Sometimes 0-0s can be tedious, but sometimes they can be as good as a 3-3 draw. On Calum Chambers, Joe Gomez, Lucas, offside fortune and Petr Cech brilliance…
* A game that started as if it would end in a 6-6 draw concluded with you suspicious that both sides could play all week and yet still somehow conspire not to score. Arsenal have now failed to register in five of their last six home league games, whilst Liverpool have failed to score more than once in each of their last six in the league. Brendan Rodgers’ team have scored ten away league goals in 2015.
Some 0-0 draws are insipid and uninspiring, and I saw enough of Watford vs Southampton on Sunday to back up that statement. This was the opposite. Both sides threatened to take advantage of some nonsensical defending and sloppy passing to maraud forward and overpower one another almost in turn, and yet somehow avoided the final flourishes. Arsenal used their intricate passing (when it finally got going) and Liverpool a more direct, pragmatic style to Christian Benteke; it made for a fascinating contest.
The match also featured 34 shots without a goal. That’s a testament to the inaccuracy of the shooting on show, but predominantly to the excellence of both goalkeepers. Put it this way, I’ve seen worse 3-3 draws.
It also continued the odd pattern of diminished home advantage in the Premier League this season. Of the 30 matches so far, the home side has won just six.
* Quite often the team news provokes nothing more than a raise of the eyebrow or the pushing out of the bottom lip while nodding. Even this brought intrigue on Monday evening.
As the news filtered through that both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny had sustained illness and injury respectively, thoughts turned to possible central defensive pairings. Gabriel Paulista was a certainty, with Wenger opting to give Calum Chambers his first start since March. The pair had started only two games together prior to Monday, and never before as a central defensive pair. It was the first time both Mertesacker and Koscielny had missed a league game since April 2012.
Liverpool were not without their own issues. Rodgers played down Jordan Henderson’s foot injury after the Bournemouth game despite admitting that he had picked his captain when injured. In his place came Lucas, a player long considered to be surplus to requirements at Anfield. A first start too for Roberto Firmino, which made me salivate slightly.
* “I wish they’d correct this issue of lacking power and strength in the middle of the team,” was the pre-match message from Gary Neville, but he should have reserved his venom for a far different first-half problem for Arsenal. Wenger’s side somehow managed to combine 63% possession in the first half with an inability to pass the ball coherently. Work that one out.
It invited serious pressure, and they got their warning within three minutes of the start. Philippe Coutinho struck Petr Cech’s bar with a fierce curling shot from 15 yards out after Christian Benteke had pulled the ball back, the Belgian allowed to run free.
Gabriel and Chambers were both holding the defensive line, but with one three yards in front of the other. Arsenal’s makeshift defence looked…well, makeshift.
* Despite Arsenal’s nervy start, they should have taken the lead after ten minutes. Santi Cazorla played a delicious through ball to Aaron Ramsey, with the Welshman slotting the ball in at Simon Mignolet’s near post. The goalkeeper (and Liverpool) were saved by the assistant referee’s flag.
The philosophical amongst us plead that luck evens itself out over the course of a season, so Rodgers must prepare for a rotten run of fortune. Following Benteke’s ludicrous goal against Bournemouth last Monday, replays showed that Ramsey was onside. On such moments can matches turn.
“It was clear…I could see live that he could not be offside,” said Wenger in his post-match interview. Given that there was approximately four inches of Skrtel playing Ramsey on, and given Wenger’s history when it comes to selective vision, you’ll forgive me a wry smile in response to that comment.
Rodgers also gave his opinion on the decision: “I’ve seen a replay, his shirt looks offside. Great decision by the linesman.” We’ll let that slide as a tongue-in-cheek celebration of fortune.
* It’s time to talk about Calum Chambers, who soon became the story of the first half.
It is hyper-critical to offer too much condemnation to a 19-year-old thrown in at the deep end, but on such nights reputations can be established. Chambers would have been forgiven for going back out onto the Arsenal pitch at half-time to find the pieces of his. His positioning was suspect and his passing woeful, playing Arsenal into trouble on multiple occasions. It looked a case of when rather than if he would be at fault for a goal.
Benteke and Coutinho could not believe their luck, both targeting the defender and gaining great joy. Liverpool had five shots on target in the first half, as many as their opening two league games this season combined. The only negative was that they failed to lead as the half-time whistle blew.
Back in May, Wenger ruled out signing another central defender during this summer window on the basis of Chambers’ development.
“I want to develop him more as a centre back – even a central midfielder,” Wenger said. “On the flank, today you need more pace, more change of direction, more agility and he has the stamina, the power and the quality to be a central midfielder or a central defender.” Let’s just say we remain unconvinced.
One feels for Chambers, but the Premier League is a stage on which sympathy is rare. Arsenal have a title to fight for, and the defender must step up his performances if he wishes to be a large part of Wenger’s plans. On another day, he will be punished for such mistakes.
* The reason that Liverpool didn’t take a least a one-goal lead into the break was the performance of Petr Cech. The goalkeeper rightly received censure for his opening weekend display against West Ham, but atoned for those mistakes on his first return to the Emirates.
