Gunner Thoughts

Liverpool 0-0 Arsenal (4-5 pens): Review and takeaways

Arsenal advance past Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, but it wasn’t the prettiest affair.

If there was revenge in the air when Arsenal returned to Anfield just 3 days after losing to Liverpool in the Premier League, we have to mention that a true feeling of Carabao Cup was mingling in there as well. In a match that had bits of sloppy play, a lack of edge, and had a slight bit of casualness to it after the first 20 minutes, it felt like an early Carabao Cup match to its core. The juxtaposition from Monday was pretty evident. But when sides are rotated, different players come into the contests, you don’t always know what you’re going to get.

As many expected, Arteta did in fact rotate is squad to reflect like he selected for the previous round’s matchup with Leicester. There were a few changes, some I wouldn’t have expected given their situations, but it tells us a few things about Arsenal and Arteta that we can get into later.

Leno; Cedric, Holding, Gabriel, Kolasinac; Ceballos, Xhaka, Willock; Pepe, Nketiah, Saka

Leno, possibly surprisingly, retained his spot. Cedric comes back into the cup side after missing out on Leicester with a slight injury. Holding continues to be selected as a consistent participant. Gabriel is back after missing out on the clash earlier in the week, while Kolasinac makes an appearance as the left center back — something that surprised many given his recent form and links to Bayer Leverkusen.

The midfield pivot of Ceballos and Granit Xhaka was one that was much stronger on paper than I would have predicted seeing, but we certainly know Arteta is not shy about picking strong sides for matches like this. Most of the story around this midfield, revolved around Granit Xhaka being given the Captain’s armband. Some found this moment to be the resolution of his year-long redemption from last year’s Crystal Palace meltdown, while others found it to be an act that degraded what it means to wear the band itself. Regardless of where you stand, it is clear Arteta holds no grudge from that day prior to his tenure and sees the leadership qualities within Granit. I wouldn’t expect this to be anything that makes Aubameyang worried, nor does this even mean Xhaka is truly the number two if others area on the pitch, but it was well-known that the players appreciated the leadership he brings on and off the field.

Up top, Pepe played on the left where Aubameyang normally plays, Eddie rotated with Lacazette down the middle, and Willock occupied the right wing where he was clearly tasked with playing in a similar fashion to how we have been seeing Willian play. Tucking into the midfield, coming more central to try to get between the lines, and working with the right wingback to decide who stays wide and who tucks in.

Tactically, the intent of the lineup has been what we have been getting from Arsenal lately, but it’s a bit of a toss-up whether or not you’ll get what’s intended when you mix and match like this.

The match started and it was incredibly open. In the opening minutes, Arsenal had two good chances to open the scoring while Liverpool countered with their own chance. Neither quite took them, which may have altered the eventual course of the affair, but it had the feeling of another 5-5 thriller. Xhaka opened it up with a beautiful, line-splitting ball to Pepe down the left, who slid it centrally to Willock, who played the extra ball to Nketiah on the right. Unfortunately, Arsenal’s young, fox-in-the-box couldn’t quite get the ball out his feet and set himself for the shot and the chance disappeared.

That really was about the extent of Arsenal’s chances, sadly. There were a few nice moments from Ceballos to move the ball around, and a clear intent from him to drop deep to pick up the ball from the backline to get his head up and play the early ball long and into the channels, relieving pressure from the press. He ended the day 6/12 on long balls, which is a decent percentage, but nothing much came of the connections once they reached Pepe, Nketiah, or Willock.

On the other side of the ball, Leno wasn’t forced into a lot of action in the first half, but there were some shaky defensive moments. In the 34th minute, Kolasinac had a moment where he put a header right back into the middle of Arsenal’s own box and everyone had to scramble to get it away. Then in the 45th minute, Leno made a big save against Jota, but only managed to push it back into the path of Minamino. Gunners will have let out a collective sigh of relief when Minamino’s shot rattled off the underside of the bar and out. It was a good first save, but Leno really should be doing better, to push it past his far post and not back into the fray.

In the second half, Liverpool really came to life. Well, as much as a second-string team does in a Thursday, Carabao Cup match. Liverpool tallied 10 shots in the second half and forced repeated saves from Leno. In the 52nd minute, Leno had to make a reaction save and get to the ground quick to push a Virgil shot from close range away. In the 62’ Kolasinac loses Jota on a long ball and gives up a rocket of a volley that Leno has to parry away. After nearly giving up a goal to end the half, Leno proved emphatically what kind of a keeper he is. It’s not as though he doesn’t have shortcomings or flaws, but it’s hard not to be wowed by how frequently he makes the big saves.

Arsenal would have a chance late on with a Rob Holding header but Holding was unable to steer it away from the keeper and one late contentious decision when Willock had Milner beat in the 93rd minute. Milner tried to get back across Willock, went down and quite clearly handled the ball in his fall. For all the harsh handball calls to start off the year, this one was by far the most obvious. Yet, the ref waved it away and we end with penalties.

