With Patrik Berger this week having to deny reports that he narrowly avoided the doomed Germanwings plane, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on one of the Czech’s finest moments: his late cameo in the FA Cup final of Liverpool’s treble-winning season.
With Wembley being rebuilt, the match was held outside of England for the first time, in Cardiff’s Millenium stadium. However, a greater sign of the times was that, for the first time, both managers had been born outside of Britain.
2001 was something of a transition phase for English clubs. Foreign players had been steadily coming to the Premier League for several years now, but, with managers like Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier following them, England was starting to play catch up on the ground lost during their ban from European competition. It would be several more years until the English top flight re-established its pre-Heysel dominance, yet the methods were starting to take effect.
For example, both teams lined up in 4-4-2s, but they weren’t the open shapes that English football was built on. Wenger had pulled back the centre midfielders to open up space between the lines for the forwards ahead of them and Thierry Henry constantly confusing defenders by drifting out towards the left, while Houllier’s was much closer to England’s traditional model but more tight and compact, squeezing those gaps and looking to use the talents of Michael Owen on the counter. Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez’s introduction of the 4-5-1 and 4-2-3-1 respectively would be the death knell for 4-4-2’s homogeneity in England a few years later but the writing was already on the wall at this point.
Despite Arsenal and Liverpool looking to break the typical English mould, their line-ups had a very similar make-up. The slow, physical stoppers at centre-back, the limited full-backs in Lee Dixon and Jamie Carragher, the more attacking Ashley Cole and Markus Babbel on the opposite side, Gilles Grimadi and Dietmar Hamann holding next to box-to-box midfielders Patrick Vieira and Steven Gerrard, and the technical attacking midfielder in Robert Pires and Vladimir Smicer. Other than the gap in quality, the only real difference was in the strike partnerships. Both had one forward looking to facilitate play for their more talented partner, but Sylvain Wiltord dropped off between the lines to pick out Thierry Henry in Arsenal’s possession game, while Emile Heskey looked to hold up direct balls for Michael Owen.
Looking back, this game isn’t nearly as one-sided as it’s remembered. Arsenal undoubtedly dominated and Liverpool offered next to nothing in attack, but Arsenal didn’t actually carve out many real chances. It gets lost in the Barcelona-inspired “the problem with Arsenal is they always try to walk it in” youngsters that followed that those early Wenger sides were essentially counter-attackers perfectly formulated to pull apart an open English 4-4-2.
Yet Liverpool weren’t a typical English side – those lines Arsenal operated between were much closer and compact here. Wiltord was presumably picked over Dennis Bergkamp or Nwankwo Kanu because he was more mobile and could swap positions with Henry, but he was easily squeezed out of the game. Hamann positioned himself in front of Henry whenever he came central so the ball couldn’t be played into him, meaning the only joy Arsenal found was when Babbel headed forward, giving Henry space to pull into wide left and dragging Henchoz away from his defensive partners. The infamous Henchoz handball was the only notable chance of the first half and that only came from a rare mistake in the offside trap.
Although Liverpool being deep and narrow made them hard to break down, it didn’t do them much good offensively. Their main problem was how slow they were to get the ball forward. With Owen’s pace they should have been looking to get him running behind Keown and Adams as quickly as possible, yet they constantly passed it around the back for too long, allowing Arsenal to retreat before pumping it into the channels.
Little changed until a yellow card for Hamann saw him replaced by Gary McAllister in the 60th minute. The second the Scot stepped onto the field he could be seen shouting “up” at his teammates. Liverpool now looked to engage Arsenal much higher up the field but, more importantly, looked to find Owen much quicker. They were now finally creating chances, although it came at a cost: pushing up and without Hamann, they were much more open. Pires and Freddie Ljungberg were playing much narrower in the second half to overload the centre, and now had more space to make use of – the Swede rounding Sander Westerveld to open the scoring.
Having finally broken down Liverpool, Wenger immediately looked to protect his lead. Ray Parlour came on for Wiltord, with Ljungberg moving into the middle behind Henry in a 4-4-1-1, simply hitting long balls to the Frenchman. Houllier made two changes of his own, bringing on Berger for Smicer and Robbie Fowler for Danny Murphy, with Heskey replacing Murphy on the right wing. The introduction of Fowler as the main poacher freed up Owen to move out into the channels more and generally be a nuisance – a threat greatened by the fact Arsenal had ceded all attacking impetus to Liverpool.
Minutes later Liverpool equalised through a set piece when Owen snatched at a loose ball in the area. Another couple of minutes later, they took the lead: Berger looping a perfect ball from his own half into the path of Owen to finish after Arsenal’s players had come forward for a free-kick, weighted so that Owen didn’t have to break stride to deal with its bounce.
Shell-shocked, Arsenal never came close to any reply to the equaliser, let alone the winner. They had been the better team, but the result doesn’t seem as unfair in retrospect as it did at the time. They struggled to break down a solid defence, only managing it when the other team opened up, then only held their lead for ten minutes after sitting back to protect it and failed to show any resilience the second they faced a struggle. For such a strong and successful side, it was a remarkably mentally weak performance. Liverpool were their inferior, but at least they played to their strengths, and that was obviously Owen.