Rishad Bharucha has an analytical look back at the opening weekend Premier League fixture that finished Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool.
Fans far and wide have been eager, at the very least, for the Premier League to return and rescue them from the doldrums of the summer and the transfer fiction they have had to contend with reading. On paper, this fixture always promised goals, regardless of the point of time in the season this game was played. However, the first game of the season often shows up the mixed fortunes of teams as they cope with another international tournament hangover affecting their pre-season preparations. Arsenal in particular had notable absentees in defense, and few of their fans would relish playing a Liverpool team at this point, that had spectacularly dismantled Barcelona in pre-season.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech; Bellerin, Chambers, Holding, Monreal; Coquelin, Elneny; Walcott, Ramsey, Iwobi; Sanchez.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Moreno; Lallana, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Firminho, Coutino.
On paper, it would seem like Arsenal were looking to neutralize the threat of Liverpool’s attack with two holding midfielders. Many have accused of Arsenal of going ‘gung-ho’ against bigger teams in the past and this would seem like a more pragmatic and even welcome move. Liverpool on the other hand, seemed ready to build on their pre-season momentum and play to their strengths. Klopp’s teams towards the end of last season did give the impression that they were set up to outscore the opposition more than they were to actually defend a lead.
Weakness and Strength in Width
The same would hold true for this lineup as the Merseysiders raced to a 1-4 lead after coming back from a goal down in the first half. While there were concerns about Arsenal’s young and inexperienced centerbacks, Chambers and Holding, questions do have to be asked about those who allowed some of the build up from wide areas to penetrate the Arsenal box. Monreal and Bellerin were made to look rather ordinary by Coutinho and Mane on the flanks. What was Arsenal’s weakness was Liverpool’s strength in that brief period in the second half when Liverpool put together three well-worked goals.
The lack of leadership at the heart of Arsenal’s defense and the decision to rest Koscielny proved costly as the back four were dragged from one side to another before Lallana finished to make it 2-1 to Liverpool. Nathaniel Clyne’s cross for Coutinho’s goal exposed a lack of midfield cover for Monreal, as well as the inexperience and lack of proactivity of the center backs to give Coutinho space to finish. Likewise, Arsenal were able to take advantage of the space created by Oxlade-Chamberlain between the Liverpool defense to pull back the score to 2-4.
It is not uncommon to find notable individual mistakes in a high-scoring game such as this. In the first half, Alberto Moreno gifted Theo Walcott a penalty with a reckless last ditch tackle inside his own box. Walcott’s penalty was saved by Mignolet, but the Spaniard’s blushes weren’t saved for long as his questionable positioning a minute later gave Walcott the space to latch on to a pass across the box from Iwobi and finish to give Arsenal the lead.
For Liverpool’s fourth goal, a notable gaping space was visible in the build up in Arsenal’s defensive third. Chambers scrambled across to left back, crossing Monreal in a bid to go 1v1 with Mane and curb the threat rather than track back in his position alongside Holding. While the adrenaline of defending against a counter-attack can sometimes force mistakes as a defender, it is less likely to do so when you have more experience and composure.
In this instance, both mistakes could be put down to the respective managers for playing a potential winger at full back and giving an early season baptism of fire to an inexperienced center back. As it was, Liverpool made less defensive mistakes overall than Arsenal did and held on to win by a single goal.
End-to-End Play in a Chaotic Midfield
Arsenal were the brighter team for most of the first half and could have easily had more than a goal to show for their enterprise. They set the pace with wave after wave of attack and Liverpool followed suit in the second half after pulling a goal back at the stroke of half time. The absence of Mesut Özil, and arguably Olivier Giroud, was clearly felt as there was no clear linkup between the midfield and Alexis Sanchez playing up front by himself. Sanchez was industrious as ever, but he was clearly short of match fitness. The pace of Walcott and Iwobi certainly troubled Liverpool on the break, but Arsenal had to likewise cope with Coutinho and Mane at their end.
Overall, Liverpool will be pleased to have been off to a positive start to the season but after the gloss of the win fades, fans will surely be concerned about their defensive frailties. Arsenal fans are understandably frustrated, especially with their teams lack of summer signings compared to the rest of the big teams, and this opening day result will seem all too familiar to the season before. After the game, Jamie Carragher said that Premier League needed this kind of game to excite people after a series of typical opening day 1-1 and 2-1 results, making this game an excellent exhibition for the neutral only.
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