15 February 2014

Arsenal-Liverpool key match-up: Sagna vs. Sterling

In the build-up to Sunday's fifth-round FA Cup clash, almost all of the attention has focused on the final score, and for good reason. It's not often that a team scores five goals, and even less often that they do so in the first 20 minutes. In fact, Skrtel's two goals inside of ten minutes seemed to all but sealed the outcome before Arsenal had even gotten out of the locker-room. For as much attention as he garnered, and for as much as we focused on shutting down Suarez and Sturridge, Raheem Sterling took advantage to the tune of two goals for himself.

On Sterling's first goal to make it 3-0, Sagna struggled to track his run.
According to Brendan Rodgers, he brought in Sterling on the left "to penetrate and to control Bacary Sagna a little bit." It's difficult to assess how well Sterling controlled Sagna, given how early Liverpool established its lead, but it's quite easy to see how much penetration Sterling created, found, or was offered throughout the match. Of his five shots, all of them came inside the penalty-area, and two of them came inside the goal-box, that is, less than six yards away. Adding insult to injury, Sterling dribbled his defender successfully three out of five times and was fouled four times—no small consideration given the threat Liverpool poses from set-pieces, from which they've scored a league-leading 17 times (not that we need any reminder of that issue after conceding two such goals).

In the case of Sterling's goals, Rodgers's plan seems to have worked to perfection. On Liverpool's third goal, a quick counter-attack saw Sterling spring unmarked down our right flank while Sagna struggled to track back. In fact, Sterling ran from midfield to the six-yard box without a single defender in sight before slotting past a helpless Szczesny. Sagna, pushing up the pitch to try to help pull back a goal. Unfortunately, he was then up too high and out too wide to cover Sterling's run. For Sterling's second (and Liverpool's fifth), Sagna was less-directly responsible. However, he failed to commit to the passer or to Sterling, and Sterling was able to slip onsides to the lofted pass, find plenty of time to collect the ball, size up Szczesny, take a shot, collect the rebound, and slot home again.

Given this display, Sagna will have to remain closer to home even if this means he is less a part of the attack, at least early in the match. With Mertesacker on his left, and with the similarly pacey threats posed by Suarez and Sterling, discretion will have to be the better part of valor. Aside from the first two goals, we saw how quickly Liverpool could launch counter-attacks—three long balls, two of them covering 30-40 yards, decimated our back-line. Reinforcements of a sort may come with the return from suspension of Matthieu Flamini, and perhaps the elevation of Serge Gnabry to the right wing. His pace and defensive contribution could go a long way to curtailing the threat that Sterling offers.

Assuming we can prevent the early set-piece goals that put us on the back-foot, after all, we then have to contend with those lightning-quick counter-attacks. Do this, and we should see a very different match—and outcome—on Sunday. After all, Sagna's playing for a new contract, isn't he? How I'd love to see him remind the Arsenal board of what he's worth by shutting down Sterling or whoever it is that dares to make a move on him Sunday.