15 August 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 4-3 Arsenal

Match data from Stats Zone, except average player position from Liverpool FC.

"It was a game of contrast between two halves but I felt as well that mentally we kept going and we have been absolutely remarkable on that front. But I believe that the first goal was a big shock for us because we didn’t see that coming in the first half and maybe we didn’t recover from that." – Arsene Wenger

Not really.

No matter how bad Liverpool seemed in the first half – and it was pretty bad! – Arsenal didn't do much to Liverpool. Yes, Arsenal pressed effectively, taking advantage of Liverpool's struggles playing out from the back and the unfamiliar and underwhelming midfield. But Arsenal took fewer shots. Arsenal struggled to get its out-of-position lone striker into the game far more than Liverpool did. Arsenal created just one clear-cut chance: Walcott's penalty, completely unnecessary and unforgivable from Moreno. Arsenal's goal came from another self-induced horror show, with Lallana conceding possession and Moreno charging heedlessly upfield.

Meanwhile, Liverpool still had decent chances from Firmino (both missed), Mané (blocked), Klavan (blocked), and Wijnaldum (saved). 0-0 wouldn't have been an undue scoreline, far more deserved than the unfathomable 0-0 in this fixture last season where both sides where vastly better.

So if 0-0 would have been merited, it's hard to complain about 1-1. Yes, Liverpool needed an absolutely mind-boggling free kick from Coutinho to level matters, and yes, that probably did knock Arsenal for a loop (although they did have the same 15-minute break that Liverpool had to recover). But then Liverpool had that second half, as thoroughly dominating Arsenal in the opening 20 minutes as anyone's thoroughly dominated Arsenal, permanently camped in Arsenal half, with six shots to none, three goals to none, and something like 65% possession. From Coutinho's opener to Mané for Liverpool's fourth, Liverpool didn't put a single shot off-target: five shots on-target (four goals), two blocked.

For the most part, the match was even: from 1' to 45' and from 65' to 90'. But in those 20 minutes, Liverpool blew Arsenal completely out of every body of water. And that's why Liverpool deservedly won the match.

Arsenal were out-shot at home just three times last season: narrowly by Tottenham and Chelsea in a 1-1 draw and 0-1 loss respectively, and massively in a 2-1 win against Manchester City, where Arsenal scored two first-half goals and proceeded to hold the the defending champions at arm's length.

Two of those three matches – 0-1 Chelsea and 2-1 City – were the only two times that Arsenal were held under 10 shots at the Emirates last season. Despite conceding those three goals, Liverpool – for the most part – did well at both ends of the pitch, even if the middle was a bit shakier (especially in the first half).

As I've frequently mentioned, Liverpool's shot selection was fairly terrible last season, routinely settling for (or forced to take) too many shots from distance. Only 53.9% of Liverpool's 629 shots came inside the box last season, only five teams had a lower proportion of inside-the-box shots.

12 of Liverpool's 16 shots yesterday – 75% – came from inside the box, a proportion equalled or bettered in just three league matches last season: 1-3 at United (where Liverpool took just eight shots), 1-1 at Everton, and 1-0 against Swansea.

To be fairer, Liverpool were usually better in this regard against tougher opposition. 73% inside the box at Arsenal last season (15 shots), 62% at Chelsea (16 shots), 71% at City (14 shots). But not in all of the away games, with just 33% at Tottenham (12 shots) and 36% at Leicester (14 shots).

Liverpool's shooting, Liverpool's scoring, and Liverpool's result yesterday weren't completely out of the ordinary away from home against good opponents under Jürgen Klopp. I'm sure you remember 3-1 at Chelsea and 4-1 at Manchester City. Liverpool drew 0-0 with Tottenham in Klopp's first match. Klopp's sides have now travelled to Stamford Bridge, the Etihad, White Hart Lane, and the Emirates, and are unbeaten, with three wins and one draw, with a +6 goal difference (11 scored, five conceded). I'm quite tempted to say "bring on Old Trafford and Goodison," but you know how I feel about tempting fate.

Nonetheless, this was the first time Arsenal conceded four goals at the Emirates in more than seven years, since a 4-1 loss to Chelsea in May 2009. These are the only two matches where Arsenal conceded four at the Emirate since the stadium opened a decade ago. As mentioned in the match review and in numerous other places, it's only the second time that Liverpool have won at Arsenal in the last 16 seasons, in both league and cup competition.

Liverpool scored from a set play – having scored just two direct free kicks in all competitions last season. Liverpool scored twice from extended, patient, probing build-up, including that unbelievable, 19-pass, 1:17-long third goal. And Liverpool scored from a counter-attack blitz, winning possession then letting Mané do Mané. The goals were varied, and the attacks were varied, and Liverpool profited immensely.

And while Liverpool's scoring feats, especially in the 20-minute post-halftime blitz, garnered all the headlines, Liverpool's killing of the game after conceding a third was nearly as impressive.

Liverpool mostly restricted Arsenal to the middle third and the right flank, keeping Arsenal out of dangerous positions. Liverpool weren't massively out-possessed, doing reasonably well in maintaining possession once winning possession and trying to get into Arsenal's half. But at the same time, when Liverpool had to hoof clear, Liverpool were happy to hoof clear and regroup. Liverpool took the only two shots during this stretch: Firmino and Henderson's apparently on-target efforts necessarily blocked.

And Liverpool's secure defense wasn't down to a supreme tackling or intercepting performance, with Arsenal forced to make more defensive actions to stop potential Liverpool attacks rather than vice versa. Liverpool were simply well-organized, with two solid bands of five and four in midfield and defense. Liverpool stayed in position and stayed compact without dropping too deep. Klavan and Lovren were both impressive, heading and hoofing multiple crosses clear. And Liverpool made sure not to give away stupid, dangerous free kicks, committing just three fouls – all deep in Arsenal's half – while winning four time-wasting free kicks in the middle third.

But Liverpool would still need help. Arsenal twice made it into Liverpool's box in added time. Walcott stood on the ball and fell over in the first instance (albeit with three Liverpool defenders in position to possibly block or tackle); Cazorla's cross hit Monreal in the back after a lay-off in the second instance. Luck's good and being good is good, but it's always best to be lucky and good.

Yes, Arsenal have been consistently poor on opening day for a while now, with a record of 1W-3D-3L since 2010-11. Yes, Arsenal missed Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Gabriel in defense, and Özil and Giroud in attack. Yes, Liverpool have been better away from home against good sides, especially compared to Liverpool's record – both home and away, but more so away – against the lesser lights who won't and don't give Liverpool space to play or space to counter. Yes, Liverpool still have multiple areas where improvement's needed.

But this is still a very welcome way to start the campaign. The next goal is making those phenomenal 20 minutes happen more regularly. Liverpool need to hit these heights – heights we infrequently saw last season, but saw nonetheless – with much more consistency.

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