Why criticism of Masuaku vs. Liverpool has been completely unfair

Author: . Published: at 9:10pm

Written by @gingesteel

I have seen countless calls for Arthur Masuaku to be dropped in favor of Aaron Cresswell after one match against Liverpool, where we conceded 4 goals. As a team, the defense and midfield were objectively very poor. Pelligrini employed a high-line that our players were unfamiliar and unexperienced with, resulting in a dreadful team display. As the narrative typically goes, Masuaku was picked out as the scapegoat of the back-line.

However, to say that Masuaku was single-handedly at fault for any of the goals is a naïve, kneejerk reaction that requires further examination. First, let’s compare a couple of Masuaku’s numbers to his counterpart on the right, Ryan Fredericks. For those who argue that Masuaku was a poor ball-distributer, he surpassed Ryan Fredericks in his passing statistics, accumulating 32/41 successful passes (78%). Meanwhile, Fredericks completed 18/26 successful passes (69%). Furthermore, his “passes completed” statistic was one of the higher numbers on our team, with only Balbuena (34), Noble (59), and Wilshere (33) completing more. While Masuaku was by no means excellent going forward, to single him out against a Liverpool side who employs one of the fiercer presses in the league is unfair.

Most of our fans’ grievances with Masuaku actually stemmed from his defensive ability, which also requires further examination.  It would not be unreasonable to say that for the most part, Salah had limited room to work with on the left. In fact, a couple of neutrals whom I watched with were of the opinion that Salah was virtually “pocketed” most of the game (of course, with the exception of his goal that I will return to later). Almost every single threatening attack came down Liverpool’s left side through Mane and Robertson. Of Liverpool’s shots, 22% came down their left, 78% came through the middle, and 0% came from their right – that’s right, 0%. This is despite the plurality of Liverpool’s attacks being initiated down the right (40%). This is no doubt to the credit of Masuaku.

But, perhaps the most telling is an examination of Salah’s statistics. In the 2017/18 season, Salah found movement down the right somewhat easy with an average of 2.44 successful take-on’s per game (63.56% success rate). However, last Sunday, Salah only completed 1 successful dribble out of 4 (25%). This is much to the credit of Masuaku who completed 100% of his attempted tackles (4/4) on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, you could see these numbers manifest on the pitch as whenever Salah drove at Masuaku, Masuaku typically come out on top. Salah found space very hard to come by on the right, leading to Liverpool switching the play to the left where Mane and Robertson had a field day against our inexperienced right side.

So what about those four goals? I went back and looked at them. On the first, I would say that it would be unfair to single-out Masuaku. On the second, Masuaku was put in a very difficult position due to Felipe Anderson, Mark Noble, Jack Wilshere, and Declan Rice, positioning. On the third, it is not even worth analyzing as it was not a legitimate goal. On the fourth, Snodgrass had a beautiful assist to Sturridge at the back post where Fredericks was beat. I will further explain the first two goals, as Mausaku was directly involved in them.

On the first goal, the catalyst for this goal was poor positioning by Ryan Fredericks.

This is a screenshot of when Naby Keita played Robertson in. As you can see, Masuaku is doing his primary job by holding the defensive line. Salah is standing 1-2 yards offside, which is key to understanding why he was so free on the tap-in. On the other side, Ryan Fredericks is pinched unusually narrow. This gives Keita the chance to play Robertson in with a beautiful, penetrating ball that catches our center-backs off-guard. If Fredericks is wider, he takes away the option the penetrating pass from Keita and he is in position to stop Keita should Keita decide to continue dribbling into the box. Because Fredericks is so narrow, Keita has no problem playing Robertson in, who can then play a ball across the 6-yard box to Salah. Because Salah started off in an offside position, Masuaku looks as though he is well-beat, when in reality Salah started off offside and was only played onside by Keita’s pass that was due to Fredericks’ position. Furthermore, because of how deep Keita could play the pass, Ogbonna and Balbeuna are both not in position to clear the ball before it gets the back post. Normally, they would be able, and expected to do so. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to blame Masuaku as he was in the right position and only looked beat because Fredericks made a mental mistake which put Ogbonna, Balbuena, and Masuaku into a difficult position. Furthermore, this is simply exceptional positioning from Salah who recognized Fredericks’ position and knew he could venture offside and get away with it.

On the second goal, it may be more fair to hold Masuaku somewhat accountable, but it is by no means his fault entirely.

 

This the image is of Salah’s original cross which was blocked by Fredericks. As you can see, Firmino is making a back post run, so Masuaku is forced to pick him up. The ball then falls to Robertson. Milner is by himself at the back post. Here, I would as a couple questions. First, why do we have three midfielders covering one person? This is an extremely ineffective use of defensive space. Wilshere, Noble, and Rice are all at the top of the 18-yard box covering one person. Furthermore, Anderson, who prides himself on his defensive work-rate, needs to recognize that Masuaku is outnumbered at the back-post and help him. Thus, when the second cross comes in, our defense looks a complete shambles. We have 4-5 players in the box marking absolutely no one. Firmino, who abandons his back post run after the deflection is now offside near Mane, and Milner is free at the back-post. Now, what would have happened if Masuaku was wider, as some have faulted him for? Well that leaves a huge pocket of space between Balbuena and Masuaku that could have been easily exploited by Milner for a tap in, should Robertson had recognized it. It was a really a “pick-your-poison” scenario which stemmed from horrible positioning by the midfield, as well as and Anderson not recognizing the situation. Masuaku probably SHOULD have been more alert to Milner, but to say he is at fault for the goal is an over-simplification that fails to recognize the poor TEAM defense.

 

But this is no means for panic. This was the first game of the season against a very high caliber attack that we likely won’t see again until Man City. However, calls to immediately drop Masuaku are unfair and premature. Likewise, to call for Fredericks’ head, who was also poor, would be unfair. It was his first premier league game. The midfield clearly needs a lot of work, and Pellirgini will have recognized that. It is a new defensive system that will take time to implement, especially for a midfield that has never played together before and a backline with 2 new members, as well as a new GK. In my opinion, we should hesitate to panic and wait to see how the next couple of games go. COYI.

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  • Paul Miller
    14th August 2018 at 12:43 am

    This is an awesome article, perceptive and clear in its explanations.

    There’s a tendency to look at where everyone was positioned when the ball went into the back of the net (technically, the front of the net) and apportion blame on that basis, but it’s far more important to look at how AND why players got into those final positions.

    Please write more articles like this – I couldn’t bring myself to re-watch the game so am very grateful that someone else was, and with such a shrewd eye.