Tactical observations from Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool

With his feet up and tapas in convenient reach, Cesc Fábregas would have been watching Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool with more than a bit of familiarity about it. While a makeshift and inexperienced team performed admirably, they always looked like they needed something special – someone special – to lift them. That burden often fell on Fábregas but on Saturday, he was able to sit back at home safe in the knowledge that he had chewed out of the bear trap that had began to stagnate him.

Watching as a fan, he could see the creativity Arsenal were missing and as it turned out, the Gunners failed to make count, a twenty-minute period they were dominating before Emmanuel Frimpong’s sending-off. Kenny Dalglish instantly reacted although it was forthcoming one way or another and the substitutions of Luis Suarez and Raul Miereles helped win the game. While Liverpool were the more experienced side, they were inexperienced in the fact they had little played with each other before hand and the 4-3-3 failed to expose Arsenal’s openness in midfield. Suarez in particular, frequently got in between the lines when he came on – something Liverpool’s midfield previously failed to do – and with the man advantage, the movement was too much. Wenger tried to react, moving from the 4-4-1 shape they had after the dismissal to a 4-3-2 but Suarez confirmed the win with a tap in. It was a game lacking technical quality and any real match-winners before Dalglish made the changes. Here are some thoughts:

Samir Nasri gives Arsenal a technical quality

  • If Arsenal gave an improved performance to the one against Newcastle, it was probably down to Samir Nasri. His inclusion was necessary as the Gunners were without so many of their first-choice midfielders and if the patchwork team was to funtion effectively, it needed a link player. To be fair, Nasri has failed to impress in pre-season as the furthermost midfielder but his quality was apparent here without ever fully exerting his craft. As we’ve noted in an earlier article, Arsenal want to play the ball forward quicker and pass it around with speed. Part of the remit is using dynamic forwards on the wings but for the style to work, it needs accurate passers. Nasri may not be part of that future but Arsenal need plenty more players of his ilk if he goes.

Frimpong can mature into a great player

  • With his Noah Puckerman haircut, Emmanuel Frimpong looked like he was only here for a ruckus. And sure enough after eight minutes he was walking on a disciplinary tight rope after a needless row with Jordan Henderson. His sending-off in the second-half seemed inevitable but unfortunately for Arsenal, it also came at a time when they were beginning to get on top. Frimpong himself was dominant in the middle – when Boca Juniors came over for the Emirates Cup they waxed lyrical about the way he married technique with brute strength to keep Juan Roman Riquelme quiet for much of the game – hurrying Liverpool in possession and using the ball intelligently. His passing, encouragingly for a defensive midfielder, was often forward and he gave Arsenal impetus with his drive but his inability to tackle affected Arsenal. He was naïve and excitable but he would have won a lot of plaudits for the way he held the midfield because at times, the amount of space he had to cover would have overwhelmed even the most experienced of professionals. It was probably the reason why Frimpong always looked like going off; the midfield was too open and that made the margin off error in the tackle that more tighter.

Arsenal lacking shape

  • “It’s impossible to replace Fabregas by another Fabregas. We’ll replace him by what we have: Wilshere, Ramsey, maybe Chamberlain,” said Wenger and it seems his answer to replacing his former captain in the meantime is to implement a shared role. This season, Arsenal’s shape is more closer to a 4-3-3 although in the matches against Udinese and Liverpool – less so against Newcastle where the midfield rotation was better – it may be worth making the distinction that it was even closer to a 4-1-2-3. The “1-2” is important as often, the two in front of the holder look to push further forward and press. However, it’s looked more than a bit disjointed recently; Nasri’s discipline was poor in the first-half and Aaron Ramsey has failed to find his place in the system in both the last two games. Frimpong was exposed despite his best efforts and while Arsenal were more secure in the second-half, they are still without a link between midfield and attack.
  • The return of Jack Wilshere can’t come soon enough it seems and he may just as well important linking the play from deep as he is further up. Because in the first-half, Liverpool got tight to Arsenal’s midfielders and pressed them high thus denying the ball out. Wilshere should help Arsenal’s ball circulation and is more comfortable making a double-pivot when the side needs it. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons for Arsenal’s disorganisation is the fact that the formation is designed to flit in and out of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 but it lacks the application at the moment to make it work.

Thomas Vermaelen makes Arsenal more secure

  • One plus for Arsenal, however, was the performance of ThomasVermaelen. He won almost everything  and often compensated for the errors and inexperience of others. Even with two left-footers at the back and one of them a debutant in Ignasi Miquel, he was still unflustered and even tried to give Arsenal some impetus with his surging runs. It’s no coincidence Laurent Koscielny looks better at the back with Vermaelen but as soon as quick as one solution was found, another problem arises and sure enough, Koscielny was forced off with a back spasm. It compounded more misery to a makeshift back four who, by playing one inexperienced full-back and one on the wrong side, were unable to bring the ball out effectively.

Forwards ineffective

  • While one may wonder why Theo Walcott merited an autobiography this early in his career, the revelation that Fabio Capello tried to curb his runs inside is a curious insight. Here against Liverpool, it set an interesting backdrop to whatever he did but whatever he did, were almost irrelevant. His runs inside were of little use if Arsenal failed to hold the ball effectively and by drifting inside early on in Arsenal’s build-up, was not available to pick the ball up out wide. Nevermind he was marked out of the game by the fantastic Jose Enrique, those runs have become less useful if Arsenal are not working the ball well. That almost also makes the work of Robin van Persie redundant as his movement to drop deep to find space was effective last season because of the central build up before switching the play wide. Not the other way round at is increasingly becoming now.
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