Arsenal's 2-0 Victory over Liverpool Revisited
In one stroke, Arsenal's 2-0 victory over Liverpool at Anfield, that impregnable citadel Brendan Rodgers has hoped for, altered the narrative that has surrounded Arsenal in the last couple of weeks, weeks during which Arsenal lost Robin van Persie and inexplicably sold Alex Song.
Most of the build-up analyses and opinions about this encounter had a feel of expectation, an expectation for the collapse of a club that had failed to retained its best players (yet again), and not only that, refused to bolster the resultant weak squad, especially as this pertained to the defensive end of the team's midfield.
Everyone with half a brain (at least, that seemed to be the sense of this thinking) knew Song needed to replaced and that the combined strength of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud could not begin to equal the sheer class of Robin van Persie, Arsenal's one remaining legitimate world-class player whom they had the foolishness to let go, and to their main rival no less.
A loss at Anfield would expose Arsene Wenger's madness, a recalcitrant streak that has rendered him blind to the changing times. "Spend some money," echoed the maxim within the cavernous chambers of the footballing world. Spend some quality cash on over-valued stars; that's the recipe for success.
Liverpool had dueled Manchester City with a level of success a week before this encounter with Arsenal. Getty Images.
The expectation that Arsenal might lose at Anfield was founded upon Liverpool's impressive display at the same venue a week earlier, when they dueled Manchester City and emerged from the fray the superior team, even if the result declared both teams equals.
There was a tint of vindictiveness in this narrative: the failure to rob Newcastle United of one of two of their most important squad members (Yohan Cabaye or Cheikh Tiote) seemed to inexplicably leave the pundits fuming.
What audacity not to buy a defensive midfielder, a destroyer!
Who does this Frenchman think he is, presuming to think he could dictate how the culture of transfer and football should be?
Doesn't he know that the thrills and glamour reside in the stars? Who wants to watch average talents (especially in the ranks of an ostensible big club) run around the pitch? Who has the patience to wait for their development?
And so the ink flowed; the breath was bated.
Two “toothless performances” were enough exposure of this madness, and the wisdom of the world would be vindicated when Brendan Rogers' Tiki-taka (in the telling of the Kopites) taught this madman a thing or two.
Wenger and his wards would be taught a lesson by Rodgers and his: That seemed to be the unspoken expectation of "angry" pundits ahead of this match. Getty Images.
This was the prelude to this match as the two teams took to the field, one donned in all red, the other in mostly blue, with purple hoops, what some have declared to be an eye-sore.
The Glamour of Bad News
The pundits got what they expected. So as the match between the Gunners and the Reds wound to its end, the first draft of their report was ready, awaiting just the odd adjustment and the dotting of the "I"s and the crossing of the "T"s.
Their theory had been vindicated, but not in the exact manner they had hoped. Someone had been punished for daring to presume too much, only that it was the wrong person.
The Frenchman escaped and the narrative turned.
Someone observed that Wenger bristled at being made to wait for the customary post-match interview. You see, Brendan Rodgers was just then in the inchoate state of being the media's new whipping boy for daring to not spend too much in the just concluded transfer market.
The analyses were quickly whipped into shape: This was Liverpool's worst start to the season in 50 years, and for what?: The foolishness of not spending enough in the transfer market, of course.
"Brendan, why didn't you buy another striker?"
"Aha, you didn't buy Clint Dempsey, the striker that everyone knows would have given you victory over Arsenal, why is that?"
"We bid only £4 million for him."
"£4 million, for a £6 million only striker! So you refused to make up the difference of a mere £2 million..."
"Andy Caroll...you let a world-class striker go, why?"
"We wanted Clint Dempsey..."
"And for a difference of a mere £2 million you didn't buy him. Don't you think that's why you lost to Arsenal...for not spending?"
"We will look at free agents."
"Free agents...mhm...Michael Owen and Didier Drogba?"
"We will look at them."
By daybreak, Monday, a host of bromides came off the press freshly baked. Liverpool and Rodgers were being chastised for being foolish. One writer captured the collective sentiment very aptly:
"Those managers who have recruited wisely can sit back and watch their team perform and climb the table, while those who didn't tick off everything on their shopping list must anxiously wait until January."
This is a wise sentiment, indeed.
In fact, it sounds like a passage from an ancient manuscript by a man who tended to sound like Plato: "Remember this--a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop."
Wise: But only insofar as we understand this to mean "much," as in a great deal of money: millions of pounds, often money that the club doesn't have. Or monies that an oligarch or an oil tycoon from the east dishes out, seemingly without thought, because there's lots and lots of it.
