Liverpool's style is taking shape, but problems loom

Posted by James Martin

There was a time when folks joked that Arsenal was the best Spanish team in the Prem. Pretty passes, triangle after triangle, keeping the ball on the floor -- the Gunners were lovely to watch, a poor-man's Barcelona. Leave it to their opponents to rely almost exclusively on fast, and sometimes crude, counterattacks. Arsenal would bring the sizzle. Except, of course, its style of play has rendered its trophy cabinet threadbare for seven years and counting.

Which made the match at Anfield on Sunday a curious affair. It wasn't Arsene Wenger's men who put on the slickest demonstration of football. That accolade belonged to Liverpool. Yet the final score -- 2-0 to the Gunners for their first league win of the season -- is ultimately what matters most.

For large portions of the match, Brendan Rodgers' side dominated possession and outmaneuvered the Gunners with short passes and exceptional positional movement. Kudos to Joe Allen, whom Rodgers brought over from Swansea City, for helping Liverpool fans forget about the injured Lucas. The wee Welsh footballer barely put a foot wrong; in the first half alone, he completed all 39 of his passes, seven of them in the attacking third. He kept things ticking over.

But there was a problem in the first 45 minutes for the Reds -- their talisman, Steven Gerrard. While Rodgers wants Liverpool to play possession-based football, Gerrard still desires fast breaks. Where Rodgers sees short passes, Gerrard envisions longer ones. Too many times, quick interchanges were snuffed out not by Arsenal's pressure but by Gerrard's poor touch or inability to stick to the game plan.

In short, he looked out of place, a square peg in a round hole. He did become more effective in the second half once Rodgers moved him up closer to Luis Suarez, presumably so that Liverpool's buildup play in the midfield wouldn't lose momentum. We saw Gerrard hit a nice ball into the box from the right side in the 64th minute and a beautiful one-touch redirect pass to Suarez in the 86th minute. Overall, though, you have to wonder how Gerrard will fit into this Liverpool side over the long term.

And despite all the wonderful passing, the Reds were ineffective up top. Suarez continued to play the role of pantomime villain, remonstrating at every knock, kick, push and pull, yet still failing to get on the score sheet. Why he didn't drive the ball low and hard into the near post when Gerrard played him through is anyone's guess. Instead, the Uruguayan opted to try to dink the ball over Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone when the angle to do so simply didn't exist.

In the end, Rodgers took off the ineffectual Fabio Borini for Stewart Downing in the 54th minute and Jonjo Shelvey came on for Nuri Sahin, who was rather quiet in his Liverpool debut. And therein lied Rodgers' second headache -- a lack of striking options on the bench, a problem made all the more glaring now that Andy Carroll was sent out on loan to West Ham, where he shone on Saturday.

Did Rodgers expect to get someone else in on transfer deadline day? What's Plan B when Suarez is too busy finding theatrical ways to miss the goal?

The manager was praised for his possession-based football at Swansea, but let's also not forget that while that side was beautiful to watch (the day it out-passed Arsenal has become the stuff of legend) most of its ball-possession occurred in areas that didn't trouble the opposition. To wit: The Swans were the lowest, at 17 percent, for average percentage of all successful passes in the final third last campaign.

Rodgers has some great players on this Liverpool team, but he's going to have to figure out how to get more cut-and-thrust from them. As it stands, the Reds are off to their worst league record after three games (one draw, no wins) since the 1962-63 season.

Arsenal, meanwhile, finally got on the score sheet after 211 minutes of league play. The first goal, made possible by a wayward Gerrard pass to Suarez, led to a whiz-bang counterattack that ended when Lukas Podolski scored. In the German, Arsenal has a player (albeit a streaky one) who isn't afraid to take on players. Forget about trying to pass the ball into the net -- Podolski had one thing on his mind.

Arsenal's much-maligned defense has also now notched its third clean sheet in a row. Even Carl Jenkinson (Carl Jenkinson!) had bright moments.

The second goal, a nice one-two from Podolski to Santi Cazorla, should have been stopped by Pepe Reina, who has had a bit of a nightmarish start to this campaign (not all his fault, mind you). And Liverpool might have had a legitimate penalty claim when Per Mertesacker pushed Suarez in the box in the 51st minute. Then again, Suarez could have tried to stay on his feet and finish, too, but his modus operandi is all about trying to agitate for fouls, cards and penalties.

His theatrics aren't fun to watch, but Liverpool certainly put on a show at times at Anfield. But as any long-suffering Arsenal fan can tell you, the sexiest stat isn't possession -- it's what's on the scoreboard at the final whistle.


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