Friday, April 04, 2008

Arsenal vs Liverpool, Round 2

Time for game 2 of the Arsenal and Liverpool series. Even though it may look tiring to play the same opponent in quick succession, each game presents a different flavour and in turn a unique challenge. The first game was meant for Arsenal to gain a good advantage, maybe a 1-0 or even a two goal lead while Liverpool's intentions were to sit back and limit Arsenal to just one goal, or get an away goal themselves. The second game means more to Arsenal than Liverpool as Arsenal need 3 precious points, while a single point might do for Liverpool; the game itself should present some of the Liverpool subs with a chance to make their mark. It is only in the third game that one would see Liverpool try to attack and get a goal in front of their home crowd. Prior to the three games, Liverpool would have been happy with two goal-less draws in the first two games, with a 1-0 win in the third. In Arsenal's case, it was always about winning the three games and scoring goals. So Arsenal's task was always going to be harder, while Liverpool would be content to sit back for 2 of the three games.

History and all that:

In the 200 games that the two teams have played against each other, Liverpool hold a slight edge with 80 wins compared to Arsenal's 70 with 50 games being tied. The 10 game winning margin presents itself in the 167 league meetings between as Liverpool have 68 wins compared to Arsenal's 58. The first time these teams played each other was in the old second Division when Liverpool thumped Arsenal 5-0 back on Oct 1893. In fact, Liverpool won the first 4 meetings with Arsenal, outscoring the Gunners 12-0. It was only in 1905 when both teams were in Division 1 did Arsenal manage a 3-1 victory over Liverpool.

Historically, there have been cases where both these teams played each other more than 3 times in a season. In the 1979/80 season, the two played each other 7 times, with 4 of those games being an F.A Cup tie in the days of playing replays until a winner was found. In the 1981/82 season, the two met 4 times, while a 5 game meeting took place in that eventful 1988/89 season when Arsenal won that memorable away game to Anfield 2-0 to take the title. Arsenal played Livepool 4 times in the 1989/90 season, with another 4 games taking place last season thanks to the two Cup games in quick succession when Arsenal went to Anfield and came away with 6-3 (League Cup) and 3-1 wins (F.A Cup).

Given the number of games between Arsenal and Liverpool, there have been plenty of memorable moments from matches. Anfield 1989 stands out because that title provided the foundation for the current era of Arsenal success. The 4-2 Highbury win provided a calm path towards the unbeaten title in 2004. The F.A Cup loss in 2001 also stands out because of the manner in which Arsenal lost -- Arsenal dominated the game, created plenty of chances yet only took a 1-0 lead, before two late goals sunk them. Arsenal would find that pattern of dominating possession, creating plenty of chances, yet not winning repeated again and again over the last 7 years.

Create at one end, prevent at the other:

In a match if a team creates atleast 7-10 goal scoring chances, then it would be a good result if they scored 2 or 3 goals. Also, it is important on how many chances the team limits the opposition to. If the opponent is limited to a few chances and either only one goal is conceded or the team keeps a clean sheet, then victory is assured. In order to win, a good balance is required between the attack and defense. However, wins can still be achieved if one part is much more stronger than the other. George Graham's Arsenal teams had a rock solid defense and had a good chance to keep a clean sheet, so the attack could get away with only one goal (Alan Smith's lone strike in the 1994 Cup Winner's Cup final is a perfect example). When Wenger took over, he inherited that solid defense. So that allowed Wenger to build on that and modify the team's attack. The goals flowed in and the defense held firm. When GG's defense started aging away and disappearing, at first it was not a problem as Arsenal kept creating plenty of changes and scoring enough goals to get by. Only when the chances were limited and the goals dried up, the limitations of the poor defense came into focus.

Given that plenty of Wenger teams have fallen prey to similar defensive mistakes like being caught out by long balls, poor at defending set-pieces, it does not seem likely that over-night the Arsenal team would start having a rock solid defense. If the mistakes have not been fixed over a span over 4-5 years, they certainly won't start correcting themselves in a matter of weeks. So that leaves more pressure to ensure that the attack can carry a large burden on their shoulders. But in order to score goals, chances have to be created. If in a game a team only creates 5 chances, then the pressure is on the team to take full advantage. Out of those 5 changes, if one chance is incorrectly called back for off-side, or a valid penalty not given, then the pressure on the team increases as they have to extra sharp in front of goal as the next chance might not come for a long while.

Advantage creator vs Advantage destructor:

As history and every day life show, it is easy to destruct rather than create. Likewise, it is easier to break up a team's creative play than it is for a team to creatively split open an opponent's defense. Liverpool have flaunted their destructive mentality in the Champions league for the last 3 years and Wednesday's game was no exception. So on Sat, once again the pressure will be on Arsenal again to take advantage of Liverpool's sit-back & watch approach. Arsenal need an early goal on Sat to break Liverpool's shell mentality. But before a goal is scored, a chance has to be created.

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