* ….Aaaand breathe.
The opening day of the Premier League season was cagey, as teams edged their way into the new campaign. An average of exactly two goals per game and only two halves containing more than one goal allowed every team to take away something positive. Well, every team but Crystal Palace.
This was the magnificent response to that caution, 90 minutes (or perhaps 60 minutes) of the most anarchic sport you could ever wish to see. If Saturday was the quiet pre-night out drinks at someone’s new apartment, Sunday was the ludicrous drunken dancing outside a kebab shop at 3am.
At some point in the last two years, Premier League clubs clubbed together to ensure that in at least one game every weekend, defending is off the cards. Gone was the measured approach of Euro 2016, with its accomplished goalkeeping and marking from set-pieces. Back again was the wonderfully laissez-faire attitude to picking up your man and considering your defensive position. For the watching neutral, it was bloody glorious.
* Not if you’re an Arsenal fan, though.
For 44 minutes, there was hope. There was hope that all the pre-match and pre-season angst among supporters had proved to be unfounded. There was hope that Arsenal’s back-ups and youngsters could make up for the defensive crisis and the lack of striking options. There was hope that, to put it bluntly, a majority of Arsenal’s support was wrong and Wenger was right.
The hope didn’t last long. Liverpool may have barely justified their equaliser before half-time, but they embarrassed Arsenal and Arsene Wenger after the break. Their attacking play was supreme, seriously good at times, but Arsenal’s capitulation took the Emirates to a dark place. There were plenty calling for their manager’s head at the final whistle – and at home, with those that had bet on the Gunners using a matchbook bonus code 2018.
“Vibrancy doesn’t make you win games,” said Wenger on Saturday. “What makes you win game is the quality of the performance and the quality of your football. And you have to focus just on that.”
There’s a point in that, but to watch Liverpool’s attacking players (including three signed since the beginning of last season) was to experience a team that looked high on…vibrancy. They also look intent on pulling in the same direction under an invigorating and inspiring manager. Arsenal never do.
We have been here before, of course, so often that it has become a running joke. Yet Arsenal and their supporters do not become more and more immune to such afternoons; each one ebbs away a little more at Wenger’s bank of goodwill. In the view of many supporters, the manager is already well overdrawn.
* For a manager whose reputation was built at least partly on the cultivation and development of youth players, it’s easy to doubt Wenger on afternoons such as these. One wonders what the lasting psychological impact on poor Rob Holding will be. His Premier League debut was marked not by warm applause but by a stadium in mutiny. It is scandalous that it has come to that.
When Arsenal were last in defensive crisis, Wenger started Carl Jenkinson and Armand Traore at Old Trafford in an 8-2 defeat. We can only hope that Holding and Chambers have more resilience, for Jenkinson never recovered. Had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not scored immediately after the fourth goal had been conceded, the scoreline could have been similar to that terrible day.
“I have a few options as you’ve seen in pre-season,” Wenger said on Friday. “The players available at the moment are quite young but they’re keen to do it. Holding has played in the Championship, which is good experience. Now he has to deal with one level higher.”
“We paid for a lack of experience at the back and the fact some players are not ready physically to compete at this level,” said Wenger by Sunday, a pathetic U-turn in blaming those who he had previously championed. When he realises who is paid £8.3m a year to avoid exactly that mess, he’s going to be so embarrassed…
* Before the game, Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness took the point right out of my mouth. Why did Laurent Koscielny not start for Arsenal?
In his pre-match press conference, Wenger dismissed Koscielny’s availability for the game, claiming that he was “not ready”. In any other circumstance that may be valid, but Arsenal had a defensive crisis. The final of Euro 2016 was over a month ago, so why was the Frenchman not primed for such a big game? The same point stands with Mesut Ozil, who was knocked out of the semi-finals in France, although Arsenal at least had far more options in attacking midfield.
I fully understand the risk of burn-out, but surely Koscielny’s training plan could have been adapted with this game in mind? Certainly Cedric Soares, who played in the Euro 2016 final against Koscielny and also started for Southampton against Watford on Saturday, managed it. It seems bizarre.
Furthermore, Soares is hardly an outlier. After the 2014 World Cup final, Martin Demichelis and Andre Schurrle started for their clubs on the opening weekend. After World Cup 2010, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Nigel de Jong did. Even Wenger has form: In 2010, Robin van Persie started on the opening day after playing in the World Cup final, when the gap was exactly the same as this season. In 1998, Wenger did the same with Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit.
* The expectation was that Liverpool would try and start quickly, overrunning Arsenal in a bid to expose the fragility of the two central defenders before they had chance to settle. Yet the opposite occurred. Arsenal started confidently, short passes around midfield and runs from Walcott and Alex Iwobi down the channels, while Liverpool were lacklustre. This was lift music rather than the heavy metal Jurgen Klopp likes to put on his playlist.
Not only that, but Liverpool were incredibly hesitant and nervous in possession, giving away the ball cheaply and sending the ball long to clear the danger. Dejan Lovren, Roberto Firmino, Nathaniel Clyne, Alberto Moreno and Philippe Coutinho all gave away possession with 20% or more of their first-half passes. That famous press, where opponents are hassled and harried, was almost non-existent before the break.
* I’m in danger of going full Grumpy Old Man here, but the booking given to Adam Lallana for his tackle makes me dies a little inside. It was not dangerous, both feet were not off the ground, the ball was played and the ball was won. There was a degree of follow-through, but that is inevitable when making a tackle.
Sometimes slow-motion replays can make tackles look worse than they were in real-time, but even that wasn’t the case. I know that I’m in real danger of saying something stupid like “the game’s gone mad”, thus making myself the man down the pub on whose shoe everyone deliberately spills their pint when a goal goes in.
