Was this a reaction to the result or an agenda against Arsene and Arsenal? By Tinashe Shamuyashe, Zimbabwean Arsenal Fan.
Following Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool I feared that the result had triggered another wave of negativity against the club and manager. I only had to visit Justarsenal and watch the PL Fanzone program to confirm my fears. What was striking about the crescendo of criticism was its contradictory nature, from fans and so called analysts. Taken separately it would seem the team did nothing right and they lost by a 10 goal margin. However when one places the criticisms close to one another contradictions become so glaring that one wonders whether the makers of the comments ever use their grey matter or whether they are on a mission which is “bash the club and Wenger out”.
As a trained lawyer I will first lay out undisputed facts before making my opinion. It is common knowlege that Liverpool has been poor all season, struggling in the Capital One cup but scraping through nonetheless. Losing 3-0 and 3-1 against Manchester clubs, losing 1-2 at home to Chelsea, and so on. Be that as it may there is no denying that Liverpool has very good players in the mould of Sterling, Coutinho, and Lallana on their day. They have average talent in the form of Gerrard (because of age), Henderson, and Lucas in the midfield. These players compensate for lack of flair with hard work. Added to that list is Markovic who blows hot and cold in a single match. Their back three can be regarded as average to below average; however, we need not forget that Sakho was getting first team action ahead of Laurent Koscielny in the French team.
Added to that was the fact that they were playing at home with a home crowd which reminds anyone of games in Germany and Turkey. A vociferous crowd that counts as 12th man. At the start of every game an Anfield anthem is sang to get the crowd and players fired up, I am not sure whether that is the case at many other clubs stadia. As an aside I think Arsenal fans must learn something from Liverpool supporters especially at home. The Liverpool players had a psychological advantage over our players because of the magnitude of their win last season. Added to that the media were making reference to that result all week long, omitting the fact that we beat Liverpool 2-1 the following week on our way to the FA cup glory.
From the Arsenal side, we had a team that has had a bumpy ride to the season. We had a right back playing his second game at centre back, a predominantly wing player helping with defensive duties in the midfield. We had an on fire Cazorla and a highly effective front three of Alexis, Danny, and Olivier. We also had a team that was going to be reminded throughout the match of the 5-1 loss by the home fans.
With those facts in mind Liverpool were going to start more aggressively while Arsenal were to be more conservative. This is what happened from the first minute till halftime. Liverpool’s passing in the middle of the pack was swift and accurate and there was good link up play with their front three. They closed Arsenal quickly once they lost the ball, thus Arsenal did not have enough time on the ball. The strategy for Arsenal was therefore to soak up pressure as long as they could. Every time Arsenal won possession very few players came out of the defensive shape to try to start an attack of their own. Was this a wrong strategy? I do not think so, in the circumstances of last season and the energy shown by Liverpool in the early minutes, it was the right strategy in my view. Last season 2 goals came from Arsenal trying to create something going forward against a highly charged team. This led to loss of possession and counter attack at lightening pace by Liverpool.
This time the team maintained their defensive shape, such that despite Liverpool’s dominance and intricate passing in the middle of the pack, they offered virtually nothing in the final third. Until the 44th minute the majority of their attempts at goal were fortuitous and can never be regarded as real goal scoring chances. At the same time it cannot be said Liverpool was wasteful in front of goal. So if Arsenal were so awful in defence with Liverpool superb in attack, how come Szczesny, just like Jones, was a spectator for the greater part of the first half? Either Liverpool was wasteful in the final third or the claim that Arsenal was poor defensively is completely wrong. After watching the game for the second time my view is that Arsenal defended well against a rampant Liverpool.
