Is the glass half-empty or half-full
You’re walking through the park on a beautiful summer day. Suddenly you discover a satchel filled with money. £100 to be exact. Delighted with your bounty, you swiftly exit the park. Subsequently, you are rather disappointed to learn that a larger satchel, filled with £1,000, was sitting directly behind the bag that you retrieved. While you are still satisfied with the pleasant recovery of £100, your excitement is somewhat muted by the realization that, with a little more assiduousness, you might have left the park with something more significant. Such was our sojourn to Merseyside.
Asked before the match whether a solitary point at Anfield would suffice, most Gunners would likely answer in the affirmative. Treacherous ground, new manager, renewed optimism. All good reasons to fear our trip to Liverpool. Add to that equation the absence of our most valuable players and there was every reason to think that a draw would be an excellent result. But you must evaluate the performance on the basis of the actual circumstances. That’s the meaning behind my allegory above. Coming out from half-time, level on the scoreboard, up a man, and having dominated possession in the first half, Arsenal should have left Anfield with all three points.
Before I discuss the merits of the performance, it’s important to quickly make a point about supporting a club. There is nothing apostate, or “plastic”, about criticizing your team, your players or your manager. When your child makes a mistake or behaves poorly, he must be reprimanded for his behavior. When your particular political party acts in a way that meets with your disapproval, it is only right that you voice your displeasure. You can’t love anything if you are unwilling to recognize and discuss it’s flaws or faults. Productive criticism is an indispensable aspect of love and support. So, while this evaluation will include criticism of Arsenal, it is precisely because I love the club that I include it in my assessment.
Liverpool had a clear game plan for this match. It’s the same plan that we’ve seen carried out to perfection against us by Chelsea and United in recent seasons. Rather than even attempting to challenge us for time on the ball, Liverpool were content to yield the lion share of possession and stay organized at the back. We were permitted to play all the lateral passes we wanted in their half without ever looking truly threatening. Liverpool were patient. They looked for two specific opportunities to create scoring chances: set-pieces, and midfield give aways. They played to our weaknesses.
This Arsenal team becomes complacent when we have too much time on the ball, and when we give it away in midfield, we’re often caught out of position at the back. When the opposition wins a corner or a free-kick, then our lack of a commanding goal-keeper is exposed. The latter weakness was apparent early in the match when Almunia went flying for a corner kick, punching at nothing but the warm summer air. In that case we escaped punishment. The former deficiency was the source of Liverpool’s only goal. Andrey Arshavin played a casual ball out from the back, Jack Wilshere failed to properly control, Diaby stood and watched as the ball was played into N’Gog, and Almunia was powerless to stop it from flying past him at the near post. The keeper has taken some abuse for being beaten at his near post, but I think few keepers would have stopped the shot. It was a creditable finish from the otherwise mediocre N’Gog.
So despite being down a man at half-time, Liverpool held the lead in the 47th minute by sticking with their game plan. We had controlled the game, become over confident, forgotten that Liverpool posed a threat, and were punished. The goal seemed to sap our confidence and we entered an uncertain period where we looked like the team missing a man. It wasn’t until Wenger brought on Rosicky and Walcott for the abject Wilshere and Eboue that we started to pose a real threat.
What this team still hasn’t seemed to learn is that possession doesn’t score goals. Endeavor, courage, desire, intelligence and inspiration are the key ingredients. Playing a ball to your teammate standing four yards to your right or left is easy, but it doesn’t get you any closer to scoring. Swinging the ball from side to side doesn’t create chances. Darting runs off the ball and dangerous passes around and through the defense lead to goals. But those were conspicuously absent on Sunday. And to some extend, there was a lack of urgency.
I’ll get to the some of the individual performances in a minute, but there’s a very interesting statistic I want to share. (Stats provided by Orbinho via Twitter). Last season Cesc Fabregas created a scoring chance more frequently than any other player in all of Europe. That’s outstanding. But, Cesc only completed 76% of his passes. That’s just 3% better than the average for Premier League midfielders. So if Cesc’s passes are completed at an average rate, what makes him so special? It’s the nature of the passes he plays. He’s not afraid for a pass to go astray. He’s not concerned that he won’t complete every dangerous through ball. Cesc has the courage to try the killer pass. He has the will to find his teammates in the right positions to score goals. And he has the inspiration to complete the pass that creates a scoring chance more often than anyone else in the Europe.
On Sunday, Abou Diaby complete almost every pass he attempted, and yet he failed to create a single scoring chance. The reason? Diaby never had the courage or the endeavor to make the decisive pass. He was content to leave the responsibility to a teammate. Happy to pass the ball three yards to his left and wait while someone else tried to unlock the defense. With that attitude, you’re never going to score. At one point in the second half, Nasri tried to play a one-two with Diaby on the edge of the Liverpool box. He gave the ball to his French compatriot and made a darting run forward. Rather than trying to complete the move, Diaby controlled the ball and then slid it calmly back to Gael Clichy. That moment was a microcosm of Arsenal’s attacking display. Not enough dangerous runs, and certainly not enough dangerous passes.
The more teams employ a defensive strategy against us, the more important it becomes for us to put them under intense pressure. We must show teams that if they are happy to give Arsenal the ball, then they are going to yield too many goal-scoring opportunities. On Sunday we created virtually nothing, and that allowed Liverpool to get comfortable and stay calmly within their game plan, even after Joe Cole was rightfully sent off.
