Liverpool and Arsenal faced off for the second time in the space of a week on Sunday afternoon, with the Gunners this time triumphing 2-1 in the FA Cup fifth-round tie at the Emirates.
Just a few days earlier, Arsenal's toughest spell of the season so far had begun with a resounding 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Reds at Anfield in the Premier League, leading to much speculation and anticipation by pundits and fans alike as to how both teams would approach the second fixture.
Wenger asked are Liverpool last team he wants to play. "No, I would say they are first team we want to play... chance to put things right."— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) February 14, 2014
Wenger says players hurt by losing to Liverpool. And he will take responsibility if team don't win title— Gary Jacob (@garyjacob) February 14, 2014
Arsenal, set to face Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League during the forthcoming midweek, opted to make several changes to their regular starting XI—though since that usual group had managed the heavy defeat and a 0-0 home draw in the previous two games, perhaps that was no bad thing.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski flanked the attacking midfield, Yaya Sanogo made his full debut up front, Mathieu Flamini returned from suspension to anchor the midfield and both full-backs were swapped, with Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal starting.
Liverpool made just two outfield changes, swapping fit-again Daniel Agger into defence and Joe Allen into midfield in place of Jordan Henderson.
Both teams opted to field their second-choice goalkeepers.
Start the Same Way
The first four minutes of the game at the Emirates could have gone exactly as per the Anfield match: Liverpool racing into a commanding early lead. It took just that long for in-form striker Daniel Sturridge to have two gilt-edged opportunities inside the penalty area, but both fell on his weaker right foot and he was unable to capitalise.
Arsenal had started on the front foot, but it took just 90 seconds for Liverpool's midfield passers to look for the gaps behind the defence.
This was where Arsenal fell apart at Anfield and Daniel Sturridge's pace troubled them again from the outset.
Once more on four minutes, a pass between the defence found Sturridge's movement too much for the Gunners' back line and, though he this time beat the goalkeeper, the angle was too acute for the striker.
It was a pattern which was repeated more than once as the game went on, with Liverpool's creative players—Allen, Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez—probing and passing around the beginning of the final third and looking to exploit gaps with pace and movement.
Arsenal's Problem with Penetration
The big issue that Arsenal have had in recent games—aside from conceding the goals, of course—is that they have had no movement alongside or beyond the striker.
With no pace or penetration from the wide areas, they have struggled to create the sort of chances they usually do; the absence of Theo Walcott has been a problem in this regard. Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky are both excellent technical players, but neither regularly looks to break the defensive line.
The above scene was a common sight at the Emirates against Manchester United in midweek, with the scoreline unsurprisingly ending 0-0.
The inclusion of Podolski and, in particular, Oxlade-Chamberlain remedied this problem for Arsenal as they continually sought to get in behind Liverpool's full-backs and attack the space with their speed and one-on-one aggression.
Arsenal's second goal came from such a scenario, with one winger looking to break beyond the forward line and the other attacking centrally.
Chances Missed, Chances Taken
The move shown above led to Oxlade-Chamberlain setting up Podolski with a smart cut-back from the byline—just one minute and 20 seconds after Liverpool's Luis Suarez had a great chance to equalise for 1-1.
This was a similar, though rather more instant, scenario to the first half when Sturridge missed the initial chances and Oxlade-Chamberlain himself netted the opening goal of the game around the quarter-hour mark.
Liverpool created more chances, had more shots, more attempts on target and a far better passing rate—but unlike the Anfield game, they did not convert those chances into goals. Arsenal did and, though Liverpool (again mirroring Arsenal at Anfield) scored a penalty, they could not ensure further open play chances ended in an equaliser.
Arsenal manager Wenger might have considered this a slightly weakened team after changing personnel from the players starting regularly in the Premier League of late, but given the added impetus at vital moments that the two wide forwards in particular gave them, he should certainly be considering starting at least one of them regularly.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has already shown his capacity to break that attacking line with his dynamic runs from central midfield; now in need of pace in attack, Arsenal should be looking to exploit his abilities in the wide areas to support regular forward Giroud.
As for Liverpool, given the huge volume of goals scored this season, Brendan Rodgers is unlikely to be concerned long-term by the defeat, even though the manner of it was difficult to take and, on the balance of play, undeserved.
He will hope his team enjoy better fortunes in front of goal in the forthcoming league games as they aim for a top-four finish.