Joe Cole will have little fondness to remember his debut for Liverpool, though he should draw lessons from the brief time he did spend on the pitch. There was a masterclass on show at Anfield of how to play the central role behind a lone striker, but it was not delivered by the England midfielder.
Arsenal moved the ball far more accurately in the first half, maintaining better width than Liverpool, with Emmanuel Eboué and Abou Diaby offering enough physical strength to assist the smaller, attack-minded trio of Andrey Arshavin, Jack Wilshere and, critically, Samir Nasri.
When Eboué moved inside from the touchline, Bacary Sagna advanced and rarely kicked away the ball in possession, preferring to stroke easy, angled passes to the available Nasri or Marouane Chamakh.
Arshavin, who may have preferred to play loose behind the lone forward, held the left side. It was Nasri, given the central role, who gave a fine first-half exhibition of the requirements in this position.
With Diaby intercepting and holding his ground and Wilshere passing comfortably with more licence to break, Nasri showed Cole how to play off a solitary striker. The France international was constantly mixing up his game in a bid to unsettle the deep-lying Javier Mascherano and drag him out of his comfort zone: he came short and linked with colleagues; he went wide to overload and make two versus one situations (see diagram); and he was always aware of his movement to free himself, find space and attract the ball.
In a similar Liverpool set-up, Cole gave himself 45 minutes to make an impression before he was fairly punished for an over-enthusiastic lunge on Laurent Koscielny. He failed because he stayed too central and did not pose the towering Diaby a problem. With Arsenal's defence playing a high line – they caught David Ngog offside three times early on – the space was more squeezed and Cole was lost in the clutter of bodies. Contrast that with Liverpool, who sat deep, granting Nasri more room to exploit.
Back at Chelsea, Cole had always relished the chance to play the free role behind a front man, even if rarely granted the opportunity. However, if Roy Hodgson continues with 4-2-3-1 with Cole sitting behind Ngog or Fernando Torres, the midfielder will have to show more imagination and movement to drag central holding players away from their shielding position. Here, in the first half, he was unable to eke out room to receive or make an incisive pass, or find an opportunity for a shot in a mediocre contribution. He must learn from his afternoon of disappointment.
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