Liverpool and Rodgers, in not spending "that much" in this transfer season, have broken the cardinal rule of the footballing world to always spend so much money to the extent that the club becomes indebted — better, bankrupt.
Why, even if you go into administration, you are bound to rise again.
Now the poster boy of the media's chastisement, the Liverpool owner was prompted to write a letter the next day, saying he has learned not to be foolish again, having become so last season in spending over a £100 million pounds without appreciable success.
Austerity and wisdom will rule at Liverpool from now on, meaning that Rodger's isn't going to get marquee signings any time soon. This guarantees Liverpool automatic membership in the league of foolish clubs. From now on, Arsenal will no longer be the default exemplar of this foolishness.
John Henry will be the media's new foolish man for two weeks at least. Photo courtesy of PA.
Thus, by Monday morning, Arsenal were no longer the center of bad news.
In fact, the media wanted to remind everyone of how they had extolled the virtues of Wenger's transfer policy, long before the Anfield match. Isn't it clear now how right and wise they had been?
I, for one, am not complaining. I can do with good news and hollow praise for a couple of weeks. I know (and I'm sure other Gooners know), that this new-found praise will change rather quickly.
For now we should be thankful that the dark shadow has found a new temporary place at Anfield. Bad news is glamorous and is the favorite of the media. Let it stay at Anfield as long as it wants.
Rise of Pseudo Passers
This encounter between Liverpool and Arsenal was as much a showcase of passing football as it would be a battle for supremacy. Who between these passing teams—pretenders versus veterans—will emerge the victor?
All summer long, Tiki-Taka has been the cliché in the mouth of every Liverpool fan who can type, or who has two thumbs with which to fire off the phrase in the comment section of the countless websites one can find on football, or in a twitter message.
Brendan Rodgers, in this imagination, was bringing a new era of football to Anfield, the Barcelona wonder of a style: Tiki-Taka. The very sound of the word evokes the precision of the style, the clock-like incessancy.
Success would be guaranteed, since having led lowly Swansea City to a respectable finish on the Premiership table in just their first season in the league, who could imagine what wonders this Irishman could wreak with a better and more talented crop of players?
None, of course.
Whether Wenger approached this match with a level of trepidation, I have no way of knowing. All I can say is that Arsenal toiled very hard to beat Rodgers' Swansea City last season at the Emirates.
What's more, Rodgers returned the favor at his own stadium in Wales.
Lowly Swansea City outsmarted the big guns from London.
Now Rodgers was the captain of this giant of a club, and having bamboozled big-spenders Manchester City the week before, there was every evidence that the scalps of the Gunners would be Rodgers'.
Everyone wants to be like Barcelona. Getty Images.
Barcelona have muddled this pool that is the footballing world. Every club now wants to play possession football.
Even Manchester United have markedly changed their style from direct and expansive football to a new-fangled possession style that seeks to overwhelm its opponent through quick passing.
In fact, in their match with Southampton, one would have been forgiven to think that this wasn't Manchester United but Arsenal, what with Robin van Persie in the team.
This would be Rodgers' weapon.
Liverpool won the possession statistics (53 percent to Arsenal's 47), but only because Arsenal opted to fall off the ball at the latter stage of the match as a result of wanting to protect their two-goal lead.
The majority of the match seemed to indicate that the teams were well-matched possession wise. In fact, the BBC had the possession stats in favor of Arsenal.
There was a difference to the two team's approach to passing, however, and it lies in this.
While Rodgers favors the expansion of space while his team is in possession, that is, the non-possessing players fan out strategically and outwards to create space, thereby "expanding" the pitch, Wenger uses contraction technique.
In this case, the non-possessing players collapse their triangles, moving—as a result—towards the possessing player to receive the ball. This technique creates confidence in the possessing player because he knows cover is nearby in the event of losing the ball.
This was the major reason Arsenal dominated the midfield. It was also the reason Arsenal were able to recover possession quite quickly, the reason they were able to regroup fast when out of possession.
For Liverpool, expanding the pitch meant when the ball was lost, it became harder to regroup.
This was the major reason behind their concession of the first goal, because Glen Johnson, for example, was caught out too far afield, and, although, he made an attempt to track back, he wasn't able to position himself effectively to resist Lukas Podolski.
What we find in this picture gives a good example of the principle in question. The yellow arrows point to players out of the picture, but indicate how Liverpool's strategy works.
When play is to be re-initiated, the goalkeeper often acts as the default starting point. Here we see Pepe Reina with the ball.
