Arsenal has defeated Premier League champions, Liverpool on penalties to lift the Community Shield trophy.
Mikel Arteta’s great Wembley summer has been built on a tactical sleight of hand that he might have expected the opposition to anticipate by now, but three victories in and the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plan is still working just fine.
The Premier League champions Liverpool found themselves the latest team to leave the backdoor open to the Arsenal captain who scored his fifth goal at the stadium in three games and converted the winning penalty in the shoot-out. First Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final, then Chelsea in the subsequent final discovered the confidence of Arsenal in playing out from the back can be a dangerous thing when the switch is on to Aubameyang on the left in this kind of form.
More difficult to judge Liverpool on these terms other than to say they missed the absent Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose job it would have been to take care of Aubameyang. Mohamed Salah will rarely be less influential than he was in this game and although the basic principles of Jurgen Klopp’s title-winning season was in evidence with 60 per cent of the possession, the aggression in his players’ press was never enough to unsettle Arsenal’s three centre-halves.
The modern Liverpool will not function properly playing at less than the intensity that Klopp demands, although even this side were capable of taking the game to penalties – coming back after a major tactical switch just before the hour from the German coach. Among those changes was the introduction of Takumi Minamino, the Japan international who arrived in January and struggled to stake a claim in the Liverpool side that powered its way to an insurmountable lead in the Premier League before lockdown.
He scored his first goal for the club for the equaliser and perhaps more importantly the switch meant that the full-back Neco Williams no longer had Aubameyang on his shoulder – the teenager being nowhere near the Arsenal striker when he scored. That had been Klopp’s chief concern in the first half and he finally moved Joe Gomez out to right-back after the break, switching to a 4-2-3-1 system in which Minamino was industrious.
Liverpool had more of the ball but like other teams that have tried and failed to break down Arteta’s side, they had few chances. The back three favoured by Arteta which flexes easily into a five-man defence is hard to break down and Ainsley Maitland-Niles had another fine Wembley game on the left side of that. He was one of three academy graduates in the starting XI with a further two, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson, sent on to see out the last ten minutes. Yet having had to defend for much of the 90 minutes, Arsenal finished the game the stronger.
It was quite a spectacle to watch, in this case, David Luiz and Rob Holding dropping to the edge of the six-yard box and attempting to pass the best front three in the English game out of the phase of play. Yet that was the basis for the goal Arsenal scored early in the game, five minutes after Virgil van Dijk had one in the net flagged for offside. Later, with a lead to defend, Emiliano Martinez would shoo his defenders upfield at goal-kicks and launch the ball forward. When it matters, Arteta is not afraid to change the approach and ask his players to fight for it in midfield.
Arsenal’s goal was the kind they have scored before at Wembley – most notably against City in the FA Cup semi-final six weeks earlier. It began with the high-stakes penalty area passing sequence, yards from their own goal progressing to the crafty escape. The ferocious Liverpool press that broke so many sides last season was just not quite sharp enough to shut Arsenal down and so out they came with a familiar menace.
This was the way in which City and Chelsea were beaten in the FA Cup’s closing stages, tempted deep into the soft heart of Arsenal only to realise too late that it was them who were ultimately vulnerable to the ball in behind. All of this requires a master finisher of course, and it was Aubameyang wrapping a shot around Alisson with his right foot that completed the move. Before then, however, it had required some courage in the build-up too.
There was an assist for the goal from Bukayo Saka who made the switch from right to left to Aubameyang and it was the 18-year-old who would later roll the ball into the path of Eddie Nketiah for another chance on 18 minutes with Arsenal in the lead. There was a crispness to that move that suggested a renewed confidence in the side, their sense of stability having grown as it did in the FA Cup final ties.
Williams, 19, never got close enough to Aubameyang although there is much that the Arsenal man can do with even a little space. The second half was more a question of survival for Arsenal, going long with the goal-kicks and dropping deep in midfield. They are not yet at the stage of their development where they would continue to press forward in defending a lead, and Arteta knows their limitations better than anyone. Yet they remained solid as Liverpool took over the territory and pressed them back. Martinez made the best save of the game when he stopped Sadio Mane’s shot at point blank on 56 minutes.
The Liverpool goal was made by a ricochet off the Arsenal substitute Cedric Soares into the path of Minamino who had tried to push his original pass in the direction of Salah. It was a tidy finish that makes him the first Liverpool player to score his first goal for the club at Wembley. Nine of the ten penalties were thumped, rolled or placed past the respective goalkeepers save the fifth that Rhian Brewster, a second half substitute, lashed against the bar.
Brewster’s future this season is yet to be decided with him either staying at Liverpool or returning on loan to Swansea City. If there is a penalty to miss in a shoot-out than a Community Shield at an empty Wembley on a rainy day in late August is the one. They were clearing the streamers off the pitch within minutes of the trophy presentation. Arsenal had plotted another surprise win and, when the season begins, one suspects there will be a few more who struggle to cope with them.
Source: The African Media