In penalties, Leno is yet again the clear hero. Making two massive saves, with the pressure on after Mohammed Elneny missed his, Leno saves Liverpool’s 4th and 6th attempts. Lacazette, Soares, Maitland-Niles, Pepe, and Willock score theirs.

Arsenal advance to play Manchester City next, which will be a major challenge in a competition that Arsenal can’t seem to catch a break in. Leicester City, Liverpool, and now Manchester City. Before we get to that, let’s look at a few takeaways from today’s match.

Stale Attack

I’m going to take a different angle with this one. Everyone is well aware that the creation aspect of Arsenal’s game is lacking. In fact, it is more or less non-existent, which is becoming worrisome. There are days left in the window for Arsenal to get more deals across the finish line, but in all likelihood, we may be facing a window in which not every deal is worked out. I have mentioned many times that I believe the outcome remains Aouar or Partey, rather than the adamantly demanded Aouar AND Partey.

I can hardly blame people for feeling Arsenal need both. They do. The truth is Arsenal need a shakeup badly, but if it isn’t going to come from new players, it likely needs to come from Arteta. It’s this understanding, tied with what I saw against Liverpool, that has me a little bit worried. Arsenal are very obviously a well-drilled team. Their shape is maintained for nearly 90 minutes, their progression and patterns of play are fairly evident, but they are becoming so evident that the attack feels a bit like forcing the point until it works and we win or fails and we lose. Either Arsenal are capable of starting at leno, stringing 10-15 passes together and scoring by zig-zagging it through the lines, or we fall a bit flat hoping one of our stars is capable of providing a moment of brilliance.

Arsenal came out and played in their 3-4-3 shape again. And while I personally have no issue with the 3-4-3 shape, it seemed as though Arteta now is selecting this as a really safe and cautious system that he is almost too comfortable with. What was once a system that seemed to be adapted, altered, and fine-tuned game by game to keep the team sharp and dangerous — tonight felt as though Arteta is too content with it or running out of ideas.

Some of that may be down the playing staff, something I completely understand, but if Arsenal aren’t going to be able to offer creativity though the players, Arteta will have to continuously tinker and adjust player’s movements and intricacies to keep opposition uncomfortable. It’s not an easy task, but after three straight mediocre performances with little changes along the way, I will be keen to see what Arteta does for Sunday’s Premier League match against a struggling Sheffield United side, with 3 points on the line.

Disconnect through the lines

This second point falls in line, and could simply be a product of poor attacking quality, but  there was too much space and clear disconnect between our midfield line and attacking front. Whether this comes down to Joe Willock not quite linking them from between the lines, or is on the midfield to get up in support and look to overlap from the outside, things weren’t clicking. What this resulted in was the front three being forced to attempt to make something happen on their own.

Pepe, who certainly struggled to produce a bit, was often isolated with the ball at his feet. It’s a common occurrence in the side and something that he has been dealing with in most his appearances at Arsenal. And while there are situations that he hardly helps himself, Arsenal have a duty as well to create a system that is going to support him and other attackers to help put them in dangerous areas — without them having to be 3 or 4 defenders to do it.

Hand in hand with Arteta needing to create more variance to the attack, goes the task of solving the isolation issues his attacking core faces. The job at hand seemed all too easy for Liverpool defenders to deal with at times yesterday, and even easier earlier in the week with first team squads on the field.

I realize this point isn’t that revolutionary of a talking point when it comes to the Gunners, but  as I watched a side attempt to force the same pattern, the same point, and the same progression down the throats of Liverpool to no avail, I grew a little bit frustrated at the lack of dynamism. Maybe it’s down to the short turnaround time between Monday and today, maybe it’s down to the players available, maybe it’s the gaps in the side, and probably it’s a bit of all of it, but my eyes will be glued to Sunday’s matchup in hopes of seeing something newer. Even if it doesn’t quite come off or it needs more fine tuning, it will likely be up to Arteta to scheme up a way to make up for the lack of innate creativity within the side.

I realize that these two points are rather negative for a match that Arsenal won. These points should not take away from the joy in Arsenal beating Liverpool for the third time in their last four matches and continuing to receive very high praises from Klopp for doing so. It’s always a great feeling to get one over the reining champions — rotated side or not. But these two points really stood out to me.

On a note of individual performance, I talked about how impressive Bernd Leno was as he gathered 7 saves and 2 penalty kick saves. One person I did not mention was Gabriel. Back in the side after missing out on the first Liverpool match, he was impressive once more from the central spot in the back-3. Arteta has some serious decisions to make becaue it is getting to the point where it feels silly not to have him on the field if he is going to continue to churn out performances like these! Very, very exciting.

Arsenal progress. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t flawless, but they get the opportunity to play another match in which some of their younger players can continue to get minutes. And THAT is a decent thing to win for the club.

Enjoy it!

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