This one is on Emery. Wrong shape. Wrong tactics. Not the ideal way to start the first review of the season. Not wishing to jinx the 100% start by introducing a review it’s time to revert to normality. As, of course, did Arsenal.
In truth we had chances in the first half. But we set back and attempted to resolutely defend. But we ceded the momentum and pitch to them. If the tactics were to hit them on the counterattack it did not work. Every time we had the ball we spent more time meticulously picking intricate passes in our own third. I can’t think of a single time when Leno punted the ball up field. I appreciate the dedication to possession football. But you have to do something with that possession. And when it breaks down in your own 1/3rd then you’re at risk. So, we were so slow in our build up that we rarely got to use the speed we had up front. In fact, there was very little link up play. The balance of the team seemed wrong. Willock out on the left was not involved that much. And after the Burnley hype Ceballos was barely in the game. After playing against the thugs of Burnley and shining brightly as effortlessly talented, today with their extra pace, quality and speed of closing down he found it impossible to get into the game and have any influence. So, there was no possession in the middle of the pitch. Guendouzi was too far infield; their left side was completely vacant. Robertson had the freedom to roam all day long. The plan seemed to be to crowd the center of the pitch and force them wide. That’s counterintuitive given the strength of their full backs.
We held out for 40 minutes which by our Anfield standards is a record. Their goal was coming but rather than from a wingback cross it was a corner. Then comes half-time. Time for a change in tactics. But Emery decided to stick rather than twist. Then Luiz looks to emulate the great Mustafa with the stupid penalty trick. And then gets beaten by Salah overcommitting on the half way line. So why am I not in a nuclear meltdown? If it had been Mustafa I surely would be. Because it’s not Mustafa. We’ve seen Luiz for too many years. We know he has mistakes in him. But with him in our defense we are a better team. We did not lose the game because of him. Given the amount the defenses had to absorb it’s unsurprising we conceded goals. The issue is more why we were in that position in the first place.
By the time the game was already lost we finally dumped the failed diamond and reverted to a regular 4-4-2. Sure, we scored but we also had some possession; though by then Liverpool were already in training mode. But at least we had Cigarette on the pitch. And Torreira. Even when Mickeytarrien came on he played quite well. Ceballos should have been removed sooner. And pushing Willock to the #10 was not the right move either.
Interestingly without Ob1 and Mustafa there are not too many players to pick on. But at least we still have, for that purpose, Xhaka. He was his ever slow and ponderous self. As the captain he should be taking responsibility when either side of him are 20 year old. Guendouzi was clearly outmanned on the left and Willock is not left-sided. And, well, Ceballos was over matched. But, really, it’s a stretch to identify too many players who you could blame for this defeat. Pepe looks like a star in the making. Aubameyang had a few chances but was isolated for too long. Generally, I thought the back four worked hard. Sokratis was excellent (apart from the Matip header). And Leno was fine.
So that leads us back to the manager. Why did he take so long to adjust to what was clearly visible to even a blind man. You could make the argument that until the corner on the 40th minute it had been working. We’d stifled Liverpool. But as soon as they scored and after half-time we continued on the same path. Why? Was he so scared of a mauling that we played so conservatively that we got mauled? Did this feel like another Baku performance? No, not really, there were too many good things from us. Maybe I’m delusional. I never had expectations that we’d beat Liverpool at Anfield. We’re not good enough. We’re better than last year. This squad is better. We do have better players. But we’re just not good enough. Yet. We need time. Another transfer window or two. And, just maybe, another manager. It’s a harsh assessment. But todays is not the day to blame the players. That’s on the mentality and tactics. After absorbing the first 10 minutes or so, we looked like a decent team except that we were outmanned in midfield. And remained so until the 80th minute.
Patience is the watchword for this season. Last season it was development. Now we have to assess, with this improved squad, whether Emery can get the best out of them. Can he decide on the right balance and tactics. Can he learn and adapt? I hope so. He has shown some signs of learning from his mistakes. Example #1 being Mustafa. But will he learn from todays performance? When we next play away against one of our (supposed) rivals will he set us up the same way? Is our defense better? It’s possible there is an improvement. There was better coverage in front of them except we gave up the wings and put ourselves under a lot of pressure. So, I can’t tell whether that’s really on the players or the manager? I think Luiz and Sokratis were pretty effective so that leads me back to Emery.
Aside from the score line, I thought we were better today than we’ve been in previous seasons at Anfield. There is a clear change in style being imposed. I think it’s misplaced and used at the wrong time. But I’ll generously put that down to it being the early stages of the reign of Emery. When it works, as it does against weaker teams that don’t press as well, it can be wonderful to watch. But to consistently try this at Anfield is optimism gone mad. Find that balance you need to counter-attack with your available speed. It would be like having Theo on the team and asking him to play intricate, skillful one touch passing in our own half. Oh, hold on, we did use to do that.
Anyway, I never thought we come away with a point from this game. But I want to see evolution of this team. This transfer window demonstrated we’re re-building to peak in another year or two. But we’re also entitled to expect better performances given the available talent that we have.
I’m not too upset nor despondent. I see green shoots sprouting up. But next week will be entirely different. That game won’t be about the future but about the here and now. We can expect to see Cigarette back in the team. And I’d like to see Torreira rather than Xhaka but I know that’s too much to wish for.