Saturday 16 December 2017

Ruthless Gunners expose Liverpool's limitations


Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool's Jordan Henderson battle for the ball at the Emirates yesterday
Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool's Jordan Henderson battle for the ball at the Emirates yesterday

Dion Fanning at the Emirates Stadium

Arsenal moved five points clear at the top of the table last night. This fact should make their credibility as title challengers self-evident. But this is no normal season. They met Liverpool at the Emirates yesterday with the implicit understanding that, despite occupying the top two places by the time the game began, one would be dismissed as genuine contenders with a defeat.

"It was vital to win today," Arsene Wenger said. "If we had not won today people would say Arsenal cannot win the big games." Arsenal triumphed thanks to goals from Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey, who scored his 10th of the season and can, at this stage, probably be considered a phenomenon.

Their victory was a triumph for Wenger's promotion of his team ethic. Mikel Arteta was outstanding, dominating through intelligence and precision against a Liverpool side that lacked those qualities.

Liverpool's disjointed performance may be seen as more significant given time. Brendan Rodgers has displayed a welcome pragmatism this season, shaping a side that can win when playing badly but the structural weaknesses, especially in midfield, were exposed against an Arsenal side with abundant talent in that area.

Liverpool will challenge for the top four this season but it will be primarily because Rodgers has been smart enough to keep Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge together as strikers so they can dominate weaker teams. Against the best sides, their midfield failings are glaring.

"We've got a long, long way to go," Rodgers admitted afterwards. "In modern football if you win a game, everyone is looking at you. Tonight we weren't quite firing. People will probably be a bit more realistic after this."

After a bright Liverpool start when Jordan Henderson should have scored, Arsenal found that they could get through the centre of Liverpool's midfield and defence. Their slick passing bewildered the clumsier feet of Lucas and Steven Gerrard and the baffled Liverpool defence.

There had been much anxiety among Liverpool fans when Jon Flanagan was named as one of their five defenders, with Glen Johnson out with illness that saw him sent to hospital just before kick-off.

Yet he was the least of their problems – Liverpool looked like they could do with a few more in defence as Cazorla and Mesut Ozil drifted in front of them.

Liverpool's strength was in attack as they tried to release Suarez and Sturridge, who gave glimpses of what they could do, but they were men apart in every sense as they found themselves increasingly distant from the rest of the team.

When Liverpool were one down, they were denied an equaliser when a smart exchange between Suarez and Sturridge was ruled out by refereeing which was infuriating, if correct by the rulebook. When Bacary Sagna dragged down Suarez, he took a quick free-kick which moved from Sturridge to Henderson, who was free in the box and knocked the ball into the net. But referee Martin Atkinson brought play back to show Sagna a yellow card, explaining to Rodgers later that in order to book the player he couldn't allow the game to move to the next phase. "If that's a ruling," Rodgers said, "it's not very good because we're always encouraging players to get up and play."

Once Cazorla put Arsenal ahead, they came alive. It was a goal that demonstrated Arsenal's strengths and Liverpool's weaknesses. The first weakness was Aly Cissokho at left-back. Sagna glided by him, delivering a cross which Cazorla headed against the post. It said much for the constant alertness of the Arsenal side that Cazorla picked up the rebound to finish but it didn't say much for Liverpool's powers of concentration.

From that moment, Arsenal found weaknesses. Henderson and Gerrard lost the ball foolishly and Cazorla shot at Simon Mignolet, who also saved from Ramsey after Arsenal skipped through the centre of Liverpool's team too easily.

As the game went on, Liverpool embarked on a process in which they demonstrated their tactical fluidity, all of which was irrelevant if they couldn't keep the ball. Philippe Coutinho replaced the hapless Cissokho at half-time as Liverpool lost one of their defenders. They withdrew another when Flanagan was replaced by Victor Moses as Liverpool chased the game after Arsenal's second.

There was a sense of inevitability about Arsenal's second goal as the pressure built, they pushed Liverpool back and the vulnerabilities became more apparent.

Olivier Giroud had two good chances and should have scored with the first when Kolo Toure hit a careless pass in the general direction of Martin Skrtel but Giroud picked it up before chipping wide. Moments later, he was close again as he stretched for a Cazorla pass but couldn't get power into the shot. It didn't matter when Ozil picked up the ball on the right and found Ramsey. His shot from 20 yards flew over Mignolet and into the net.

Liverpool had to chase the game, which was unfortunate given their lack of control to begin with. In the moments after Liverpool's second change, Suarez went close as he shaved the bar with a shot. He deserved more for his endless work-rate and when he ran from 40 yards in the final minutes and shot wide only Sturridge, who was waiting in the box, felt he wasn't entitled to shoot.

Arsenal face Dortmund again on Wednesday night before travelling to Old Trafford for another test next Sunday.

Defeat to Jurgen Klopp's side raised questions about Arsenal's quality two weeks ago. "We live in a world where we have to be questioned and the only response you can give is on the field," Wenger said. Arsenal are providing answers. Liverpool might have to ask some hard questions.

Sunday Independent

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