Sometimes you have to ignore context. At times like this, you have to attack and dissect what is in front of you without the restraint of the good that came before.
The truth is this result, Arsenal’s 5-1 loss away to Liverpool, was coming. And no, not because half the country were baying for this kind of capitulation.
There has been evidence of it for much of the New Year. There have been wins, but they haven’t been great, comprehensive or overly convincing. But for some, a win is a win, and we can’t ever really get away from that old cliché of winning ugly eventually breeds title winners, or vice versa.
Arsenal’s high quality, stylistic and easy-on-the-eye football isn’t a right in which the other team must indulge them. There’s a languid, laziness about Arsenal’s play at times, something which has been true of them for many years. Yes it’s a great tactical option to pursue; it’s one for purists, and when in full pomp it’s the brand of football most would happily pay to see.
But in the midst of some of Europe’s finest executioners of the style, Arsenal have displayed the half-baked version, the one which, if not played out with all the necessary ingredients, will land you a humiliating loss against a team who are capable of dishing it out.
At Southampton, Arsenal were also slow out of the traps. It’s one thing to talk about fatigue setting in, and that may be the case for some, but on the whole, Arsenal have never (or hardly ever) adhered to the full scrip that comes with playing this style of football.
At Liverpool, and equally against Southampton and Crystal Palace prior, they were ponderous in possession, unable to move the ball at pace and with any great purpose. Without the ball, the idea of pressing and harassing the opposition – which Brendan Rodgers’ side did so well – appears alien to most of the Arsenal forwards, where defending in such a manner has to start.
There have been some who have questioned the desire of certain players. Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski, when selected, don’t like to defend; though in fairness how many forwards are known for their love of working tirelessly without the ball? Such faults in a team’s system comes down to the manager.
Arsene Wenger spoke after the loss at Anfield and of his willingness to shoulder much of the blame. Were Arsenal ill-prepared? From the looks of it, yes. But their lack of preparation lay beyond the simple matter of having failed to get out of bed. Possession was pointless and wasteful at every turn, being far too easy to defend for a back four in Liverpool’s who are far, far from the best in the Premier League. There was once again no interest in getting the ball back when it was lost.
Much of the same could have been said for the draw at Southampton. The difference at Anfield wasn’t just that Arsenal were much worse, it was that the opposition’s attack were of higher quality.
Wenger has an excellent selection from which to choose from in midfield. But there does appear to be a pointlessness to some of the deployments, such as opting to partner Mikel Arteta with Mathieu Flamini against Southampton when there was no real need for two holding midfielders. All it did was dull the team’s play when in possession, slowing down the supply to the forwards and stripping the centre of midfield of drive and creativity.
Without Jack Wilshere, who was once again wasteful against Liverpool, and Aaron Ramsey, whose goals are sorely missed, why not play Cazorla in the centre of midfield alongside one of the holding players?
The criticism of Arsenal’s ponderous approach lies in nothing else but the choices in the centre of the pitch. It’s a case of getting the ball from back to front as quickly as possible, which the team haven’t always been able to do. Often, Ozil would drop extremely deep to pick up the ball and attempt to find runners (generally non-existent) to initiate something meaningful.
Arsenal are capable of much better and an avoidance of such defeats, as were dished out by Liverpool and Manchester City this season. Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Bayern Munich harass(ed) the opposition when looking to get the ball back. It’s the type of football that led to Dortmund slaughtering Manchester City at the Etihad in the Champions League, where were it not for a complete one-off, the result would not have been 1-1. The same is true for Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, and now of his time in Bavaria.
On the one occasion that does stand out of Arsenal playing to such a high tempo, both in attack and when seeking the ball back, they beat Chelsea 3-1 at the Emirates in December 2010.
The question is: why can’t it be done every week? Why is there so much neglect for such a vital part of this style of football?
Wenger will want to take much of the blame for what happened at Anfield, but he’ll continue to feel the brunt of frustrations if he can’t coach his team, even those who don’t enjoy working without the ball, to properly adhere to the rules of this tactical set up.