So, the transfer window is firmly shut, and all the squads are finalised. This weekend saw debuts galore, 28 goals scored, penalties, a Panenka and some interesting tactical matchups.
Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal
A Liverpool defeat here was no real surprise. This game was always about the first goal. If Liverpool fell behind, the chance of them coming back late in the game would dissipate with every passing minute. This game came just 40 hours after the Hearts Europa League game on Thursday. Not only did Steven Gerrard unfathomably play 90 minutes in that game, but so did Liverpool’s only established striker, Luis Suarez. This made very little sense from Rodgers. The Europa League should be bottom of the priorities, and players like Coates, Enrique, Kelly etc. should all have started there. If this meant the worst case scenario of elimination from Europe, then so be it. Considering Liverpool’s threadbare attack, it will be interesting to see how many more points their Europa League involvement will cost them this season.
As for the actual game, Arsenal were worthy winners despite some fortune after a clear Mertesacker foul on Suarez was missed. After all his exaggerated falls, grimaces, and penalty box dark arts, it seems like Suarez won’t get penalties when he really is fouled.
Both teams played similar shapes and personnel – 4231, no genuine defensive midfielder, exuberant young players on one wing (Sterling left for Liverpool and Oxlade-Chamberlain right for Arsenal), and wide men on the opposite flank who are typically central strikers, up against attacking fullbacks (Borini vs. Gibbs; Podolski vs. Glen Johnson). The wide forward vs. attacking fullback battle was crucial. Whilst Borini tracked Gibbs extremely selflessly, it curtailed his attacking game. Whereas on the other side, Podolski put in a fantastically disciplined defensive shift against Glen Johnson, and still managed to run 60 yards to score the opening goal, after making the initial interception from a loose pass from the clearly jaded Gerrard. However, this wasn’t the crucial aspect of Arsenal’s win. That was how the two teams dealt with their lack of a defensive midfielder. Arsenal used Vermaelen to track Suarez, and even Gerrard, in to positions high up the pitch. This is a similar to how Koscielny dealt with Messi in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Barcelona in February 2011. Vermaelen had some rash moments and gave away several freekicks, but this was preferable to allowing Suarez or Gerrard space behind Arteta. Mertesacker, who is slower, prefers to stay deep at all times. This wouldn’t have worked without Gibbs being aware of the space to his right behind Vermaelen, but Steve Bould’s influence is already paying dividends with the improvements in Gibbs’ awareness and body positioning, after numerous errors in these aspects in the second half of last season.
Liverpool, conversely, were reluctant to leave their defensive line, and Cazorla found plenty of space and used it expertly. His two-footedness is a massive threat as he can both shoot and pass precisely and early with either foot. However, even his excellent reverse pass to Podolski was not the key part of his goal. Giroud’s excellent movement (a feature of his play all game) to drag Agger away, was as good as an assist. He later missed a very good chance after some more supreme movement off Agger and behind Skrtel. He may not have finished his chances so far in an Arsenal shirt, but his hold-up play at Stoke and his selfless team play here, have been promising. Give the man time; he is adjusting to a level he has never previously played at, as he has no Champions League experience and minimal international experience.
The second and killer goal came from more excellent play from Cazorla, linking with Podolski, in a central position. However, for the the umpteenth time in the last 12 months, Reina let a very savable shot squirm past him. Errors for Aguero, Dempsey and Van Persie goals last season all come to mind, and his deterioration should be a massive worry to Liverpool fans as he has precisely zero competition for his place.
A look at the respective substitute benches showed no strikers in reserve for either side. Arsenal at least had two attacking wingers and an attacking midfielder in reserve. Liverpool’s bench had 3 defenders, 2 central midfielders, and a non-assisting/scoring winger in Downing, who may very well be used at left back by Rodgers judging by his comments this week, and him starting there against Hearts on Thursday. This meant Liverpool not only had no real attacking threat on the bench, they didn’t even have 3 players of a high enough quality to make using all 3 subs worthwhile. A quite alarming situation after Carroll was allowed to leave on loan this week (he simply doesn’t suit Rodgers’ football) without a replacement being brought in. Rodgers could have shown more faith in young striker Adam Morgan though. Having him as an option is preferable to having both Coates and Carragher on the bench, but he decided to include all the more senior players regardless of the balance of his bench. Maybe Serie A is on to something with their new rules allowing 12 substitutes to be picked.
A final word on Abou Diaby: After not starting a league game last season, because of a series of injuries, he is finally back fit and playing extremely well. He was good against Sunderland, extremely important against Stoke for his height, and simply majestic at Anfield. Not only did he do some excellent things without the ball, he also put Giroud in for a great chance, and glided past Liverpool’s midfield pressing on numerous occasions. Fingers crossed, he returns from France duty without any injuries, as he’s absolutely crucial now that Song has departed. He was as good as any player on the pitch, and you can see all his touches here.
West Ham 3-0 Fulham
This was all about Andy Carroll, wasn’t it? Sam Allardyce beamed on the sideline as his new £1.5m loan signing took less than a minute to make a goal for his good friend, Kevin Nolan. A lot is made of Allardyce’s long ball football, but the truth is that his sides are all about the 2nd ball. He has spoken extensively in the past about studying footage of exactly which areas 2nd balls land in, and working hard on having his players taking up those positions. First time shots from second balls was a huge feature of his Bolton side a few years ago (Diouf and Nolan were particularly excellent at this). The third goal here had similarities to Nolan’s goal against Aston Villa on the opening day. In that game, Cieran Clark saw James Collins was being marked by a significantly smaller player and left his own man (Nolan). Even though Clark won that header against Collins, he ended up diverting the ball to a West Ham player, and it led to a goal. Here, Brede Hangeland noticed Andy Carroll in a height mismatch (despite being marked by two players already), left his own man, reached the high ball first, but couldn’t win the header cleanly, and the second ball feel for Matt Taylor to score past Mark Schwarzer.
“On each of the six occasions a Fulham player made a headed clearance, the ball was picked up by West Ham player. In stark contrast, 71% of West Ham’s headed clearances were successful (ie were cleared into touch, or a teammate collected the ball).
This effect was also obvious when looking at all clearances. West Ham’s clearances were successful 74% of the time, Fulham’s just 24%.”
Allardyce will be hoping that Carroll’s hamstring injury isn’t serious, as he spoke on Friday about having a “dream” transfer window. He appears to have done great business. James Collins is an excellent defender and organiser, Mohamed Diamé looks an excellent destroyer (with Mark Noble doing well in deeper role), Matt Jarvis’ crossing will be a major threat with Nolan and Carroll as targets, Yossi Benayoun will bring creativity and versatility, and Alou Diarra was one of France’s few good performers at Euro 2012. A very steady season awaits them.
Fulham, on the other hand, will miss Moussa Dembélé enormously. His ability to run with the ball, and keep it in tight situations would have been crucial here with Diamé pressing Sidwell so effectively. Dimitar Berbatov should form a good partnership with Bryan Ruiz (who didn’t play here due to injury), but losing Dembele, Dempsey and the still excellent Danny Murphy all in one summer, looks a crushing blow. With some excellent young players like Alexander Kačaniklić and Kerim Frei this may be the season where they become regulars and help to lower the average age of the squad.
Newcastle United 1-1 Aston Villa:
West Brom 2-0 Everton
This is an excellent Everton tactical blog, and is well worth reading.
Wigan 2-2 Stoke City
This was a fascinating game tactically, by all accounts. Rich Jolly has analysed the game brilliantly for his ESPNSoccernet Tactics Board here – a must read.