Monday, 22 December 2014

Gunners steal point

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal

14/15: Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal - Olivier Giroud
Arsenal returned to the scene of one of last season’s most humiliating encounters yesterday, with renewed hope and vigour, but although the score was much improved, the performance was equally pitiful.

Last season a Liverpool side brimming with confidence and containing the best player in the league, Luis Suarez, tore Arsenal apart in an opening twenty minutes which must still haunt Gunners fans to this day. Yet the 2014/15 Liverpool are a shadow of that side which came so close to winning the Premier League title last season. Shorn of the talents of Suarez and Sturridge and floundering in the league, desperately trying to regain some semblance of the form which saw them terrify the opposition week in week out, Liverpool should have been there for the taking.

Unfortunately this is an equally poor Arsenal side. Brendan Rodgers may have come up short so far this season, but at least he is an innovative manager who clearly thinks long and hard about the opposition his side is due to face and devises a particular game plan to win that game. If this is obviously not working, Rodgers is courageous enough to admit his error and change tactics mid game. In the other corner, Arsene Wenger is the polar opposite, sticking to the same game plan no matter who the opposition and regardless of how the match is panning out.

Yesterday was a prime example. With Liverpool deploying three centre backs, Arsenal attempted to stop them from playing out from the back by pushing their three front men high up the pitch. However Liverpool were still able to easily play the ball out, with numerous options for the back three. The wing backs were almost always in ample space to receive the ball and if not, a simple pass into the deep lying Steven Gerrard was always on. By pushing Welbeck and Sanchez up the pitch, Arsenal also isolated their own midfield trio of Flamini, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain, allowing them to become hopelessly outnumbered in the middle of the pitch, while the Arsenal full backs were also exposed. Essentially Liverpool were able to play around the Gunners with consummate ease. At times it was like watching a training ground exercise as Arsenal struggled to get anywhere near the home side.

Even when they did manage to get the ball, the Gunners just could not hold onto it with several enduring an absolutely woeful day at the office. Chief amongst them was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who just could not seem to do anything right, losing possession at each and every opportunity. It was no surprise when a graphic during the first half indicated that Liverpool had enjoyed over 80% possession. The camera panned on Wenger on numerous occasions, the manager frowning in frustration, but ultimately he did nothing to change system or tactics in an attempt to change the game.

Arsenal were essentially in survival mode, desperately hoping to get to half time on level terms. The only saving grace for the Gunners was the fact Liverpool just could not seem to turn their superior possession into genuine goal scoring opportunities with Szczesny barely tested in the first half. Yet with only a minute left of the first half, Arsenal shot themselves in the foot. Giroud’s needless lay off deep inside his own half went straight to a Liverpool player. The ball was quickly switched to Coutinho, who easily manoeuvred himself into space before firing a low shot across goal which went in off the inside of the post. It was no less than Liverpool had deserved for a first half of complete domination.
Yet there was to be a sting in the tail as Arsenal went straight up the other end and equalised. A Sanchez free kick delivery was kept alive by Flamini, whose header towards the back post found Debuchy, who headed home his first goal in an Arsenal shirt. Somehow the Gunners had managed to end the first half on level terms.

At any other club, the expectation would be that during the half time break the manager would get stuck into his players and change a system that was clearly not working. But at Arsenal, Wenger simply refuses to do this, no matter how badly his side are playing, he just relies on the players to get the job done.

Ultimately the second half was not much different from the first. Liverpool were once again in complete control and dominating possession against a side incapable of holding onto the ball. It was a complete and utter shock when Arsenal managed to take the lead completely against the run of play. For once Olivier Giroud managed to hold the ball and link up play, passing out wide to Gibbs, who raced towards the by line, cut the ball back to the Frenchman, who fired a shot home, in between the legs of Brad Jones.

In an amazing twist, the game was now perfectly set up for the Gunners. They could now sit back slightly deeper, invite Liverpool onto them and then hit them on the counter attack with the speed of Sanchez and Welbeck. Unfortunately, Arsenal just were not at the races yesterday. Sanchez was extremely poor by his own high standards and was even outpaced by Jordan Henderson on a couple of occasions. As the game wore on, Liverpool pushed and pushed while Arsenal sat back deeper and deeper but were completely unable to get out of their own half, even when Liverpool were reduced to ten men.

Wenger’s decision to deploy Callum Chambers at right back and Debuchy at centre back appeared a curious one before the game and in the final minutes was proven to be extremely poor. Chambers is not suited to the right back role at all. He lacks the pace required to overcome opposition wingers as was highlighted away to Swansea recently. Yet Wenger inexplicably chose to move him into this role, despite the fact Chambers is more suited to the centre back role and Debuchy is a natural right back. With Rodgers moving Raheem Sterling to the left flank in the final minutes,, Liverpool’s most potent threat was now up against the exposed Chambers and the home side began to create chances at will.

Ultimately it was poor defending from a set piece which undid Arsenal for the umpteenth time yesterday. Martin Skrtel, Liverpool’s most dangerous player from set piece situations, was left completely unmarked, allowing him a free run and header to power the ball home and give his side a more than deserved share of the spoils. The Gunners only had themselves to blame. Their defending from set pieces has been embarrassing for some time now, but again the manager refuses to address it, making the inexplicable decision not to have a player on both posts when defending corners, leaving the goal all the more exposed.

At the end of the game, Arsenal could feel disappointed at having failed to see out the game against ten men, with Fabio Borini having been dismissed late on. But in truth, the Gunners could count themselves extremely fortunate to have left Anfield with anything. This was a truly terrible performance from both the players and the manager who simply refused to react to the situation at hand. Ultimately this Arsenal team is going nowhere fast.

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