* After the victory over Swansea on March 22, Brendan Rodgers took the opportunity to publicly talk up Liverpool’s ambitions. “The aim is to finish as high as we can, the aim isn’t just to finish fourth,” Rodgers said. “Obviously with Manchester City losing at the weekend it gives us an opportunity to push on.” Time and again Rodgers has been warned (mainly by his own supporters) about his incessant ‘pride before a fall’ mishaps. Time and again he spectacularly fails to learn his lesson.
This week he was back again, labelling Liverpool as a “footballing superpower” and therefore able to match Raheem Sterling’s own ambitions. It looks like Rodgers misplaced that cloak of invincibility.
“I think people might look at it as a must-win game,” Liverpool’s manager said before the trip to Arsenal. “For me, it is a must-perform game. We want to perform well and we know that when we do that we’ve got every chance of winning, whether that’s at home or away.” Rodgers is right in that one does tend to breed the other. Unfortunately, his side emphatically did neither.
* Do not underestimate the excellence of this Arsenal side, however. They suffered 15 uneasy first-half minutes and 15 more after the break but, otherwise, were sumptuous. If Liverpool’s defending provided the assist, Arsenal’s own form thrashed the ball into the net in marvellous manner.
It is now nine consecutive Premier League wins at the Emirates, Arsenal’s best home run since moving into the stadium. Arsene Wenger’s side have conceded two goals in their previous six home games, and have won 11 of their last 12 league games home and away. Rodgers might have mentioned catching Manchester City, but it’s Arsenal who have moved ahead of them.
* Despite the midweek insistence that Daniel Sturridge might recover from a hip injury in time, the striker was fit enough only for the bench. Rodgers picked seven midfielders in his starting XI (plus a defender in midfield), with Jordan Henderson at right wing-back and Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen in midfield. I’ll admit that I gulped at that prospect.
Rodgers also opted for the ballsy tactic of picking a bench that basically consisted of just one unfit striker. Fabio Borini, Glen Johnson, Dejan Lovren, Javier Manquillo and Cameron Brannagan all failed to raise the pulse.
Liverpool’s team once again emphasised the lack of faith in two of their expensive 2014 signings. Emre Can’s revelation in central defence has been one of the most positive elements of Liverpool’s season, but stemmed only from Dejan Lovren’s poor form. With Martin Skrtel suspended, it was Kolo Toure who deputised. That there was no surprise in this call tells its own story: Liverpool’s most expensive ever central defender is now fifth in the queue to start.
In addition, Mario Balotelli was again notable by his absence. Balotelli generated headlines by scoring in a charity match at Anfield last weekend, but that seems to be his limit now. He has been relegated to being rolled out for meaningless friendlies. Such a souring of relationship between manager and £16m striker is unthinkable given the loss of Luis Suarez and injuries suffered by Sturridge.
“I hope Balotelli can give Liverpool significant support and play more often,” said Italy manager Antonio Conte this week. Don’t bet on it, Tony With You.
* Arsenal started in dominant fashion, surging over their limp opponents and pressing high up the pitch with great intensity. Alexis Sanchez fired a shot wide inside 40 seconds, whilst Santi Cazorla forced a fine save from Simon Mignolet low down to his right.
A minute later and Aaron Ramsey should have given Arsenal the lead. After Toure dallied on the ball, Ramsey was set through on Mignolet. His left-footed shot did force a save but was criminally weak, allowing the goalkeeper to avoid parrying it into the path of Cazorla. Mamadou Sakho was able to clear.
Whatever Arsenal’s early excellence, Liverpool were architects of their own downfall. Continuously wasteful with the ball, the away side were caught in possession in their own half on five occasions in the first 12 minutes. Unable to clear their own lines through their preferred strategy of intricate passing, there seemed no alternative plan.
“The key for us in the first half against Manchester United was that we didn’t keep the ball well enough,” said Rodgers before the game. “We’ve talked about that, we’ve analysed that and we’ve worked on that; in order for us to maximise how we’ve been working we need to keep the ball better and be technically better. That’s a huge part of our game.”
It certainly wasn’t on Saturday. Arsenal had 74% of the ball in the first ten minutes. Things weren’t going to plan.
* Yet it was Liverpool who should have taken the lead, as they finally awoke from their slumber. Arsenal demonstrated their propensity for defensive uncertainty, with Lazar Markovic found in space 30 yards from goal. He was sent through on David Ospina.
On first viewing (and therefore at full speed), the Serbian’s decision to pass rather than shoot seemed to be a bottle job, an illustration of his low confidence after a difficult start to life in the Premier League. He had suffered from the type of nose bleed typically associated with central defenders.
Actually, that wasn’t the case at all, as this shows. The pass was the right (or at least an acceptable) decision, given how much space Sterling was in. But its execution was woefully over-hit. It would be a critical error, and Markovic was removed at half-time.
