Sunday, 5 April 2015

Arsenal 4-1 Liverpool: An uncharacteristic ruthless dismantling

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

I'll gleefully hold my hands up in guilt for overestimating Liverpool and underestimating ourselves after us absolutely tearing them to shreds. The goals were all audacious and spectacular, yes, but it was the manner of exuberance and ego we showed on the pitch that was far more encouraging.

Make no mistake, although Liverpool were average, we took ruthless advantage of that. It's no exaggeration to say we strangled them to submission right from the off. Were it not for some below-par initial finishing from Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey, we could have sealed the game in the opening 5 minutes.

Our recent winning streak may have been exaggerated to a degree, but it brought along with it a factor that ultimately proved pivotal in Liverpool's dismantling - confidence. We didn't show Liverpool the respect we showed Tottenham or even Monaco earlier this season, pressing them and hardly letting their back three (especially Kolo Toure) build from the back.

Brendan Rodgers wasn't to be outdone yet, though. I noticed he was penciling notes around the 16th minute, after which he seemed to get his plan across. Having weathered the early storm, Liverpool were confidently playing on the counterattack and growing into the game, taking advantage of Arsene Wenger adopting a high line. It almost worked when Coutinho released Markovic but the Russian (heh) couldn't find Sterling with his pass.

I couldn't have been the only one worried then. Per Mertesacker was drifting toward the wing, Mesut Ozil was losing focus with his touches, Francis Coquelin was forced into making too many last-ditch sliding tackles and Bellerin seemed to be taking too many risks with the ball. With each passing minute, the early Ramsey miss was beginning to feel more and more synonymous to Jack Wilshere's against Manchester United.

I realize the irony when I say that all of those worries were put to rest with a Bellerin risk. Ozil found Ramsey who was drifting to the right for most of the half, Aaron played it on to Bellerin, and for me, he just seemed to have that "Screw this scrappiness, I'm taking the law into my own hands here" moment when he went past Moreno and curled in an absolute beaut with his weaker foot. As much as it is easy to notice Liverpool ineptitude in defence there, it is easier to, well, not give a shit.

With Liverpool rocking, Arsenal took full advantage and found a second. Mesut Ozil won a free kick barely two minutes later and launched a technically sound curler into the far post. Mignolet, who was having a great game until that point, really should have done better because the shot wasn't fiercely struck, but again, who really cares apart from Liverpool?

With Arsenal, 2-0 up is hardly game over but Liverpool didn't seem to think so, as they absolutely lost the plot and failed to keep any sort of structure. After Giroud headed over an Ozil corner, Bellerin (was it?) initiated some world-class football by playing it on to Ramsey. Aaron's turn was sublime, his pass was perfect, and Sanchez gave the perfect cream to ice the cake. Taking the ball on the bounce and getting away from an appalling Kolo Toure challenge, he rifled in one of the fastest and most Podolski-esque shots you would see this season. You can't really fault the goalkeeper for that. I'm surprised he even saw it.

Rodgers tried to save face in the second half by bringing on Daniel Sturridge and employing a 4-1-4-1 with Sterling on the left, but really, even by Arsenal standards this game was done and dusted. Whatever Liverpool were looking to throw at us was so easy to the defence it was almost enjoyable. Indeed, we could have got a fourth in the 54th minute when Mignolet tipped over a Giroud header, but aside from that it was strolling in the garden stuff, with the only minor cause of frustration being Alexis giving the ball away on the counterattack.

They did get a faint lifeline when Sterling was felled in the box and a penalty awarded, which Henderson barely converted. There's a fair case to say that Bellerin should have gotten a second yellow (and I'd agree), but well, he didn't, and today's not a day to focus on what could have been when what actually happened was a 4-1 thumping. Having said that, Bellerin's gamble which failed (but not punished enough) was another reminder that he's merely 20 and will make mistakes. We mustn't look to Harry Kane him for a fall from grace.

After Emre Can was shown the door and Santi hit the post, Giroud made sure Arsenal ended on a high by scoring a pearler from an Alexis pass, ending Liverpool's misery. A terrific performance against an in-form team and some star performers to thank for.

Mesut Ozil, after getting the second goal oozed class. He's a confidence player like Giroud, which is why it was great to see those little flicks and movements when Arsenal in general were cruising. Perhaps what was more heartening to see was Wenger subbing him around the 73rd minute for Danny Welbeck, when the game was over and Ozil needn't be overplayed.

I know it's far from the father of the thought, but Welbeck continues to worry me. I've never expressed on this blog enough my discontent at his sheer lack of end product. Yes, he's a good squad player who puts himself about, but that's about it. Goals are what we need from a forward, which is why I'd prefer Theo Walcott to him.

While Alexis Sanchez won the official MOTM award, I've got to hand it to Francis Coquelin. The man's playing like an absolute beast. He revels in the art of defending and being the lone sweeper, and is currently a prime reason why our 4-1-4-1 is ticking. He'll definitely do a job till the end of the season, but I still feel that we need one more specialist in that position to be absolutely secure. It's an unnecessary risk to be overly reliant on him, and competition on all fronts should be the bedrock of an elite team. Mikel Arteta may be a model professional and all that, but he hardly offers competition for Coquelin.

All in all a fantastic job done by the players and the fans. Many had expected Arsenal to win this game (I confess I wasn't one of them), but the manner in which we made it possible bodes well for what's left of this season. A title challenge is a crazy assumption, but looking to overhaul Manchester City is very much possible, and whichever way you look at it, that's progress.

The psychological impetus of beating a potential FA Cup finalist must also be noted. Liverpool are the only team left in the competition capable of ruining the party for us, but having that edge and relinquishing the 5-1 loss last season would go miles into calming nerves for the big day, should it arrives.

All that's left of this season is a potential second place fight and an FA Cup win, but make no mistake, that's more than most clubs in England. With players returning from injury and the squad looking to have some serious depth, if we keep this up, we could make 2014/15 a very memorable one indeed.

Go on Arsenal.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

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