Only Arsenal. How often do we say that these days? Yet it rings true. After all, who else but Arsenal could look like a pub league side for 60 minutes, causing fans to feel the match has been lost, storm back to take the lead, and then promptly fail to hold on to it, leaving fans somehow disappointed in a draw that looked a certain loss just minutes before? The match itself was a thrilling affair, with end to end action and goals to both sides, and despite looking for a brief moment like winning, Arsenal should be pleased to come away with a point. Liverpool held the initiative for much of the match, and if it wasn’t for some questionable defending and goalkeeping, would likely have won. The match ended 3-3, and leaves both clubs much where they started before the match: with Liverpool in 4th and the Gunners in 5th, just a point behind their northern rivals.
First Half Deja Vu
If Arsenal are now in a better place than they were at the beginning of the season when they succumbed to Liverpool at Anfield 4-0, it certainly didn’t look that way when Friday’s match began. It appeared as though Jurgen Klopp’s men picked up right where they left off, continually gashing the Gunners’ midfield and defence with their quick, direct attacks. The castle walls held for a time, but Mo Salah’s frequent forays into space down the right flank finally resulted in a clear chance for Philippe Coutinho, who looped a lazy header over Petr Cech for the first goal. In truth, the Gunners were lucky to go into the half only down by a single goal, as theirs was one of the most disjointed and off colour performances the team have given so far this season, at least for 45 minutes.
In football, turnovers, misplaced passes and other losses of possession are part of the game. No team should expect to make it through a match with ever pass struck true and on target, but this season, especially in matches against opponents who press upfield to limit space in the build-up, the Gunners have committed an alarming amount of costly turnovers. More than any year in the recent past that I can recall, this iteration of the team seems especially careless in possession from the centre circle back to their own goal. Too often have the wingbacks tried to get too clever and lost the ball or the centre-backs tried to make a midfield splitting pass and had it result in an attack coming the other way. Too often has a midfielder been caught out after receiving the ball because his teammates were slow to move into a supporting position to receive the pass.
If Arsenal are serious about a top 4 berth this season, the carelessness in their own end must stop immediately. The disjointed first half on Friday could have left them in a massive hole, unable to dig themselves out because of their own poor play, which is not a trend that points to a successful end to the season.
4 Magical Minutes
The second half did not start a whole lot better for the Gunners, and it wasn’t until a lucky Mo Salah shot off of a deflection doubled the visitors’ lead that Arsenal decided to play to their level. What followed was the most incredible 4-minute burst; a feat of pure skill and will. The Gunners erased their 2 goal deficit and then took the lead on a sublime 1-2 passing move between Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette, resulting in the German once again deliberately scuffing the top of the ball to bounce it into the turf and over Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. The rapid turn of events sent the Emirates into a frenzy from near dead silence, only drowned out by Jurgen Klopp’s screaming rage at his side’s instant collapse at the back.
The ferocious comeback was as frustrating for fans in retrospect as it was thrilling. Why couldn’t the team just start the match with so much energy and ambition as they were able to play with during that 4 minutes stretch? Why must it take an absolute shocking hour of football for the players to finally show the sort of fight such an important match requires? Of course, it took a tremendous fight to claw their way into the lead, but without starting so poorly, we are likely talking about 3 points to the hosts and a legitimate top 4 challenge in our future.
A Gaping Hole
As a central defender in the game of football, your first task is to cover the area directly in front of goal and to mark the opposing centre-forward, who is typically a team’s best finisher. Easy enough, right? Well apparently nobody told Laurent Koscielny, who was caught watching the play unfold to the right of Cech’s goal when the ball moved to an unmarked Roberto Firmino at the top of the box, directly in front of the Arsenal goal. A less talented striker would have scored in that situation, and naturally, Firmino obliged, knotting the score once again and halting the newly effervescent Arsenal attack from extending the lead. The end to end football that followed was an indication of how aggressively both managers like to pursue goals and late victories. It was a thrilling close to the match.
Koscielny and his second-half partner, Shkodran Mustafi (who came on for an injured Nacho Monreal but should probably have started over the out of position fullback) are very talented defenders. Both have the physical ability to keep up with their marks and dispossess them. However, there is something lacking from their partnership: communication. Mustafi can be frequently seen barking instructions to his teammates, but Koscielny is the ultimate silent leader at the back. This is ok when next to a dominant personality like Tony Adams who can take charge of the verbal commands, but as the unquestioned leader in the current back line, Koscielny does not possess that same ability to rouse and organise as his predecessor, and too often goals like Firmino’s find a way past our defence.
A Hero Returns A Villain
Of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the return of Judas-pardon- Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the Emirates Stadium for the first time since he left following the last Liverpool match, a 4-0 defeat. He came on with just 6 minutes left in regular time and was at first greeted with booing before that mostly melted away into warm applause. While the Ox spent much of his formative years as a professional at the club, some fans will never forget his laughably incompetent performance against his future teammates just days before his defection. His personality was allowed to shine in his last couple of seasons, revealing him to be something of a team jester, which he appears to have continued with his new club.
Fans of both minds (to clap or to hiss) could both make very valid cases for why they have chosen what they have, but to this writer’s mind, the way he left was less than ideal. After years of being given his place in the team back upon returning from a never-ending string of injuries and losses of form, as soon as he was coveted by another top club, he flew the coup, claiming he was making the move to “take the next step”, despite Liverpool’s recent past not exactly corroborating the switch as an upward one, but rather a lateral one. It is sad to see talented players leave the club, but Arsenal are a better team, in either of their preferred formations (4-1-4-1, 3-4-2-1) when he is not one of the XI starters. So perhaps his move will truly end up being a win-win for both parties: Liverpool get a talented 24-year-old with lots of football left in him, while Arsenal get £40 million to spend on a player that hopefully fits the club’s current system even better than the Ox. It is worth noting that after the match, he did make the rounds of the stadium to clap the fans, a display of class that will sit well with fans as he returns in subsequent campaigns to his former club.