Arsenal got their first goals and first win of the season against Liverpool at Anfield after an assured and mature performance.
On paper, Arsenal lined up with their usual 4-3-3 formation, but unlike the first two games of the season, Wenger pushed Cazorla further forward with a free role behind Giroud in a formation that looked like a 4-4-1-1 especially when Liverpool had the ball.
Vito Mannone again replaced the injured Szczesny at the goal. Carl Jenkinson continued to deputize for Bacary Sagna at right back. Per Mertesacker started ahead of Koscielny as centerback along with Thomas Vermaalen. Kieran Gibbs kept his starting place at left back.
In central midfield, the line up was also the same as last week. Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby, and Santi Cazorla occupied the most advanced midfield position.
The only difference in the starting 11 was Oxlade Chamberlain replacing Gervinho on the wide right position. Podolski was on the left and Giroud had his second start as the central striker.
The game started with Liverpool pressing hard high up the pitch and trying to disrupt Arsenal’s ball circulation from the back. While the Liverpool front three Suarez, Borini and Sterling pressed the two Arsenal centerbacks Vermaalen and Mertesacker and denied them time on the ball, the two Liverpool fullbacks Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson pushed forward to squeeze the space in front of Arsenal’s two wide players Podolski and Chamberlain. This press seemed to work as Arsenal had difficulty in settling into a passing rhythm with Jenkinson and Mertesacker giving the ball away in dangerous positions.
Despite their domination, however, Liverpool failed to create clear-cut chances as Arsenal switched to a midfield four when Liverpool had the ball with Arteta, Diaby, Chamberlain and Podolski tightening up the space between them and the back four. Arteta continued to impress in the holding midfield role with his positional excellence, coolness and intelligence on the ball. The two Arsenal wide men Podolski and Chamberlain tracked the Liverpool full backs, never shirking their defensive responsibilities. Cazorla, as mentioned, stayed higher up the pitch to provide the link in a counterattack opportunity.
After the first 25 minutes, the Liverpool pressing began to lose its bite and Arsenal started looking more comfortable on the ball (although Mertesacker insisted on losing the ball in Arsenal’s half on two more occasions). An interesting feature of the game was that while Liverpool attacked with width (despite not having an effective centerforward), Arsenal’s midfield stayed narrow. With Nuri Sahin drifting left from his central midfield position (possibly to add fluidity and width to Liverpool’s movement per Brendan Rodgers’ instructions), and with Gerrard pushing forward in a free role, Liverpool’s center looked exposed to Arsenal counterattacks with only Joe Allen having a well-defined defensive role.
During the last 15 minute period before half-time, Arsenal had three counterattacks that developed faster than a wildfire in Northern California. The first one started when Gerrard, who completed less of his ambitious passes than Titanic completed her transatlantic voyages, lost possession in front of the Arsenal box. The ball was quickly played to Cazorla. The ambidextrous playmaker from Asturias drove forward unchallenged and used Giroud’s diversionary run to his right to slip Podolski through on the left. The German (or should I say Polish?), after a ferocious 50-yards off-the-ball run, took one touch and buried the ball past Reina at the Kop end. Two minutes later, when Gerrard lost another ball deep in Arsenal’s half, the resulting Arsenal counterattack had Podolski running 40-yards with the ball and taking a shot at goal, which was blocked by Skrtel. The third counterattack arrived five minutes from half-time when this time Suarez lost the ball: Abou Diaby accelerated past Glen Johnson and Nuri Sahin like a Ferrari and had his own 50-yards run with the ball in the wilderness of Liverpool’s midfield, exposing on the way the lack of match fitness of the Turkish international. Diaby found Giroud’s clever run into the box, only to see the former Montpellier striker miss the target when scoring looked easier.
While Arsenal exposed Liverpool’s lack of protection in the central midfield area, Liverpool created a few half chances of their own with Raheem Sterrling controlling a loose ball in the box, turning past Vermaalen and hitting the outside of the post. Another Liverpool attack saw Sterling bursting into a crowded Arsenal box only to be denied with a last ditch tackle by Mertesacker.
In the second half, the game continued in this fashion between a fluid, wide yet ineffective Liverpool attack and a tight, assured and little-troubled Arsenal defensive shape with Arsenal breaking forward or forming passing triangles whenever they gained possession in their half.
With Liverpool increasingly lacking ideas in attack and their cute passing moves getting lost in blind alleys, Rodgers took off the ineffective Borini and sent in Downing. Nuri Sahin, who was tidy on the ball but looked a bit lost tactically, was also replaced by Shelvey. In the 68th minute, it was those two Liverpool substitutes shirking their defensive duties that helped create Arsenal’s second goal. Santi Cazorla received the ball in a central position, carried the ball left dribbling past Shelvey and played it to Podolski. Neither Shelvey nor Downing (who thought he was minding Kieran Gibbs) tracked Cazorla who continued his run into the box from the wide left position. Podolski played Cazorla in with a simple pass, and the Spaniard finished low and hard from a tight angle when the fellow Spaniard Pepe Reina should have done better.
In the last 20 minutes, Liverpool continued to look for a goal to get back in the game, and created three chances with Shelvey (whose shot was saved by Mannone), Suarez (who should have finished hard and low instead of trying to dink it past Mannone) and Downing (whose curler was diverted for a corner by Vermaalenr’s block). Arsenal continued to look comfortable and wrapped up their victory without too much trouble.
This was a very promising performance by Arsenal, although one should point out that Liverpool lacked attacking options on the bench and on the field, and were somewhat naive in their defensive organization in midfield. Arsenal, on the other hand, just like in their first two games, continued to look assured and well-organized defensively as a team with every player picking the defensive tab with a seriousness not quite associated with Arsenal in the last couple of seasons. The most impressive Arsenal performers of the game were the midfield trio Arteta (whose experience, coolness on the ball and positional intelligence was delightful), Diaby (who had a dream-like box-to-box performance pushing forward, closing down, tackling and linking defense to attack) and Cazorla (who looked masterful in his free advanced playmaker role).