(screw the Men’s World Cup, this is where the real action’s at)
Liverpool’s defence of their league title is struggling, with three consecutive draws leaving them 2 points off the summit before today’s game, and a defeat against winless, managerless and almost goalless Arsenal showing a surprising lack of creativity and defensive stability, after their solid opening to the season. Arsenal didn’t create too many chances themselves, but their effectiveness from set pieces and stronger midfield display both won them the game, and prevented Liverpool form playing the open, attacking game they are so dangerous with.
Academy boss, and temporary manager, John Bayer got his tactics spot-on for the visitors; their 4-4-2 suggested an open system, with Ohno and Smith up front and Yankey and Carter both attacking down the wings – it was the same team that took Everton apart in the FA Cup Final four weeks ago. However, Yankey and Carter tracked back on Liverpool wingers Davison and Longhurst, and although BT commentator Lucy Ward bemoaned their defensiveness, it was very effective. Although they were limited going forward – Yankey was reduced to hitting long balls from the left up to Ohno, as she did at the start of the second half – they killed the Liverpool attack.
Also, their lack of width wasn’t really a problem because of their effectiveness from set pieces; Carter challenged Liverpool’s otherwise excellent keeper Gibbons on a 55th minute corner, leaving space for Stoney to bundle the ball into the Liverpool goal for the game’s only score, and on the subsequent two corners, substitute Williamson marked Gibbons arguably more effectively, heading just over the bar with her first touch in the 70th minute.
The Arsenal midfield was also more compact than Liverpool’s; the absence of Nobbs was filled by Bailey, who shut down Liverpool’s creative midfielders Da Costa and Zelem, and Kelly Smith dropped deeper to link midfield and attack, leaving Ohno up front to challenge the Liverpool back line; conversely, when Liverpool’s lone striker Dowie dropped into midfield, she had no-one ahead of her to link with – Davison and Longhurst were often too wide to offer support – and so Arsenal managed to have fewer central midfield players than Liverpool, but used them far more effectively.
Arsenal were arguably better individually; their wide players – Mitchell and Yankey on the left, Scott, Carter and Williamson on the right – all played like wing-backs, getting forward and back to cover each other’s runs, while the Liverpool wingers were far more attack-minded, and so any overlaps by Schroder or Bronze left the Liverpool centre-halves exposed; the best chance of the first half came when Carter exploited pace to the left of Liverpool’s penalty area to fire over the bar, and the corner was created when Ohno ran into Liverpool’s left-back area, and had her shot blocked by Bonner.
But Arsenal didn’t create much themselves, instead exploiting Liverpool’s weakness on set pieces and their space behind the full-backs, and so more organised defences could be tougher to break down; Ward noted that Smith was not dictating the game in front of the Liverpool defence as she did against Everton, and her influence was limited to hitting cross-field passes to the full-backs, or winning corners off angry Liverpool defenders in added time to close the game out, a useful, but not particularly invaluable, role.
Matt Beard’s side were far less impressive, both as a team and individuals; the midfield three of Williams, Zelem, and Da Costa was neither attack- or defence-minded; they lacked the energy of Omarsdottir who was impressive against Manchester City in protecting the back four, but still played with two deeper midfielders, Williams and Da Costa, both of whom are more creative. This meant their creators were too deep to link defence and attack, and lacked the physicality to overcome Arsenal’s midfield two of Bailey and Kinga, both of whom ran tirelessly. For instance, Liverpool had 60% of possession by the 33rd minute, but their only chance came from a Da Costa header off a corner after 10 minutes, and Katie Longhurst’s first action was to tackle Arsenal’s Mitchell in the 21is minute.
Also, Davison began roaming from the right wing early on, but this crowded the left, with Longhurst and Schroder, and the centre, with three creative players, already present; I think a reason for Mitchell’s good performance at left-back was that Davison rarely ran at her, instead drifting centrally to no avail. This also lopsided the Liverpool defence, as it let the tireless Yankey and Mitchell overload on the exposed Bronze at right-back; its no surprise that Arsenal quickly moved the pacey Carter to the left wing to run at Bronze, leading to a penalty shout in the 35th minute.
Natasha Dowie was also a frustrated figure, isolated from the midfielders and the wingers, leaving her to go up against Stoney, Fahey, and the six-foot keeper Byrne alone; you can’t blame her commitment, winding the Arsenal keeper jumping for a long ball in the second half, but she rarely got a chance to score. The key problem, however, was that when her chance did come, a one-on-one in the 61st minute, she scuffed her shot, meaning that the Liverpool attack failed on both individual and tactical levels.
But Liverpool weren’t awful; Bronze was effective attacking from the right, and they were only undone by very poor play on set pieces, especially the goalkeeper Gibbons who, it is worth noting, is a backup and played excellently otherwise, which can be improved upon with experience and training. Also, Beard’s changes were encouraging, withdrawing the industrious but ineffective advanced midfielder Zelem on 63 minutes for the holding midfielder Frausing, and pushing Da Costa into the attacking midfield role she flourished in against Manchester City in April. I feel there just needs to be more attacking cohesion between the Liverpool front three; I raved about them earlier in the season, but they’ve scored just twice in five league games.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Gibbons; Schroder, Bonner, Easton, Bronze; Da Costa (Harris 85), Zelem (Frausing 63), Williams; Longhust (Walker 63), Dowie, Davison
Subs not used: Stout, Steward, Dale, Hodson
Arsenal (4-4-2): Byrne; Mitchell, Fahey, Stoney, Scott; Yankey, Bailey, Kinga, Carter (Williamson 70); Smith, Ohno
Subs not used: Chamberlain, Hoogendijk, Williamson, Murray, Ayisi, Weir
Goals: Stoney 55
Referee: A. Tankard