There are others who believe that Arsenal should have fought fire with fire. Surprisingly these people accused the team and manager for failing to adjust tactics against a rampant Liverpool and Chelsea last season resulting in heavy losses. You cannot have your cake and eat it so they say. The team adjusted accordingly and did well to contain Liverpool until the 44th minute. Watching that game live and for the second time it was apparent to me that if Arsenal had tried to put pressure on Liverpool once in possession and without possession, we would have conceded three or more goals in the 1st half. Liverpool was very mobile in the middle and their passes were very accurate. Taking numbers forward would have left our defence overly exposed. This would have spelt disaster considering that Debuchy was not in his favoured position, Per was playing left side CB, while Chambers does not have the pace of a right back.
At this stage let me address a complaint raised as to why Debuchy played CB while Chambers played wide. The answer lies in an article published here about aggressive and sweeping CBs. Chambers like Per does not have the pace of an aggressive CB who must be paired with a sweeper CB (Per). In addition Liverpool were playing their pacey Sterling as centre forward, therefore there was need for a fast CB to partner Per. Debuchy was the right player considering that Nacho was coming from injury and is not as pacey as Sterling anyway. That partnership kept Sterling in shape, and the only time he threatened in the first half was when he went to fetch the ball up field and Per went with him. As expected he beat Per on pace but he had no end product because of the numbers we had in defence.
Liverpool’s goal came when Arsenal wanted to retain possession under pressure, which was an antithesis of what they had done in the first 43 minutes. Liverpool started an attack from a free kick awarded on their right side of attack. Arsenal as before defended well leading to a throw in for Liverpool, and a clearance that fell on Giroud who was not under pressure. Instead of kicking the ball out for a throw in or just kicking it up field, he decided to lay the ball back to Gibbs who was surrounded by three Liverpool players. Gibbs was never favourite to win the ball, and that put the team under extreme pressure. Without the right defensive shape and numbers at the back Coutinho was able to capitalize. Had Arsenal played defensive/negative football on that occasion that goal would not have been conceded, because it would have been a throw in or ball pushed into Liverpool half for them to start another wave of attack.
My analysis therefore is that while Liverpool moved the ball very well in the first half, won back possession extremely well, and had 80% possession, our team defended well, as such Szczesny had little to do except to pick the ball from the net in the 44th minute. While Arsenal did nothing going forward in the first half, they made the most of the sole chance that came their way. The team got a set piece which they put to good use, with Flamini setting up Debuchy. It is therefore utterly disrespectful to claim that Arsenal were lucky to go to half time level. The team defended well, limiting Liverpool chances, and made the most of the chance that came their way going forward. How many times has Mourinho been applauded for playing this type of football and getting results? Why should the same not go to Arsenal?
Football games are decided by goals and if a team manages to limit the opposition’s clear chances why should that be labelled as dreadful/awful performance etc. How many times did Arsenal dominate possession like Liverpool did without an end product? The Manchester games at the Emirates come to mind this season. What has been our reaction to such performances? Wenger has no plan B, he just plays pass, pass without end product. Today the shoe was on another foot, it was us under pressure from a determined home side. We had to give an appropriate response defensively, and that we did until Giroud decided the best form of defence was to be positive under pressure. The team paid for that change in attitude.
Second half was much better in terms of our midfield play as Liverpool had dropped a bit. Every time we won possession we tried to exploit their defensive frailties, but we were not naive to commit bodies forward. Our defensive work was made difficult because by the 50th minute Flamini and Debuchy had yellow cards. It would have been suicidal to expose them to one on one situations; therefore our midfield had to put an extra shift to shield our back four. Liverpool were restricted to attempts outside the box, which attempts were not life threatening.
While Liverpool was showing signs of disorganization, their determination never faded away. Arsenal was gifted possession in its own half by legendary Gerrard. Gibbs did well to utilize space in front of him before making a very good long range pass that found Giroud whose first touch pass to Carzola was top class. Thinking Carzola would pass across goal the Liverpool defence rushed to close the space in front of their goalkeeper leaving Giroud unmarked. Gibbs cut back the ball to Giroud whose first touch finish was superb. So called pundits and those that are sworn never to give credit to the team have been attributing the goal to poor defending by Liverpool. What they fail to understand is that poor defending and good attack are two sides of the same coin. You concede because you are relatively poor at defending while the opposition is relatively good in utilizing its chances. You can never talk in absolute terms in a competition. Arsenal thus utilized their chance, hence they deserved the goal. That Liverpool was relatively poor at defending is none of Arsenal’s business.
