Liverpool 1—Arsenal 1

Both sides rue the loss of an opening day win, but can consider results positive.

 

Chamak header still Just before Pepe Reina conceded the equalizer. In replays, it's difficult to see how Marouane Chamakh struck the ball.

 

Liverpool: who are they at this point? With almost nothing coherent emerging out of the disarray, no one could predict what kind of team would show up.

Liverpool’s recent history could be used as an aid for teaching children the concept of entropy. At the same time, having earned the reputation as a consistently dull viewing experience, Liverpool looks closer to a sclerotic version of itself than to a wounded animal or scorned spouse. They could have stepped on to the pitch and into disaster, the plaster nose breaking off without warning, followed by a finger, then a limb at the elbow, or—if one sees the current state of things as emasculation—something far worse.

It seemed equally plausible that they could make compartments in their minds and play the game without burden, put everything aside and crawl into the quarter harboring the Liverpool identity of two seasons ago, in a time before all that has happened or at least before it was visible.

The 1—1 draw turned out to be a little disastrous and somewhat inspired. Given the circumstances, this was a positive result. Liverpool surrendered the three points in stoppage time through an uncharacteristic goalkeeping error by Pepe Reina, but for nearly the entirety of the second half, a 10-man Liverpool held Arsenal scoreless.

No team would like to open their season against a Liverpool team in the midst an identity crisis. How does the opponent figure out whom these guys are when preparing to play against them, if these very same guys don’t know themselves? For Arsenal, the answer is simple: have a complete faith in the application of a philosophy regardless of opponent, or as Arséne Wenger often puts it— we just want to play our game. Precedent has shown that this wholesale fidelity carries along its shadow of pathologies and alter egos. 

The result was a bit flat for Arsenal, but the draw can be considered a positive result as well, considering Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were (still are) out, Laurent Koscielny was shown a red card on his debut, and Manual Almunia was blamed (a little unfairly) for David N’gog’s superb goal.

Of course, the most positive result needs little parsing and qualification. An opening day win is three points, a good start, and little else. After five years without a trophy, Arsenal supporters are anxious and increasingly impatient—hence the reiterations of faith. They seek signs in anything to indicate that this is the year potential will be fulfilled and the shadow exorcized. A truly good result would have been closer to last season’s 6-1 opening day win away at Everton. This can hardly be considered a credible measurement of improvement, but the urgent search for answers uses a microscope and casts a wide net. 

There is nothing conclusive to take away from the season’s first match. Premises remain intact and questions unanswered. There are only projections and inferences to take away, which may later prove one’s ability to correctly read the hieroglyphics surrounding both clubs.

Liverpool’s star players must be unsettled— Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, and Pepe Reina have never won a league title, and all are in their prime or somewhere post-prime. They’ve started to fear that they will never win a league title, at least not with Liverpool. This sense of mortality is further leaden when considering the two Englishmen are Liverpool lifers.

Understandably unsettled, each in turn has publicly reaffirmed commitment to the club. They have earned the empathy of supporters, but it is far from clear how they will respond over time.

Javier Mascherano is a separate case for two reasons. Signs indicate that unsettled has become discontent (childishly expressed at times). He has not tempered or withheld his feelings as the others have, and looks the most likely to leave despite recently signing a new contract. He is also the only player in this group who has won a league title (twice in South America).

What will now be Joe Cole’s slow start of the season delays assessment of what kind of player he still is. Milan Jovanovic and Christian Poulsen, two shoestring signings, have not played in the Premier League and how they will fare is anyone’s guess.

Roy Hodgson’s task to bring stability to the club has found expression in the noble but masochistic absorption of everyone’s anxiety. It may prove too much to bear if his demeanor on the sideline is any indication.

Statistically, Laurent Koscielny’s red card will neither reflect the misdemeanors committed nor turn him into a fledgling Nigel de Jong. Further, it doesn’t expose him as a whistleblower for those seeking to brand Wenger’s tackling crusade hypocritical.

Almunia, beaten on his near side, has been indicted with poor positioning. Arguably, his positioning could have been better, but this diminishes N’gog’s achievement, which could have made a better positioning irrelevant. More importantly, the criticism attempts to add to the story of Almunia’s failures, but ignores the fact that the goal came from a defensive mistake at the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area. In truth, Almunia should never have had to face this shot and the goal points to systemic issues larger than any individual position.

 

Almunia positioning rear David N’gog beating the often beaten-up Manuel Almunia near side.

 

Arsenal prefers to pass the ball out of defense rather than boot it aimlessly upfield or safely play the ball out of bounds; backed into the corner and under pressure doesn’t change this. Often Arsenal is successful, but in the case of N’gog’s goal, the margin for error was incredibly small. Andrei Arshavin made a good short pass to Wilshere, setting the outlet pass, except that Wilshire let it roll past him instead of taking possession. From here it was easy for Liverpool to take advantage; the setup and shot took place in a flash.

Playing out of the back is determined by Arsenal’s strategy of keeping as much possession as possible. In Arsenal’s system, possession is a key principle of their power, a means to expressing its greatest capacities. Possession simply denies it to the other team. After 70 minutes of chasing the ball around, opponents become physically and mentally fatigued, and their vulnerability exposed. 

Arséne Wenger’s affinity for possession lies in the imposed deprivation that serves the offensive-minded structure, an advantage that suffocates rather than kicks or punches. But possession is equally a strategy of defense for many of the same reasons. Possession provides a strong ground from which to operate. It controls the game’s primary objects—ball, space, time, and pace. It also has a protective and conservative function, particularly in the middle of the pitch or with a lead late in the game. But it can become risky when it takes the form of playing out of the back. Possession comes into contradiction with sensible defensive decisions.

 

Arshavin plays out of defense quality image Andrei Arshavin and Jack Wilshere (center-left) just before N’gog’s goal. Where conservatism and risk are confused.

 

Retaining possession by playing out of the back may have another, albeit unwanted function, and one Arsenal hopes to disable. Opponents are well aware of Arsenal’s vulnerability to set pieces. Conceding corner kicks, and in some instances, throw-ins forces them to uncomfortably defend. In the conservative and risk-averse effort to avoid these situations, Arsenal attempt to keep possession, which becomes a risky compensation for defensive deficiencies.

Citing positives for each team draws a promising horizon dotted with fluffy little clouds. But one must be wary of stretching the connection of dots. At any moment the sky could gray and shape-shift into something warily recognizable.

 

8/17/10

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