Brendan Rodgers Has His Work Cut Out at Liverpool
It seemed as if the Reds had turned a corner in the Premier League under new boss Brendan Rodgers after their 2-2 draw with Manchester City, but the Liverpool of old re-emerged this weekend in a less than convincing showing against the Gunners.
Goals from new signings Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla sealed the win for the away side, with their creativity, link-up play and all-round play in the final third a good deal better than their opposite numbers.
Rodgers and his staff will have a lot to work on over the next two weeks as they seek to turn the sinking Liverpool ship around and get the club back into contention for a UEFA Champions League place.
Here are five issues currently plaguing the Reds.
Liverpool's forward problem looks set to stay after the performances of both Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini—the only senior strikers they have on their books, thanks to Andy Carroll's loan move to West Ham United.
Of course, Carroll was allowed to move to Upton Park with the presumption from manager Brendan Rodgers that Clint Dempsey would be signing from Fulham.
But that transfer clearly collapsed, and over the course of the weekend the damage had been done—Carroll had already left, while Suarez and Borini failed to provide any penetration or penalty-area threat in poor performances against Arsenal.
The result means Rodgers has no central option racing in between centre-backs, with Suarez preferring to come deep for the ball and Borini a player who often opts to run channels and drift out wide.
And the fact that Borini started on the wing and Suarez was the lone man up front also signified how their styles clash, with the duo unable to strike up an understanding suitable to yield prolificity at Premier League level.
On top of that, neither player is singularly prolific or consistent, which not only leaves Rodgers without a central target man, but also without any player guaranteed to get goals.
Of course Carroll wasn't going to solve the scoring crisis, but he would've provided penalty-area penetration.
As it stands, the Reds have no established goal-getter (Suarez and Borini scored a combined total of 20 league goals last season), and no player willing to burst past centre-backs.
And when you're up against a defender as slow as Per Mertesacker and still can't exploit his pace at all, you know your team has problems.
When Andy Carroll was a Liverpool player, he gave the Reds another option.
If the team were getting dominated in midfield, they could hit balls over the top to Carroll the target man and attack with pace.
Of course it didn't deliver much in the Premier League, but that ability to switch to an alternate plan won Liverpool the League Cup and almost the FA Cup.
It was painfully clear against Arsenal that Reds manager Brendan Rodgers had no player to bring on who could offer an alternative.
The Gunners won the midfield battle, and prevented the hosts from building play through the middle and allowing Steven Gerrard to link-up with Luis Suarez.
So the Reds shifted the ball out wide and brought out shades of their old style under Kenny Dalglish—presumably to the irritation of Rodgers.
The only problem was, they had no strong forward, or any player for that matter, waiting to out-muscle the defenders and get on the end of crosses.
So Plan A failed, and with no Carroll in the team, the Reds were unable to conjure up a Plan B that worked.
Unless they can assert their authority in midfield, Liverpool are pretty much stuck.
It's well documented that the brand of football Brendan Rodgers likes his teams to play is modelled on the tiki-taka style of FC Barcelona.
It worked well for him at Swansea City, but they finished 11th for a reason—a great achievement, of course, but they ended on negative goal difference thanks to their overall lack of Barca-esque technical ability.
As it turns out, Liverpool's players don't possess much greater technical ability than Swansea's.
Their attacks were often at a faster pace than Rodgers presumably would've liked, with the forward players not showing a lot of confidence to retain possession in Arsenal's final third, while link-up play was at a premium.
And the lack of close control, and therefore the amount of times the Reds were dispossessed, also hampered Liverpool's ability to build play in front of the Gunners' defence and work clear-cut openings.
The fact they had just four shots on target from 19 overall—while Arsenal had five on target (two of them goals) from 11 overall—shows the difference between the two teams' abilities to retain possession and create quality goalscoring opportunities in the final third.
Brendan Rodgers will be hoping he has significant funds to strengthen his team in January, with most of his forward players not having the right attributes to link up, play intelligent passes and split defences.
Liverpool's latest defeat showed how far their most senior stars have fallen.
Pepe Reina seems a shade of the goalkeeper he once was—his howler against Hearts in the Europa League was followed up by his inability to keep out a tame shot from Santi Cazorla, which gave Arsenal that all-important 2-0 lead.
His current form is a far cry from that of a player who won the Premier League Golden Glove three seasons in a row.
Steven Gerrard is also losing the ability that has seen him named thrice in the FIFA World XI.
His mistake allowed Arsenal to break and score on the counter through Lukas Podolski, while overall his passing lacked a cutting edge, his control of the ball was half of what it once was and his movement didn't provide a great attacking threat and didn't display a good reading of the Arsenal defence.
Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique also failed again to live up to their billing.
Johnson especially was bad. His passing was good, but defensively he was consistently caught out and didn't make an adequate contribution, with both Arsenal goals coming from his side.
When the centre-back makes double the amount of tackles as the full-back—in a league where, thanks to the pace, the defenders out wide have virtually treble the chances to put in a tackle than those in the centre—it's clear the full-back is not doing his job well at all, with Daniel Agger making two more tackles than Enrique, and three more than Johnson.
Liverpool's main stars aren't living up to their usual standards, and it's hurting the side.
Not only are their errors costing goals, but psychologically they can harm the team, with the younger and fringe players possibly growing increasingly discontent at being left out in favour of the bigger names who aren't delivering.
It's no coincidence that Liverpool lost the midfield battle to Arsenal without Lucas Leiva.
Against the Gunners, the Reds needed a player to cover the defence, especially with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique so far advanced at times.
They may have played with two deeper midfielders in Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin, but both are playmakers with the tendency to move forward with the play and dictate attacks up to the final third.
It's how both players made their names in the game, but when they were doing it for Swansea City and Borussia Dortmund, they both had more disciplined partners giving them license to create.
But now working together at Liverpool, neither player wants to take on the dirty work—they both want to be Paul Scholes, not Michael Carrick.
Unless one of them can replace of impact Lucas and perform his role, Rodgers could have another big problem on his hands.
Sahin was brought in to cover the loss of Lucas and provide stellar competition for Joe Allen when the Brazilian returns.
However, at 23 and desperate to make an impact at Real Madrid, the Turkey international seemingly prefers to take over the playmaking himself, making the glamorous passes to show Jose Mourinho what he's missing.
Trouble is, Allen is the man Rodgers wants to fill that role long-term for Liverpool.
The styles of Sahin and Allen are too similar for a stable midfield, and one will need to compromise and stay defensively disciplined if the Reds are to win the midfield battle and stop conceding so frequently.
If both play like they did against Arsenal, Brendan Rodgers won't have too many qualms about his midfield on the ball, but will have a big problem with them off it.
And with a plethora of problems already in the team, the Liverpool boss won't want another one with his two most technically gifted players.