Cech’s first save was from Benteke, at full stretch when throwing himself in front of the Belgian’s point-blank shot. In truth he should have been left with no chance, and had Benteke’s shot been hit with any height Cech would have been helpless. Still, let us not detract too much from the magnificence of the goalkeeping.
As an aside, the chance came after Firmino’s run and pull-back, with the Brazilian creating as many chances as the entire Arsenal team in the first half.
Cech’s next save was even better, Coutinho hitting the woodwork for the second time in the half. The Brazilian shimmied and shifted the ball out wide, far too easily getting the better of Hector Bellerin before cutting inside. His curling shot looked destined for the far corner, but struck the post and was cleared.
Time for another of my footballing fetishes: When you can only be truly sure whether a goalkeeper has made a save on the slow-motion replay. You strain your eyes to see the end of a glove bend back and forth, mentally standing up to applaud when you spot the slight deviation. Let’s forget about ’12-15 points’ and concentrate on a bloody good goalkeeper making bloody good saves.
* Liverpool have Skrtel, Benteke, Dejan Lovren and Emre Can. They should be strong in the air.
Arsenal had Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker missing, and are not a tall side; Nacho Monreal, Bellerin and Francis Coquelin offer little help to their central defenders. Add to that the confusion over a new pair at the back and thus the inevitable uncertainty when marking at set-pieces, and Liverpool should have thrived from those situations.
Can someone then please tell me why the visitors insisted on taking the majority of their corners short? It wasn’t even as if there was any notable thought process behind this strategy, with Liverpool twice playing the ball back to the half-way line and once losing it outside the area.
It wasn’t quite Iago Aspas-esque (because we could never envisage something so visually perfect), but Liverpool fans would be forgiven for screaming in frustration. So too could Benteke.
* Arsenal’s improvement after the break was notable, and Wenger will presumably wish to focus on that aspect of his side’s performance. In defence, Chambers and Gabriel passed the ball with far more authority, and they were aided by a mirrored improvement further up the pitch.
Alexis Sanchez came closest for the home side, sending a shot against the post from close range when he really should have scored. The Chilean was guilty of similar profligacy against Crystal Palace last weekend, and his manager will hope such rustiness can be eliminated on as ASAP basis. They need him like no other.
Giroud too was guilty of missing presentable opportunities, and this was another evening on which his critics will shrug their shoulders and reaffirm their opinion that he is not good enough to lead a team to the title.
I have to say I’m in that camp. The sight of Benzema smiling in his Real Madrid shirt will sink the hearts of those silly enough to believe the rumours.
More on that now…
* I’m not quite sure what to think. This article in the Daily Star contained an Italian journalist claiming that Karim Benzema would be unveiled on the Emirates pitch before kick-off on Monday evening, and yet nothing of the sort happened. Gunnersaurus was there, and one can never rule out him being at the bottom of some elaborate practical joke, but it seemed as if the striker had missed his flight rather than donned the mascot’s costume for the funnies. In fact, Benzema was pictured training with his Real Madrid team-mates on Monday afternoon; he must have packed his bags the night before.
That aforementioned story followed another bold claim from the Daily Star two days previously: ‘Exclusive: Karim Benzema is ready to join Arsenal from Real Madrid.’ Early on Monday evening we got the news that everyone with an ounce of sense already knew.
‘For all those clowns who want to make believe things at my fans: Here, this is my home,’ Benzema tweeted, alongside a photo of himself sat in the Real Madrid dressing room. Another tedious saga draws to a predictable close.
It’s high time certain people grew up. Reporting interest from Arsenal in Benzema was entirely logical. He is arguably the world’s greatest all-round centre forward, plays for one of the best clubs in the game and is still only 27 – Arsenal would be mad not to want him. However, those claiming that the Frenchman wanted a move (or ‘is ready’, in transfer window parlance) should be pulled up on the obvious nonsense they are peddling.
A year ago I wrote an article pleading that it was time to burst the ITK bubble, and time to violently shake a majority that was prepared to accept the constant shower of bulls**t they were receiving. It was a false hope: The transfer window juggernaut of hokum is nothing new, but it’s getting worse.
Every day more spurious half-truths and non-truths are fed by certain outlets in order to garner clicks and prey on the desperation of supporters addicted to their clubs. The sad result is that the work of many fine journalists who diligently compile information and use their impressive contact lists is being undermined by a blanket of guff that threatens to seep into every pore of the game.
Oh good. As I write this reports are emerging that Manchester United will bid £55m for Kevin de Bruyne. It’s an ‘exclusive’, of course. It’s also time to stop it all. Please.
Remember the simple rule: If it sounds either too good to be true or far-fetched, it probably is.
* On his first start in England, Firmino was substituted after an hour but showed glimpses of exactly what we can expect. As I wrote earlier this month, the Brazilian has steel to complement the typical Brazilian silk, and retains characteristics typically suited to the Premier League. Speed, strength and skill are English football’s Holy Trinity; they’re unlikely to see you go too far wrong in any league.