* Hector Bellerin gave an interview this week in which he explained his decision to leave Barcelona at 16. “I got the chance and I took it,” was his overwhelming message, and Arsenal are celebrating that choice. Gary Neville and Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta have both made the point of praising the Spaniard’s recent defensive work (which was less than perfect later in the match).
However, it was Bellerin’s attacking capabilities which provided Wenger’s side with the advantage. His curling shot with his left foot was wonderful, giving Mignolet no chance of anything but a despairing dive.
It’s impossible not to mention the obvious defensive deficiencies. Sakho went wide to put pressure on Ramsey, who laid the ball off for Bellerin’s run inside. Alberto Moreno was the man tasked with averting the danger, but simply backed off to the point of insanity with his arms behind his back.
Moreno’s inaction effectively challenged Bellerin to curl the ball round him.
* Three minutes later, and one became two. If Bellerin had demonstrated the perfect far-post curler from open play, Ozil did the same from a set-piece, nicking the ball into the corner.
Without sounding like a broken record (leave it), it’s again impossible not to mention Liverpool’s own role in their undoing. Mignolet – who did make some wonderful saves – was set in the right position to guard the shot to his side of the goal, but took a costly half-step to his left.
Ozil’s finish was superb, but it should never have been allowed to extend Arsenal’s lead. Out of position and with his weight on the wrong foot, Mignolet was beaten.
It’s now four goals and three assists for Ozil in his last eight matches. I’ve already sneaked in the reference to our typical sign-off line.
* There was still time for the first-half damage to continue. As Liverpool looked for a response, the ball was played into the feet of Ramsey 25 yards from goal, his first-time lay-off finding Sanchez. The Chilean is at his best when acting on instinct, and within a second had fired a ball into the top of the net.
Mignolet was again slightly at fault, but it was the instantaneous nature of the shot that caught the goalkeeper off guard. Fourteen goals and eight assists in the league for Sanchez this season. As we’ve said before, there is something hugely endearing about a player who is part artist, part street-fighter.
Now is perhaps also the time to mention the hapless Toure, forced into centre stage by the ill-discipline of Skrtel. He was almost entirely woeful, as bad as Premier League defending can be. The Ivorian won possession just twice all match, losing the ball on eight occasions. He looked continuously nervous in possession, like an overawed teenager rather than experienced professional.
Having lost the ball to Ramsey for Arsenal’s first big chance, the Ivorian then proceeded to dive in and sell himself for the third goal, before being entirely ineffective in stopping Olivier Giroud for the fourth. Watch that last goal again: Toure is offering a modern art production of Man In Golden Syrup. The legs have gone.
Still, at least there wasn’t a £20m defender on the bench. Or should that be ‘defender who cost £20m’?
* Half-time brought a change of personnel and shape from Rodgers, who must have been the only one surprised by Henderson looking far weaker in a wing-back role and Lucas being lethargic in his first minutes since injury. If you were after a player to exacerbate that situation, Joe Allen’s your man. Sturridge was introduced for Markovic (another hit to his already deflated self-belief), with Liverpool lining up in something resembling a 4-1-4-1 formation.
It seemed to work, briefly. Arsenal’s strange passivity after the break allowed Liverpool to gain a foothold. Liverpool had ten second-half shots to Arsenal’s nine after managing three in the first half. None of those were on target. They also enjoyed a notable 23.4% gain in possession either side of half-time. Not enough to be ‘outstanding’, but better all the same.
* To pass comment on the match without mentioning Sterling’s contract situation would only make it the perceived money-grabbing elephant in the room, so the penalty incident affords me that chance.
The winger/forward/striker/false-nine/wing-back left Bellerin on his heels, and the Spaniard chopped him down. Henderson nudged his penalty under David Ospina, with the only slight controversy the failure of Anthony Taylor to issue a second yellow card. That said, I have no issue with the single punishment.
The unlikelihood of Liverpool’s qualification for the Champions League only makes Sterling’s apparent unease to sign a new contract at Anfield more understandable. In his interview on Thursday, Sterling spoke of his ambitions for glory above money.
“It is about winning trophies throughout your career,” Sterling said. “Everyone’s dream growing up is seeing themselves in an away kit somewhere in a sunny country.” One presumes he wasn’t referring to the Europa League.
Whether or not you consider the “ambition” line to be a façade for financial desires, it’s hard to argue that Sterling shouldn’t be pushing to play in European football’s most prestigious competition.
In fact, it’s a point that Rodgers himself has relied upon. “You have a choice. Maybe Southampton’s objectives have changed,” he said, referring to his side’s purchase of Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren. “They were looking to be a Champions League club, I believe. They obviously wanted to change. We were after a certain type of player that fits the profile and the mould of the way we play. They played in a similar mould to us, so the players understand the pressing, the intensity and the possession so, I don’t have sympathy, no.”
