Despite the general gloomy mood with regards to yesterday’s game and result, I can’t shake off an overall positive feeling. This is in sharp contrast with my Twitter timeline, Arsenal blogosphere and the opinions of fans inside the stadium.
I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m inclined to feel slightly optimistic. Is it because I dreaded the visit of Liverpool like no other team this season, so a draw looks a good outcome? It it because the players found it in themselves to pull ahead after going 2-0 down? Or maybe it’s down to my personal reasons, like being back home? All of the above anyone?
Whatever reason, or reasons, lie(s) behind my upbeat mood, there are about a million things to discuss, so let’s snap to it.
The first 20 minutes or so
We started in an unusually reserved fashion. The Gunners seemed determined to keep their defensive shape and limit space for Klopp’s men to run into. This hindered our attacking threat, because very few players opted to join in when we recovered the ball.
During this period Liverpool created precious little, as did we. The highlight for me was how close to each other Wilshere, Xhaka and Iwobi played. All three stuck close to our defensive line too, and were even occasionally joined by Mesut Ozil.
Such proximity to one another ensured the player in possession had options for quick short passes, which made Liverpool’s press useless. It is obvious the Reds tried to isolate Xhaka, knowing full well the Swiss can be slow and erratic in his decision-making. This came to nothing, because Wilshere and Iwobi were always on hand to give Xhaka options.
Another apparent plus of such tight-knitness of the group was a defensive one. If our player in possession did lose the ball, back up was never too far away, with the Gunners employing intermittent press to force turnovers immediately after losing possession. When out of possession, Ozil covered the left wing, while Alexis and Lacazette pressed the centre-backs, basically making our shape a 4-4-2.
What is interesting about this period, the one during which we effectively blunted Liverpool’s attacking impetus, was that it was not part of the plan devised by Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman said this after the game:
Question from Carragher: “Did you instruct team to play deep because of Liverpool’s pace on the counter?”
Wenger: “No, not really. We knew about their pace, but it’s not the message we gave the team, that’s the subconscious message the players put in their mind. They know the players are quick so let’s not make too big a distance.”
The players took initiative into their own hands, and despite this blunting the Gunners as an attacking force, they managed to neutralize Liverpool too. Unfortunately, all of this fell apart when Coutinho opened the scoring. Wenger’s men abandoned their shape and tried to pin Liverpool back to create chances to equalise.
Constantly losing the ball
We looked careless on the ball during the opening (organised) period, though this carelessness was negated by our shape and willingness to back up teammates. In practical terms, turnovers during that period cost us up front, as we could never build from the back, but it didn’t have much of an impact on our defensive effort.
This all changed after we went behind. We committed men forward, abandoned our shape and started taking more risks with our passing to break through. This period lasted from the 26th minute until roughly 51st, and that was when Liverpool could have pulled out of sight.
What struck me most was Iwobi’s distribution. Included as part of the midfield three more out of necessity than on merit, the Nigerian was culpable for some of our worst turnovers. He still managed to threaten because he is so good on the half-turn, but as soon as it came to picking out a teammate inside Liverpool’s ⅓, Iwobi lost his focus entirely.
Tellingly, he was the first to give way, replaced by Danny Welbeck, who did nothing once again. Though the substitution could well have been down to Iwobi’s lack of general endurance just as much as it was down to a poor performance.
We need to talk about this defence
Let me get the positives out of the way first: Ainsley Maitland-Niles had a really good game. Yes, his two lapses of concentration proved extremely costly, but the Gunners can consider themselves somewhat unlucky in both instances. A brace of fortuitous ricochets allowed the Reds to capitalize on AMN’s positioning deficiencies to an extent.
Apart from that, and I know these are pretty big caveats, AMN put in a stellar performance, Asked to marshal the most in-form player in the league on just his third league start, the youngster was flawless when in position. Quick enough to keep up, strong enough to hassle Salah and agile enough to prevent crosses into the box from the Egyptian, Ainsley was a joy to watch.
Hector Bellerin didn’t do much wrong too, though he was less, shall we say, visible, than his counterpart. A couple of good recoveries and crosses aside, Hector had a quiet but solid night.
It’s our central defence that worries me, in particular Laurent Koscielny. A poster boy for consistency, a well-respected leader and de-facto captain, one of the very few centre-backs to thrive in our set-up, I’m afraid the Frenchman is in decline. I mentioned him losing his pace, but yesterday Kos also had some flimsy positioning to his name. That is highly uncharacteristic of him.
I’m not sure what worries me more: that our best defender has showcased poor positional judgement or that Kos, whose game is based on pace so much, appears to have lost it. Oh, I think we have a winner here: what worries me most is the state of our defense if we accept Koscielny is no longer the player he used to be.
Mustafi hardly filled anyone with confidence after coming on, Monreal, who adjusted so well to the centre-back position, limped off injured. Who do we have beyond those three? Mertesacker is retiring after this season and therefore can’t be relied upon too much, for the simple fact he won’t be around in August 2018.
That leaves us with Calum Chambers and Rob Holding and I really think the time has come to see whether they make the grade. We bought both exactly with the purpose of replacing Per and Kos. Well, it appears we are all set to find out if they can fulfil this purpose. If AMN can come in and play like this in an unfamiliar position, the Englishmen, around much longer, should be capable too.
The last word
It is ironic how I stated at the beginning my overriding feeling was a good one, and then proceeded to talk about our problems for the majority of the piece. I never had the opportunity to mention how clever a player Lacazette is, the magic of Xhaka’s left foot bringing us level when a comeback seemed impossible, the roof coming off when Ozil’s trademark chip went it…
Swings and roundabouts, I guess, We put in a highly commendable effort after putting ourselves between a rock and a hard place. An effort which should have seen us win it, but didn’t. In the end, I think this sums up Arsenal much better than Victoria Concordia Crescit does.
I’ll finish on this note. I wish you all a merry Christmas and I will be back with you to cover our trip to Crystal Palace on 28th.
Take care, and until later
Russian Gooner. No, it’s not always cold in my home country 🙂
A staunch Arsenal supporter since 2004. Started writing about the Gunners in 2013.
Currently in London to get a degree in journalism.