After the goal Liverpool went for broke withdrawing a defender for a striker. Sterling went to the flank where he caused lots of problems but Arsenal defended for dear life not allowing Liverpool to go behind our defenders. Liverpool threw on yet another striker to add pressure up front. It was logical that Arsenal had to bring in a defensive player in the mould of Francis Coquelin. There are some who have criticized the manager for substituting Giroud arguing that he offers a lot on defending set pieces, but football is not all about defending set pieces but also defending in field, winning balls, and putting opposition under pressure in possession. It also includes not being reckless with the ball in dangerous areas as Giroud did in the first half. Of the three attacking players, Giroud is the one with less work rate without the ball. It was for this reason that some of you labelled him donkey, etc. So that substitution could not be faulted because we needed numbers in defence. When the second substitution came in for us it was Nacho coming in for Alexis. Alexis’ ball retention was not good today. He was losing dribbles for fun. It was thus necessary to bring in a defence minded person in the form of Nacho for Alexis.
Despite their dominance around the box Liverpool were restricted to long range efforts the most dangerous of which was a Gerrard strike, which Szczesny did well to stop. The Borini header was never going to trouble the keeper, while Lucas was not making use of Arsenal’s half clearances. The major criticism that could be levelled at Arsenal at that stage of the game was the mindset of players. At the 90th minute mark it became apparent that they wanted to protect the lead. Maybe they did not realize that it was 9 minutes of added time due to Skrtel’s injury. Even when Liverpool was reduced to 10 men in the 5th minute of injury time it was apparent that the players’ mental state was never going to shift because of numerical advantage. Liverpool continued to pile up pressure winning corner after corner.
In the 7th minute of injury time Liverpool scored. Many have criticised zonal marking because of the conceded goal, however they forget the corners that were well defended with that system. Zonal or man marking is a matter of choice as each system has its own weaknesses. Teams that do men marking on corners and other set pieces also concede goals. So should they blame men marking? On this occasion one can argue that the zonal setting was not perfect. Jermaine Jenas who was one of the analysts on match day appeared to have given a correct analysis. He stated that the zonal setting was wrong for an out swinger corner. Arsenal players needed to move a bit out of their goal because the ball was going to flying away from goal. For me this analysis was spot on, Per did not organize his zone well on that occasion, unless the players were now thinking about the final whistle. That was the blemish I can put on the team defensively, because the corner was a poor one and could have been easily defended if the players had occupied the correct zones as observed by Jenas.
On the overall view, Liverpool put an exceptional attacking performance while Arsenal did well to cope with the offensive play of Liverpool. As I was writing this article I was watching the Sky Sports panel of Redknapp, Bellamy, and two other fellows, agreeing that this was Liverpool’s best performance this season. They even tipped Liverpool to be on fire going forward. Sky also showed Sterling statistics indicating that he only had three touches in Arsenal box and one shot on target the whole game. He however made three key passes after he was pushed to the wing. This tells you how the team performed defensively for the greater part of the game. They denied Liverpool opportunities to go behind the defence throughout the match.
We cannot spend the whole day being negative about how we defended the last corner that gave the equalizer as if the team did nothing defensively in the 99 minutes of play. Should Chelsea be lamenting the way they defended the Man U free kick in the last minute, which gave the latter an equalizer? At the end of the day that is how matches pan out. You attack brilliantly and tear apart the opposition’s defence or the opposition defends well leaving you with every other statistics in your favour except the scoreline. The latter is what happened today.
