t, and a third goal would have rendered all of this a moot point.

I understand that having blown several leads and conceded many goals on the counter-attack, it is intuitive that the team might want to defend more and protect leads. Unfortunately, on the basis of what played out in the final 35 minutes of the match, it was a misguided decision.

This was exactly the sort of game Mesut Ozil was bought for
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez have many positive attributes but they’re not brilliant at retaining possession and just killing a game. One of the reasons I tended to be confident defending a lead last season was that players like Ozil, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla are very good at keeping the ball, ensuring the team is under less pressure. That Sanchez and Chamberlain kept on giving the ball away was one of the key reasons Arsenal were under so much pressure throughout. Partly, it was a result of poor positioning resulting in them being isolated. But it was also just about intelligent use of the ball, something Ozil is particularly good at. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t always translate into goals and assists, but with the personnel out there, Arsenal having a low pass completion rate (even if it was particularly low) was unsurprising. Ozil’s return cannot come soon enough.

The dual nature of Arsenal’s season
For the most part, Arsenal have played pretty well and not got the results because of profligacy in front of goal. Points were dropped against Leicester, Tottenham, Hull and Man United because of a failure to put the ball into the net from promising situations. Against Newcastle, Arsenal produced the sort of result they’d been hinting at all season, without creating very much - by taking their chances.

Against Liverpool, again, Arsenal created little but took their chances. It’s unfortunate that thus far there’s seemingly been an inability to combine the two, especially on a regular basis. But there’s no reason to think that it will continue - I’ve written before about how Arsenal’s forward players haven’t historically missed loads of chances (and so it’s been born out against Newcastle and Liverpool) but the next step is to combine creating lots of chances and scoring loads of goals on a regular basis.

Obviously scoring more goals is useful for a football team, but I think it would be particularly useful for the current Arsenal team - presumably, if there had been more faith that the forwards could score the third goal, the mindset yesterday would not have switched to one of defence. It is a weird self-perpetuating problem, where not attacking means a lack of goals continues to be an issue.

How are Arsenal doing in big games?
In the aftermath of yesterday’s game, people who I respect quite a lot on Twitter were claiming that this result was ‘yet another example’ of Arsenal failing to perform in a big game. I think that’s rather unfair.

It’s certainly true we were destroyed away to Chelsea last season, although that was really caused by two brilliant goals before an absurd sending off. And against Liverpool, even Liverpool fans acknowledged that it was possibly the best they had ever seen their team play. But it’s not true for the most part. Six times we played Liverpool and Tottenham last season - then our direct rivals - and five times we won.

An inexplicably dreadful recent record against United aside, Arsenal have done reasonably well in big games. Especially this season, this was the first time the team played really badly - against United, City, and Spurs (and even Chelsea away, the hardest game of the season) the team created tons of chances and just didn’t finish them and paid for individual mistakes. I think it’s easy to conflate poor results with poor performances.

It’s a weird quirk of fate that this Arsenal team is probably the best since 2009/10 but isn’t getting the results which show it. But I don’t think the problems are systemic (or whatever negative adjective you want to use) and so I struggle to envisage these results not improving, at least a bit.

Theo Walcott’s return cannot come soon enough
Theo’s probably not one of Arsenal’s most irreplaceable players but he’s definitely one of the best. If he had been even half-fit, I think he would have come on yesterday to give us a different point of attack. That he didn’t warm up once in the second half suggests to me he was only at Anfield because of the plethora of injuries. With a heavy fixture list coming up, I’m hopeful he might be ready for West Ham.

Keep the faith.

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