The center-backs then fan out rather widely. The yellow arrow pointing to the right edge of the picture shows where Liverpool's leftward center-back is.
The two other yellow arrows indicate that the full-backs push up high up the pitch, hence the reason they're not in the picture here.
One of the midfielders then tracks back into the space between the center-backs to receive the ball in the event the goalkeeper deems that the best passing option. Otherwise the goalkeeper attempts to pass laterally to one of the widely spaced center-backs.
Here, we see Nuri Sahin (one of Liverpool's midfielders) tracking back to receive the ball, but one of Arsenal's players is neutralizing this option. Also notice that Olivier Giroud is positioned to neutralize the lateral passing option to Reina's left.
The idea here for Liverpool is that, if, for example, Reina opts to go rightward laterally, the center back receiving the ball can find a pass to one of the strategically positioned players. This makes the opposition's players chase shadows.
When the strategy works, this can be frustrating to the defending team. Notice here that one of Liverpool's players is attempting to move into space in preparation to receiving a pass should it be available.
This next picture illustrates further the strategy in question.
In this instance, Liverpool are the offensive team. Notice how widely spaced they are. But also note how Arsenal players have positioned themselves in the "inside" of the space Liverpool players have created.
Note also how Arsenal players account for every of Liverpool players. Also you can discern a clear 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 in Arsenal's positioning here, the structure they have tended to assume this season when defending.
There are also clear triangles in the case of Liverpool players, wide triangles, that is, affording a visual proof of what is being stated here.
One more difference is worth elucidating here as well.
Readers familiar with my writing would recall that I tend to favor pushing up the full-backs high up the pitch. But what makes me advocate this approach is quite different from Liverpool's Rodgers approach.
In the case of the technique I advocate, the full-backs do so in marking maneuver, and this is very important. They do so in order to neutralize the opposition's wingers. In doing so, they engage this highly dangerous species as far away from their own area as possible.
In other words, they force the opposition's wingers to defend rather than occupy their time attacking.
In the case of Liverpool, the full-backs push up when play is being initiated. They do so to expand space as I have explained above, and this has nothing to do with neutralizing the oppositions wingers.
It is rather an attempt to make it more difficult for the opposition to account for the playing space.
In positioning themselves in the "inside" of Liverpool's big space (as I have noted above), Arsenal neutralized the effect of this strategy, which is why they coped better with Liverpool than Manchester City did.
Compressing That Gap
In my reaction to Arsenal's defeats to Swansea City, Sunderland and Manchester United at the Emirates last season, I identified what I considered the fundamental problem for this, namely, the gaping hole in the midfield between the back four and the front three.
In all of these matches, Arsenal lacked the balance required to bridge this gap. At Swansea Mikel Arteta was missing, and so was his box-to-box role, which neither Yossi Benayoun nor Aaron Ramsey was able to replicate. The same was true in the match against Manchester United at the Emirates.
Against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in the FA match, Arsenal went into this match on the back of a heavy defeat against AC Milan in the Champions League. In this latter match, Arsenal’s midfield had been nullified and overwhelmed, so that when they came into the match against Sunderland, the team's confidence was at its lowest.
This meant that Arsenal’s duo of midfield pivots tended to drop off the ball to sit deep, leaving a big gap between the front three and the back four. There was little wonder then that Arsenal were unable to muster cogent and potent attacks in this match.
Because Arteta played the box-to-box role last season, whenever he was missing in Arsenal's lineup, the team suffered.
In the 4-0 defeat at the San Siro last season, Arsenal's midfield was neutralized. Getty Images.
The only exception to this was the match against AC Milan at the Emirates where Arsenal had nothing to lose and so went all out to attack with determined abandon. This meant pressing high and attacking AC Milan headlong at every opportunity.
The point of all this is to observe that in all of Arsenal's three matches this season, this transitional space has been eliminated. (See this article for more on this.)
Arsenal have achieved this by moving the back four forward as a unit whenever Arsenal attack. This closes the gap between the front three and the midfield and between the midfield and the back four.
It compresses the area of skirmish, meaning that Arsenal players are constantly in close proximity, voiding the possibility of isolation and the inevitable panic that this tends to produce.
When defending, Arsenal's midfielders and two of the front three drop off immediately to form a bank of four or five who retreat backward and close to the back four, compressing therefore any space between the two lines. This compact structure becomes difficult to breach. It is the major reason Arsenal have so far kept a clean sheet.
Now realize that this strategy is again very different from Liverpool's technique of wanting to expand the playing space in order to make their opponents chase shadows.
