Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool: FA Cup hopes finished because we can’t finish

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On another day, Arsenal’s blistering start to this game might have seen us a couple of goals up inside the first 15 minutes. Mikel Arteta made changes, starting Reiss Nelson on the left ahead of Gabriel Martinelli, with Jorginho in midfield and Kai Havertz up front due to Gabriel Jesus picking up a knee injury.

He also handed a start to Aaron Ramsdale whose superb long pass in the third minute sent Nelson racing in behind the Liverpool defence. It was difficult, but I think he should have tried to hit it over the keeper first time, rather than take a touch and go around him. Having done that, could he have played a pass to Bukayo Saka rather than try and score from an impossible angle? I think so.

Arsenal were very much on top. Nelson had another shot, Havertz had a pop, a mistake by Liverpool allowed the German to pull the ball back, a move which ended with Martin Odegaard crashing a shot off the bar. It was one of those he had to hit high to get it past a clutch of defenders, but such are our fine margins in front of goal right now, it just a fraction above where it needed to be.

The game calmed down a bit then but we were still in the ascendancy. There was another chance for Havertz but he took too long to get his shot off and Liverpool got bodies in the way. Saka had a go. Rice had a go. Ben White hit a cracker which forced Alisson into a meaningful save. From the resulting corner, Havertz rose highest, but headed wide. He had to hit the target at least. There was another Havertz effort, before a warning sign just before the break when Alexander-Arnold hit the bar.

By any measure Arsenal had the best of the first 45 minutes, but had nothing to show for it. The inability to turn dominance into goals is a significant problem right now. What makes it most frustrating is how well we played against a team like Liverpool without being able to apply the finish. If we simply weren’t making chances, that would be one thing – and a worse thing in my opinion – but having opportunities and not putting them in the back of the net is very, very frustrating. It wasn’t quite the same, but there were shades of the Brighton performance, where so much was good until that final pass/shot.

On top of that, you know in your heart that if you play that well against a team as good as Liverpool and don’t make the most of it, you’re liable to get punished. They made a tactical tweak at the break which worked well for them, but they were always going to find their feet in this game. There were shots from Gomez and Nunez, and while it wasn’t one-way-traffic, they were certainly more threatening.

Still, we should have been ahead when a clever Odegaard free kick sent Havertz free in their box, he stood it up nicely, and I was firmly expecting Gabriel to thump home a header. He missed the ball somehow, before it came to Saka who hooked it over the bar. That was just before the hour mark. Arteta brought on Martinelli who caused Alexander-Arnold some problems initially, but as at Anfield couldn’t get beyond Konate.

Nunez had a chance to play in Diaz for a one on one with Ramsdale but messed up the pass. The Arsenal keeper made a superb save to deny Diaz, from the resulting corner Jota hit the bar with a header (out-jumping Saliba of all people!), and Nunez skewed a shot wide. Further warning signs from the visitors.

Without wanting to get too deep into the weeds here, the two Liverpool goals show precisely something we were lacking. The first came from a free kick deep in our half, and Alexander-Arnold curled in a dangerous ball which Jakub Kiwior somewhat unluckily headed into his own net. Set-pieces are only dangerous if you can deliver a good ball. He did. For the most part, we didn’t.

Bar one first half corner, and that free kick routine I mentioned, our set-pieces were sub-standard throughout. You can’t threaten the opposition goal if the defender at the near post has an easy header to clear it. It was good to see Trossard come on and float a corner into Alisson’s arms right at the death, keeping up his recent record of the most atrocious corners a professional footballer has ever taken. And by good, I mean fist-chompingly frustrating.

The goal that sealed it came so late the game was basically won at that point, but the word to describe the Diaz finish is emphatic. A powerful, decisive shot that left the keeper with no chance. Words to describe our finishing of late: tame, impotent, meek, feeble, imprecise, inadequate. The polar opposite of how Liverpool secured the win and passage into the fourth round.

Can we question the subs? It felt a bit like Arteta didn’t want to change anything because the performance was ok, but clearly the second half required something else to offset Liverpool’s improvement. Throwing on Eddie for Jorginho after they went 1-0 up was the essence of reactive, and did little to get us back into it. Waiting until the 87th minute to introduce Emile Smith Rowe and Leandro Trossard was a far more a roll of the dice than anything tactical.

There were things we could have done earlier. I love Bukayo Saka as much as the next person, and I understand his record is such that you want to keep him on, but there are days when it doesn’t happen for him and the manager needs to recognise that. He can be subbed, and I would have done so yesterday.

Ultimately though, if you do what we did in the first half and don’t score the goals that would have given you a half-time lead, you leave yourself open to, if not quite a sucker-punch, a biff in the nose that leaves you seeing stars. Liverpool were able to do that in the final stages of the game, and at that point we’d used up all our juice with nothing to show for it and not much left in the attacking tank.

Afterwards, Arteta was quizzed about the need for another striker, and said:

One thing is what we need, one thing is what we can do as well, and what we need to do now is stay behind those players. Give them support, love, train them and make sure they visualise something very different to what is actually happening right now. They’ve done it before, we’re not going to invent or reinvent the wheel because they have done it.

Which I do understand to some extent. I think these players are capable of scoring goals, and the only comfort – if you can call it that – is that we’re not sitting here this morning bemoaning the fact we can’t fashion a chance to save our lives. However, games are won and lost on your ability to put the ball in the back of the net, and we can’t do that at the moment. We are a side that is doing a lot of stuff very well, expect the one thing that matters most.

Leave the Fulham game and performance to one side, because I do think that’s essentially an aberration based on everything we’ve seen so far this season, but go back to Aston Villa and we paid the price for profligacy. It was the same against West Ham just after Christmas, and the same again yesterday. Valuable Premier League points, and a chance to win a cup competition have gone begging because we can’t finish our chances. It’s a major problem, and one that has to be fixed ASAP.

The clamour for a striker is understandable, but I think if people hitch their wagon to that as the only solution, there is going to be a lot of frustration in January, because I just can’t see that happening for reasons we’ve outlined before. Does that mean we don’t need something else in the forward line? Absolutely not. We 100% could use an addition, in my opinion (striker or wide player), but the manager’s message about backing the players we have is probably quite instructive with regards what might happen in the transfer market this month. He’s more or less telling us that external solution so many crave isn’t realistic this month, so the problem has to be solved from within.

There’s now a two week break, and some warm-weather training. Arteta says the break comes at a good time, and he’s probably right there. There is a need to reset, but not much need to analyse what has gone wrong, because it’s really not complicated. Fixing it, that might be more difficult, because it now feels as if the weight of not scoring is something the players are feeling, but they have time to shed some of that before we face Crystal Palace the weekend after next.

Right, let’s leave it there. We are recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around lunchtime. Until then.

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