Monday, December 22, 2014

Patchy performance epitomises Arsenal’s inconsistency

It was a strange 2-2 draw at Anfield on Sunday as Arsenal weren’t great, but ultimately were left disappointed to not leave with three points. The stats show that Arsenal were dominated for most of the game, struggled to keep the ball and didn’t test the Liverpool goalkeeper enough, yet going into injury time, with a 2-1 lead against ten men, the Gunners really should have seen the match out.
I’ll start with the positives which, given some of the post-match reaction from some fans, have seemed non-existent to some. Arsenal didn’t play well, but still found a way to be competitive. There wasn’t much going on around him at times, and he didn’t get too much of the ball from the deeper midfielders, but Santi Cazorla continued to look dangerous as his revival this season continued. His quick feet got the team out of some tight situations and he was the only player carrying a real threat when attacking the Liverpool defence.
It wasn’t a surprise that Cazorla was at the heart of Arsenal’s best moment of the game as he linked up with Olivier Giroud to set-up the Frenchman to make it 2-1 in the second half. That goal was really well worked with Giroud being used as a focal point to stretch the play and then clinically finish, and it was the perfect example of how to play round a back three. This, however, is where the frustrations start.
Liverpool’s defence was clearly vulnerable; the fact Mathieu Flamini was able to get a headed assist for Mathieu Debuchy in the first half showed that. With the attacking talent of Giroud, Alexis, Welbeck and Cazorla on the pitch, the team should be really regretting not giving those players a good enough platform on which to really attack the hosts’ back three.
In the centre of midfield behind Cazorla and the front three were Mathieu Flamini and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of whom were effective against Newcastle United in the previous game. But Oxlade-Chamberlain was not as sharp as he has been this season as hadn’t trained much because of an injury picked up against the Geordies, so Arsenal lacked the drive from the centre of the pitch that the Ox usually offers, or can come from Ramsey or Wilshere when they’re available. With Liverpool playing so many midfielders either in wide or central positions, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see them dominate the central area, but they were lacking cutting edge when in the final third. This did mean that Arsenal struggled to win the ball back, meaning the front three were unable to cause the havoc they otherwise should have done against that Liverpool back three.
Without wanting to sound too much like Arsene Wenger, Liverpool had a lot of ‘false’ dominance where I wasn’t too concerned about them having a lot of the ball. For the most part, I felt Arsenal were quite comfortable at the back. Raheem Sterling couldn’t isolate Mertesacker, Debuchy looked solid again, and bar one Markovic chance, Wojciech Szczesny didn’t have too much to do in the first half. But after taking the lead, Arsenal were too quick to drop deep. It was inviting the pressure from Liverpool, and while this nullified the pace threat in behind the back four, it became even harder for Arsenal to get any control on the game and gain some possession. Ordinarily in those sorts of games, Arsenal would be able to put together a few breaks away and have a few openings to kill the game off with a third goal, but they never materialised.
Even when Liverpool went down to ten men, Arsenal didn’t make a concerted enough effort to try and clear the penalty area and force Liverpool back. That led to the corner which was headed in by Martin Skrtel for the equaliser.
There has been a lot of focus on Per Mertesacker after the game, and regular readers of this blog and listeners of the podcast will know how much I like Per Mertesacker. He did effectively duck out of the way when Skrtel jumped behind him to score, which looks dreadful on the television as, especially at that time of the game, you want to see your biggest centre-back challenging for every ball in the box. But as much as it was a mistake from Mertesacker, it was a failing of the zonal system that meant it wasn’t defended properly. I don’t think this is a case of man-marking being better than zonal, Arsenal just didn’t execute the plan properly. Calum Chambers didn’t track Skrtel, and may have given Mertesacker a wrong call that meant the German get out the way, while Kieran Gibbs has to read the danger quicker and get back on the post to try and block the shot.
This sort of indifferent defending and strange performance sums up Arsenal’s season. There were very fleeting moments of promise at Anfield, as Giroud’s goal really was a great team goal, but ultimately moments where the team have dropped their focus for a split second have been costly. It is incredibly frustrating to see a team of talented players not gelling properly and not consistently showing the quality of football that we all know is in them.
As I have done for most of the season, I’m struggling to put my finger on why things still haven’t quite clicked into gear this season. The defensive frailties haven’t helped, but it feels like the cause of the inconsistency runs deeper than just an extra centre-back and a holding midfielder, although obviously the addition of those in January should help. This inconsistency doesn’t bode well for the hectic festive period when there’s little time to over-analyse with back-to-back games.