Liverpool's defensive strategy is to try to compress their wide triangles into quick pressing of the ball. Against teams less assured in possession and in passing, it works well enough.
Against Arsenal, it didn't work because Arsenal's strategy proved the superior of the two tactics.
Arsenal, then, are tending to play as unit, moving forward as one disciplined structure and backing off to defend in the same manner.
Should this discipline continue in subsequent matches, teams will find it difficult to score against Arsenal. And if Arsenal should sharpen their scoring ability, this should stand them in good stead as far as making progress in this season's competition is concerned.
Glimpses of the Classic Arsenal
What was different with Arsenal in this match as opposed to the previous two was, naturally, the goals.
The fact that Liverpool didn't sit back just to defend helped. The observation I want to make here, though, is the fact that Arsenal's goals, especially the first, were classic Arsenal goals.
In the past, Arsenal used to be very quick and dangerous on the counterattack, and this was the case for the first goal.
Minimal touches of the ball were involved.
Thomas Vermaelen breaks off Liverpool's attack, booting the ball to Lukas Podolski deep in Arsenal's half; Podolski launches the ball high up the midfield and proceeds to make a dash forward (a remarkable willingness to work hard); Santi Cazorla receives it and brings it forward as Olivier Giroud makes a decoy run distracting one of the defenders; he passes to his left to the onrushing Podolski; Podolski controls it and shoots. It is a goal.
The same strategy is involved in Giroud's missed opportunity.
In this case, Arsenal win the ball back at the edge of their own area. Abou Diaby receives it and brings it forward with speed. Two of Arsenal's players make decoy runs. Diaby passes to his left, carving open space for Giroud as a result. Giroud misses horrendously in a situation he should have scored.
For the second goal, neat combinations can be observed. Cazorla makes a lateral run at the age of Liverpool's area; Podolski acts a pivot, receives the ball while Cazorla continues his run, rounding several defenders; Podolski releases the ball back to him; he advances forward and shoots low and hard and scores.
As the front three become familiar with one another, we should see more goals from similar set patterns as the above.
The Din of Fickle Chatterers
I am disdainful of that lot I refer to as the chattering class — those who delight in condemning players seemingly for the sake of it: "this or that player was dung" is usually the set maxim.
I hazarded to use the term world-class in the same breath as Abou Diaby and was told Diaby shouldn't even be in the Arsenal team. This assertion did not lack a few amens.
What I have found is that many who delight in rating players (mostly in the negative as it often the case) rarely know what they're talking about. It is the reason they are quick to condemn performances.
Today Gervinho is good; tomorrow he is dung. What then is he? Today Diaby is worthless; tomorrow he is a star. What is he, really?
Per Mertesacker isn't fit to be in the Arsenal team, and yet Arsenal have conceded a fewer ratio of goals with him in the lineup than with any combination without him in the lineup.
Theo Walcott has no football brain, and yet he was the one that enabled England to overcome Sweden at the Euros and routinely causes panic in the rank of oppositions' defenders.
Those who delight in condemnation do not understand the dynamics of football. They equate the real thing with the fantasy they indulge in through their Xboxes.
The fact that I know Abou Diaby to be a great player, a sentiment attested to by Wenger himself and even by Laurent Blanc, was vindicated by his stellar performance on Sunday, and this is a player who hasn't recovered his best form just yet.
I want to urge fickle fans to ease off on their condemnations. And for those who delight in rating players, if you must do so, make sure you rest your conclusions in real understanding.
Hoping for the Best
The good feeling that followed this victory is worth savoring. The victory begot a good atmosphere at Arsenal, replacing the toxicity that was slowly polluting everything.
We should note though that this victory means little in the scheme of the task ahead. Liverpool are not Manchester City or United, or Chelsea for that matter, and these are teams we must beat if we are to achieve something significant this season.
When we have done this, and when we've advanced far in other competitions, only then can we say we've arrived. To think that we have this early is delusional.
So, yes, we must celebrate, but let’s not get carried away in our expectations.
Lack of moderation is the reason people tend to be fickle in their reaction, with many supporting the team only when there are victories, and using the rest of the time to spew vitriols.
I wonder why such bother to call themselves Arsenal fans.
As we look ahead, let’s hope that our players stay fit and that they don’t burnout. The squad is not deep enough. If Cazorla were to be out of the squad, or Arteta, or Diaby, the dynamic of the team would change rather quickly.
Let’s also hope that the two-week break does not affect the momentum that the victory over Liverpool would have produced had it not been interrupted by the international break.
Let’s hope that our players return from international assignments uninjured.
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