In his 63 minutes, Firmino created more chances than any other Liverpool player did in the entire game. He was slightly wasteful with the ball at times, but demonstrated his physicality by winning more tackles than any Liverpool player bar Lucas and Joe Gomez. This was not a spectacular opening bow, but Rodgers will have seen plenty to impress him ahead of a long season in four competitions.
* It has been a long-winded farewell, but this may be the last we see of Lucas in English football. As he was substituted with 15 minutes remaining, the Brazilian offered a wave to the away end to accompany his applause for their support. That typically means only one thing.
Now 28 and without guarantees of first-team football, one can understand why Lucas wishes to seek his fortune elsewhere. Less obvious is why Rodgers would even contemplate letting him go. Despite his injury history, he remains one of the Premier League’s best central midfielders on his day. In a world of pass-and-move, Lucas is a valuable commodity; someone not just prepared to muck in and fight, but in his element when doing so.
“Lucas is our best defensive midfield player,” Rodgers said before the match. “So when we play with the three in there, we want to control our defensive work, he’s the best we have at the club for that. So it’s a good game for him to come into.” You said it Brendan. If you let him leave and I see Joe Allen in that holding position then there will be hell to pay.
If this was to be Lucas’ swansong, it was the perfect goodbye. He acted as Liverpool’s quiet enforcer, noticed only in his absence. No player on the pitch made more tackles and yet he committed only one foul. He also lost possession just seven times, a total not bettered by any other starter. Given the congested area of the pitch in which he operates, that is a fine effort.
As Cinderella once sang, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” A power ballad for all the ages.
* Having criticised Chambers, it is only fair that I offer significant praise to another English defender. Joe Gomez’s arrival at Liverpool was expected to precede either an extended spell on the Anfield bench or a loan move to gain first-team experience, but the 18-year-old has established himself as Liverpool’s first-choice left-back.
Of all the players to start each of their side’s three Premier League matches so far, Gomez is the youngest by a year and two months. That’s an astonishing rise.
He is not perfect, of course. Gomez’s desire to pour forward occasionally leaves him out of position, and that tendency had led to three bookings in as many games. The left-back is only two away from James Perch’s wonderful record.
However, there is far more to praise than chide. Gomez looks confident and athletic, his pace allowing him to get out of potentially tricky situations in a similar manner to Micah Richards in his early Manchester City days. To have made such a step up over the summer and show very few signs of nerves is evidence of strong and effective coaching at Charlton, and Liverpool are reaping the instant rewards.
Praise too to Rodgers for taking the chance on Gomez, not just in making the purchase but giving him the opportunity. The Northern Irishman may have many faults, but trusting youth is not one of them. Nine of the 14 players Liverpool used against Arsenal are aged 24 and under, compared with six out of 13 for Arsenal.
* A word too for Dejan Lovren, vastly improved from last season during his early displays. In truth there was very little of the barrel left to scrape, but the Croatian should be congratulated for his response to such an inauspicious start to his Liverpool career.
Whilst Arsenal have faced 16 shots on target so far this season (and Chelsea 24), Liverpool have allowed just eight. That’s a clear indication of the increased solidity in Rodgers’ defence.
Lovren is far from recuperated, and his £20m fee will make his journey to redemption both long and arduous. However, every journey begins with a single clean sheet. Lao Tzu probably loved his football.
* It’s rare that you read a positive news story regarding young English players in the Premier League, with the majority of headlines focused on the high percentage of foreigners on our shores. With that in mind, let’s redress the balance.
Calum Chambers, born 1995. Nathaniel Clyne, born 1991. Joe Gomez, born 1997. Jordon Ibe, born 1995. Jordan Rossiter, born 1997. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, born 1993. Six players on show at the Emirates who could still be playing in 2025.
Unacceptably, Gomez and Rossiter were born after Euro ’96. Where did our youths wither to?
* For Liverpool, far more answers than questions. Rodgers will be pleased to keep three consecutive league clean sheets for the first time since February (and with Lovren as part of that defence), and to have taken seven points from fixtures against Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h) and Arsenal (a) represents a hugely positive start to the season. Particularly given the new signings within the squad.
Rodgers used the word “outstanding” twice in the opening six seconds of his post-match interview, which tells you all you need to know about his feelings on the draw. In other news, the world keeps on turning.
* For Arsenal however, this was a spurned chance to set down a marker to home supporters still unconvinced of their title credentials.
A draw may well have been the fair result, but it will do little to please Arsene Wenger. His Arsenal side were at sea defensively during the first half, and then unable to convert their chances in the second period. That’s not an ideal combination, and one on which title challenges cannot be founded.
“That will not last,” said Wenger of his side’s goal drought at home. “We know we can score goals so we will come back stronger. Our sharpness is missing a little bit in some players.” The question is whether they can afford to offer those around them a handy headstart?
Supporters leaving the Emirates must have been left with an all-too-familiar feeling of regret on Monday evening; another night of missed chances and another summer of missed opportunities. Wenger has conceded that Arsenal are not close to making signings, and we’re inclined to believe him. We’ve seen it all before.
The most obvious conclusion when watching Arsenal during the first half was this: What on earth would Manchester City’s front four do to that defending? The best don’t give you second chances.