Unfortunately for Rodgers, the reality of modern football is that there are only five or six clubs in the world that cannot be classed as ‘selling clubs’. These are the new elite. The Liverpool manager’s description of his club as a “superpower” may give them a PR boost, but it is untrue.
The reality is that outside of the opulent elite, success only exists in the present; yesterday is history. Liverpool may well have provided Sterling with a title challenge last season and Champions League experience in 2014, but those campaigns only increase a young player’s appetite for more. By the end of the weekend, Liverpool could well be eight points from the top four with seven games remaining and 16 points behind the leaders having played a game more.
* Finally on Sterling, there is an odd treatment of ambition in this country. Those advising that a new deal at Anfield should be signed readily offer examples of those who have tried and failed. Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair and Wilfried Zaha, amongst others, are given as chilling warnings, careers stalled by over-ambition.
It’s an incredibly one-eyed opinion. What of Frank Lampard, who chose to leave West Ham for Chelsea? And Wayne Rooney, who swapped Everton for Manchester United? To list the failures without mentioning the successes only makes your view seem deliberately partisan.
In February 2010, a 15-year-old boy decided to leave QPR and move to Liverpool. Despite the competition for places being far greater than at Loftus Road, he felt that he was good enough to perform on such a high stage. Liverpool paid £600,000 for his services, impressed by his ambition and drive. They beat Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Fulham to his signature.
“Raheem is a very exciting young English player whose progress was being closely monitored by many other leading clubs and I’m delighted he’s joining us,” said then-managing director Christian Purslow. That seemed to work out well enough for the ambitious, young, English player.
Of course Sterling may move somewhere and it may not work out. Life would be a tedious existence if we could foresee the end before the journey. But to criticise a player for ambition is to criticise part of what has generated his lofty reputation in the first place. Better to have tried and failed, then never to have tried at all.
* What has happened to Alberto Moreno? In his first two months in England the potential for defensive unease was there, but was counteracted by his attacking adventure. The speed is still there, of course, but gone are the dangerous surges forward to assist Liverpool’s counter-attacks.
Meanwhile, those defensive worries have become too much to bear. For a player with such pace, Moreno seems to be a sitting duck left-back. He is far too easily skinned by a winger and lacks the physicality to compete when covering in central areas. Rather than the new John Arne Riise, Moreno is becoming the old Jose Enrique.
* Olivier Giroud was this week named as the Premier League Player of the Month for March, and April started in enjoyable fashion. Giroud’s late strike might just have been the pick of Arsenal’s four wonderful goals, and made it goals in six consecutive matches. That terrible evening against Monaco is being banished from the memory with each passing week.
The Frenchman deserved his goal after offering another example of his ability to lead the line. He created two chances for his team-mates, held the ball up superbly to allow Sanchez and Ozil to be brought into play, and had four shots on target. No other player on the pitch managed more than one. Giroud’s presence up front is precisely what Liverpool are lacking.
* Before the game, Michael Owen (net worth £37m) was asked about Raheem Sterling’s rumoured contract rejection.
“I’m just thinking about what I would do with that sort of money,” Owen joked, securing his knighthood for Services to Lack of Self-Awareness. I think football might be broken. Sheesh.
* For Arsenal, Champions League participation is virtually secured yet again. It is still impossible not to be concerned about the manner of the exit to Monaco, but the resurgence since has been exceptional. Of that there is no doubt.
This is also far from a wasted season, with an FA Cup defence still a realistic possibility. They have unearthed possible gems in Francis Coquelin and Bellerin, and Ozil, Giroud and Nacho Monreal have all improved significantly from last season. In Sanchez they have one of European football’s most exciting players. Now to push on (as we’ve said so often before).
*Liverpool, however, are left in limbo, their top-four ambitions in tatters. Despite Rodgers’ consistently optimistic public demeanour, there is no doubt of the regression from last season. A repeated title challenge may always have been unrealistic, but finishing higher than fifth was not. At the time of writing, they could be as low as seventh by Sunday evening. We know what happened to the last manager to win a cup and finish seventh at Liverpool.
“We defended very, very poorly for all goals really. It’s near to impossible [to reach the top four],” was the manager’s frank post-match assessment, relentless positivity finally giving way to realism. What happened to the ‘express train’, as The Sun’s Phil Thomas described them in February.
Now comes the difficult part for Rodgers, who faces a summer of persuasion. Sterling must be persuaded that he should want to stay. FSG must be persuaded to spend more money on the squad despite the apparent failures of Balotelli and Lovren (with Markovic and Moreno also struggling). The players must be persuaded that Liverpool can challenge for the title again. And supporters must be persuaded that Rodgers is the right man to take Liverpool forward. At least he’ll have no problem in persuading himself.