Slumping Scousers and Gritty Gunners: A Game of Two Halves

Image from Goal.com

While the local derbies and rivalries form the core of the Premier League season, clashes between Arsenal and Liverpool are providing more and more classic encounters on a yearly basis. Nobody thought that Liverpool’s 4-3 win at the Emirates on the opening day of the 2016/17 season could be topped, but Friday night’s game is already a contender for game of the season, and we’re only in December. Liverpool took advantage of the Gunners’ slow start to the match by getting themselves into a two-nil lead, but a crazy five-minute spell saw the tide turn dramatically as goals from Alexis Sanchez, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil put Arsenal 3-2 up. Jürgen Klopp’s men, however, refused to let that slump kill them off the tie, and Roberto Firmino’s strike twenty minutes from time salvaged a bittersweet point for the Reds to take back to Merseyside. Where did it go wrong for Liverpool? And how can Arsenal’s lacklustre start be explained? All is revealed below.

Awesome Ainsley but a Criticised Chilean

The atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium, amongst the home fans at least, was one of concern and trepidation. It was a tie between two very different strike forces with regards to form. Arsenal were creating few chances and scoring, therefore, has become something of a rarity for the Gunners, while Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ of Firmino, Phillipe Coutinho, Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mané has been causing havoc for Premier League defences all season. What didn’t help the fear of defeat amongst the Gunners fans was the decision to select inexperienced midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back to mark the on-fire Salah, the division’s top scorer, instead of the internationally recognised summer signing Sead Kolasinac. While the Egyptian got on the scoresheet and added to his ever-growing tally at the Emirates on Friday, his opponent put in an astute defensive performance to keep Salah’s influence on the game as minimal as possible. In fact, the winger’s key moments in the game, his assist for Coutinho in the first half and his goal in the second, came about by either a defensive error from another Arsenal player, or by the Egyptian moving inside to take on centre-back Laurent Koscielny, instead of the 20-year old left back. One-on-one against Salah, positions where the Liverpool man has thrived all season, the youngster always came out on top, an incredible feat against one of the league’s best players. His side may have conceded three goals, but Maitland-Niles can hold his head high after an encouraging display on Friday.

His fellow left-sided Arsenal teammate, Alexis Sanchez, meanwhile, had a rather frustrating afternoon. Despite starting the Gunners’ fightback with a clever run and header in the box immediately after Liverpool’s second goal, the Chilean’s work rate and quality on the ball were earning him some boos from some sections of the North Bank every time he touched the ball. Was this booing justified? In a normal situation, no, as fans should get behind their team at all times. However, Alexis’ contractual situation at the club, and his lack of work rate and care in recent weeks has clearly stirred some Gunners supporters. There was a moment in the first half where Maitland-Niles picked up the ball on the left-hand side, with Alexis walking at a snail’s pace in the middle of the pitch. The youngster gestured to the Chilean to move to a wider position, but there was no response from the winger. This gives off the impression that he is ready to leave the club, and cares little for the results of his current employers. Can Arsenal afford to lose him though, especially to a Premier League rival such as Manchester City?

Defence diminishes Fab Four

Liverpool’s attack is on fire at the moment. The pace out wide of Salah and Mané, combined with the South American trickery of Firmino and Coutinho, has been the strong point of Liverpool’s season so far. However, there is an imbalance in the Reds’ squad at the moment, as the four men in defence do not match up to the talent of the ‘Fab Four’ up front for Liverpool. Pre-match, eyebrows were certainly raised at the reliability of Klopp’s defence as Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and Andrew Robertson started for Liverpool on Friday, and these suspicions of quality were confirmed as this defence folded in a five-minute spell which transformed a comfortable Reds display into one staring towards the idea of defeat. Furthermore, questions were once again asked regarding Simon Mignolet’s competence as a goalkeeper as he flapped at a long range Xhaka strike which, with a stronger palm, could have been beaten away. The Belgian shot-stopper, if one can still call him that, was fortunate that his counterpart in the Arsenal net, Petr Cech, suffered a similar feat in Liverpool’s equaliser, but the Arsenal ‘keeper showed his quality by denying Liverpool an even more comfortable victory with some impressive stops. We published an article last week stating that, unless Klopp’s negligence in improving his defence comes to an end, Liverpool can’t win major honours under the German manager, and Friday’s game is another example which proves this point.

Wonderful Wilshere in the Özil Orchestra

A crucial reason for Arsenal’s comeback was the performances of Jack Wilshere and Mesut Özil, whose flair and tenacity put Arsenal into a situation which, when Liverpool doubled their advantage, seemed impossible. The German international’s quick link-up play with his teammates in the opposition half gave the Gunners a quicker and therefore more potent attack, and his goal epitomised this. The way in which he was in synchronisation with the run and hold-up play with Alexandre Lacazette was the sign of a very intelligent player, while his finish to round off the move was phenomenal. The way in which he managed to chip Simon Mignolet despite striking the top of the ball is a technique which should be deeply admired. It is not a fluke either, as he performed the same trick during a 5-0 win over Huddersfield in November. Arsenal need to get his contract situation sorted as soon as possible, even if Alexis Sanchez leaves the club, as he very much knits Arsenal’s attack together.

Wilshere, meanwhile, put in a very strong display, as the Englishman started his third Premier League game in a row for the first time in a very long time. His direct running, even from deep, caused Liverpool’s midfield many problems, and allowed Arsenal to access their wide men more easily in the second half. Questions must be asked, however, as to why Wilshere and Özil, amongst others, only started playing this way in the second period, when their side were two goals down. This was also seen during Arsenal’s home game against Manchester United in early December, but the encouraging point regarding Wilshere is that his current form and fitness gives England manager Gareth Southgate no excuse to not pick him for the England squad in the next couple of international breaks. Aaron Ramsey is facing a fight to get his place back in the Arsenal squad if Wilshere keeps this up.

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