Had it not been for Giroud’s recklessness in possession in the 44th minute the scoreline would have been 0-0 or 0-1 at halftime depending on whether you think Gerrard would have fouled Alexis had they not scored. From what I saw Liverpool always dropped a bit after scoring and this is why Alexis was able to move forward with the ball. For me the scoreline would have been 0-0. Our mindset should have quickly changed after the Liverpool red card but I have seen 10 men pressurizing opponents especially when they are at home. Our defending of the last corner could have been better yes but that is football. Show me a team that has not conceded on set pieces in circumstances in which commentators accuse the defence of being poor. In the final analysis Arsenal did well defensively today while Liverpool’s energy made it difficult for the team to dominate possession as has been the norm in the past. But to deride the team in the manner in which fans here and pundits did at PL fanzone was despicable to say the least. The team deserved its two goals while it restricted Liverpool opportunities despite their dominance.
So if the team did well to restrict Liverpool chances why are we having this negativity? Being a person living in a country which is very polarized politically, I can proffer an explanation. In my country there are people who are opposed to the current government and another group that is pro government. In the eyes of one group the other group can do no good. A commuter omnibus crashes into a train because it did not stop at a rail level crossing; the group opposed to the government blames government, because the booms that close when a train is passing were not working. But the rule of the road requires the commuter omnibus driver to stop at a rail level crossing, which he did not do. The opposition’s agenda is clear, whatever the facts say blame the government.
This is the dilemma which Arsenal fans here find themselves in. They are obsessed with Wenger out, board out, and majority shareholder out mentality such that they do not miss the slightest of opportunities to demonize the manager, club and the majority shareholder. That is why most of the criticisms levelled against the team following the Liverpool game were contradictory. For them the objective is to find something to blame the manager for.
The following are the contradictions in the criticisms:
(1) The team should not have set back in the face of Liverpool marauding attacks. But when they did that Liverpool did not have clear cut goal scoring opportunities, when Olivier decided to retain possession by passing to a heavily marked Gibbs possession was lost resulting in a Liverpool goal.
(2) Team did not have counter tactics to deal with Liverpool offensive play. But despite Liverpool dominance the team maintained shape defensively resulting in Liverpool having few chances, is that not a sufficient counter strategy?
(3) Wenger did not have tactics to deal with Lallana, Coutinho, and Sterling. Why is it that Coutinho had to score because of Giroud’s reckless play rather than Liverpool’s superb build up play with the dominance they had?
(4) Wenger made wrong subs in removing Giroud for Francis. So we should have kept an offence player when we needed to defend our lead? Between Olivier, and Danny and Alexis who puts least shift defensively? The same story goes for the replacement of Alexis with Nacho. The club needed to defend what it had. The offensive players had not offered much going forward anyway.
(5) Wenger should have put Walcott in. Really? What is Walcott’s defensive record apart from his pace going forward? Are you not the same people who have been complaining that Campbell was not getting game time? Why complain when he has been given one?
(6) Flamini should have been subbed. Really? The team is defending for dear life and you want your defensive players subbed.
(7) Szczesny was rash to come out when the ball was lobbed behind the defenders. Are you serious? If he had stayed back Sterling would have controlled the ball with no pressure and scored. As it turned out Sterling had to scoop away the ball from Szczesny with his hand because of pressure.
I can go on and on about the contradictions in the criticisms. This clearly shows that it’s more about the agenda than team performance which brings all these reactions. Unfortunately organizations are not run on the basis of irrational reactions by stakeholders but facts. As long as you continue to shun facts for these self serving agendas you will forever remain hurt by decisions that are made by the club. You can go on social media to denigrate the club, and become resident callers and writers to PL fanzone as one Mcbernard (or something like that) from South Africa has been ranting on today’s program, claiming that if he sits on the Arsenal bench the team will do wonders, but that will not change anything. At the end of the day you will become a perennial moaner not only in matters football but in other aspects of your life. Here in Zimbabwe we say an empty vessel makes the most noise so once I start seeing and hearing all those hate filled rants I make my conclusion.