Arsenal deserve credit for the number of matches that we’ve rescued over the past few seasons. This group of players has shown that they are willing fight until the end and can score the crucial late goal. It’s a quality that deserves praise, but it’s also one that frustrates me to some extent. The reason I find it frustrating, is that the team doesn’t seem to switch on until their backs are against the wall. Sometimes it requires the sucker punch of conceding a goal for this group of players to move up a gear. If we are going to challenge for the title then we have to learn to start every match with the intent to destroy the opposition. We can’t play the first 30 minutes as though it’s a passing drill. We must be more ruthless and determined. There’s a reason that we didn’t score a goal in the first 15 minutes of a league game last season. I’d argue it’s partly because the players don’t begin the match with the proper attitude.
It’s easy to look at Sunday’s match and be critical of the attacking display. For the most part, we were abject in the opposition half. But the story of the match might actually be our defensive effort. Granted, we were rarely troubled by a stoic liverpool side, but we looked relatively composed and confident defensively.
For all the doubts about Koscielny, he looked very solid. At one point in the second half, a ball was played up the pitch to Torres. We were chasing the game and Koscielny was left exposed. But the frenchman showed good pace and power to get on the ball and calmly clear the danger. It was a good sign. His pathetic dismissal at the end of the match means we won’t have the pleasure of seeing his Emirates debut on Saturday, but hopefully he won’t be needed against Blackpool. (That’s what you call a good-old-fashioned jinx.) The real question, however, is who exactly can replace Koscielny at the weekend. We literally do not have a fit, first team CB at the club other than Vermaelen. Sorry state of affairs frankly.
I think it’s fair to say that our attack will sort itself out. The attacking was abject on Sunday, but it’s more than likely that there will be very few days like that this season. The fact that our defense looked solid is cause for great optimism. If the defending is better this season, then we will truly have a shot at the title. However, that presupposes the presence of a legitimate first-choice goal-keeper and the arrival of another CB to fill-in when there is a need … like this weekend. I still believe that we’ll see those needs met before the transfer window closes.
Arsene Wenger does so many things right for Arsenal Football Club, but I think his selection on Sunday was flawed. Jack Wilshere is a bright talent with a big future, but he’s not ready to be a starter in a three man midfield at Anfield. Like any young player he struggles with consistency and concentration. Wilshere also has a penchant for the nasty tackle. His skills and potential are undeniable, but this match required a little more precision and nous than we can expect from the young Englishman. Additionally, while Emmanuel Eboue is a great squad player and a wonderful back-up to Sagna, he’s not a first choice forward for a big match. Both selections were errant in my opinion.
Rosicky showed almost immediately upon entering the game that he should have started. I’ll accept that he might not have been fit enough to start (because that’s always possible), but if he was, then he shouldn’t have been a substitute. He showed a great willingness to make the dangerous pass that I alluded to earlier. His linking play was good and he nearly got us the equalizer before Pepe Reina bowed to karma with his howler.
I also think that Theo Walcott should have started the game. Roy Hodgson was always likely to choose a pragmatic approach to this match, and Theo’s pace is just the kind of quality that can unsettle a team that’s setup to stifle the opposition. As I’ve said before, he pulls defenders out of position, and creates room for his teammates to operate. If he’s going to blossom this season, then these are the kinds of games where he needs to shine. He’s going to be a substitute in most matches this season, but if he can’t get ahead of Emmanuel Eboue in the pecking order at forward, then why even have him in the team?
Those are my chief complaints with Wenger’s starting eleven and I think he could have made changes at half-time with an eye towards making the most of our numerical advantage. But if I’m going to address Wenger’s selection, then I must give him credit for rightly starting Almunia. He may not be great, but he is light-years beyond Fabianski. I think Wenger’s decision to go with Manuel proves that Arsene is not blind to Lukas’ inadequacy. Good to know really, because we might be stuck with our current crop of keepers for the rest of the season, and I’d rather depend on the Spaniard than the Pole.
Andrey Arshavin played the entire 90 minutes. I mentioned that for two reasons. Firstly, because you might not have noticed. And secondly, because he rarely finishes a match. Arshavin himself has said that he’s not fit and in poor form. On Sunday it looked as though he was determined to prove those points. He was abject. He was devoid of creativity, never threatened Liverpool’s defense, and ran even less than usual. I still think we’ll see good things from the Russian this season, but he must give more to the cause. If he puts in too many performances like that at the Emirates, he might soon find himself a pariah among the supporters. I find it interesting that Arsene Wenger left Arshavin on the pitch for the entire match, despite his poor performance.
Otherwise, there’s not much else to take away from our trip to Anfield. The team was better defensively than we probably expected, but undeniably poor in attack. Few of the attacking players covered themselves in glory, but we managed to get a point that we probably deserved. Our debutants got their first taste of Premier League action and the one we were more worried about, Koscielny, was a clear bright-spot. (He even showed that he’s not your typical Arsenal player by surviving Joe Cole’s flying challenge, rather than breaking into a thousand pieces.) Chamakh wasn’t outstanding although he had little supply. But when the moment came for someone to be a hero, it was his smart run across the keeper and courage to get on the ball that ultimately lead to our equalizer. So I’m willing to call that a success.
In the end we earned a point from a fixture that will be tricky for the other title contenders. Certainly, in the grand scheme of the season, it’s a good result. But as my silly little story at the top of this article was meant to imply, under the circumstances, we might just consider it two points dropped.
This week we’ll be busy incorporating RVP, Cesc, and hopefully Song back into the squad. Blackpool’s 4-0 victory over Wigan was impressive, but we should still be able to get our attack sorted out at home against the the newly promoted side on Saturday. In the mean time, there’s some football to keep us all preoccupied. The Scum play with Young Boys today in the first first leg of their Champions League qualifier. Should be fun to watch them crumble under the pressure. Enjoy!
Come On You Young Boys. (And, for once, that doesn’t mean Arsenal!)