* Can we talk about Moreno’s defending now, please? Oh good.
The backstory to this opening fixture was Wenger’s inability to eradicate his blind spot and improve Arsenal’s options in problem positions, and we got there eventually. Initially, Klopp let him off the hook by erecting a neon sign pointing to his own blind spot, offering free burgers to everyone who wanted to come to point and laugh.
“It’s my team, my squad now,” was Klopp’s pre-season message. “We will see what happens before August 31, but after all the transfers, this time it is my team. There are no players probably who are here any more who I don’t want. There are no transfers I didn’t want, we have not sold anyone I didn’t want us to sell.”
It’s at this point that we all shake Herr Klopp and scream the name “Moreno! Moreno! Moreno!” in his face for all eternity. There may be players who are worse at defending and positional sense in the Premier League, but I haven’t seen them play.
The foul for Walcott’s penalty was like a work of modern art, Moreno caught out of position before steaming into a challenge. The ball was there to be won but Moreno ignored it admirably, instead clattering into Walcott’s ankles. Penalty Arsenal.
* The rise of statistics is not popular among all, but stuff like this is really interesting. It demonstrates that Walcott’s penalty was in the area you would most expect a goalkeeper to make the save, which officially makes it a poor effort. Obvious, perhaps, but still interesting. Go to the goalkeeper’s left, seems to be the salient advice.
— PenaltyKickStat⚽️ (@PenaltyKickStat) August 14, 2016
* We cannot scold Walcott too harshly, given that 69 seconds after his penalty miss he scored the game’s opening goal. It was a smart finish too, further into the corner than the penalty and giving Simon Mignolet no chance at all.
Once again, the defending was abysmal. Moreno must take his censure again, caught up the field and then making a weak attempt to stop Walcott moving towards goal, but it was Lallana who was most to blame. He tried one of his signature Cruyff turns 30 yards from his own goal and was caught in possession. Three seconds later, the home team were ahead.
* As a slight aside, I’ve got a horrible feeling that 2016/17 might be the Premier League season of the man bun, judging by the number on show at the Emirates.
However, I have to again single out Moreno for his, which is enough to bring up just a little bit of sick into your mouth. The left-back – and I’m using that term loosely – looks like the pool lifeguard on your first holiday away with a girlfriend at the age of 19. The one who made inappropriate comments about her beauty while being incredibly touchy-feely. The one who pushed her in the pool on the last day as a joke and then jumped in afterwards to frolic. Yeah, that one. The d*ck.
* I’ve never been entirely convinced by Coutinho’s ability to produce a consistent run of excellent form when it matters, but there is no doubt that his natural talent is something very special. The suspicion is that Klopp might be the best manager to harness it.
Coutinho’s free-kick goal for Liverpool’s equaliser was majestic, far beyond Petr Cech’s extended fingertips despite him positioning and instructing his defensive wall. It actually had the shape of a David Beckham free-kick, the run-up from a position wide of the ball to impart maximum whip and curl at the point of impact. It had no exaggerated movement in the air, as with Dimitri Payet or Cristiano Ronaldo, but instead relied on a perfect trajectory. Get that right, and no goalkeeper in the world has a hope.
* From then on, we saw precisely what we feared in this Arsenal team. Forgive me for pinching a few lines from last season, but it highlights just how entrenched this behaviour is:
‘They are a fair weather club, capable of majestic football when the sun is shining and the pressure is off, but liable to disappear like candy floss in a rainstorm when the pressure is on. Wenger’s own protestations to the contrary look increasingly like wilful naivety.’
That paragraph came after the FA Cup defeat to Watford in March, and was relevant again on Sunday. Arsenal’s inability to build on promising moments is exacerbated by their miserable weakness in adversity.
As soon as the second goal was conceded, along came the third. As soon as the third went in, the fourth was only ever a few minutes away. With the game virtually over as a contest at 4-1, finally Arsenal responded again. It will never change; not under this manager.
* Granit Xhaka might well be a success in the Premier League (although I predicted differently here), but he’s going to have to learn to tackle properly. His 28-minute tackling display lay somewhere between Paul Scholes and Alan Hutton.
Xhaka came on for Mohamed Elneny after 67 minutes. He attempted five tackles, won only one, gave away four fouls and was booked. Nobody in the entire match conceded more free-kicks, which is perhaps the most ridiculous statistic of a bonkers afternoon.
* It’s only fair that we praise Liverpool’s star performers as well as curse those in red, and the most deserving of commendation was Sadio Mane on his league debut.
There is always doubt when a player changes from being one club’s star to another’s everyman – how will they cope with having to share the spotlight? On initial evidence, we need not worry about Mane.
The Senegal international showed every characteristic that persuaded Klopp to part with £34m of Liverpool’s money. He is direct, fast and he has that fantastic ability to move forward at the same lightning pace with or without the ball. He is also stronger than many give him credit for.
Mane’s goal was extraordinary and evidenced all of the above, shrugging off Chambers before drifting inside and flashing a shot into Cech’s top left corner. It was – start up that hyperbole machine – Thierry Henry-esque.
* This might sound a little generous after his team conceded three times, but Ragnar Klavan also deserves credit for his performance on debut. Unlike Mane, Klavan had no experience of English football, and his signing had been treated with disdain by some Liverpool fans. Not any longer.
Klavan is not yet – and perhaps never will be – the cultured, ball-playing central defender that Klopp may prefer, but his ruggedness and determination was vital in the last ten minutes at the Emirates. Even if Joel Matip is Klopp’s first choice, Klavan will add plenty of quality in reserve. He is the new Martin Skrtel, but hopefully with fewer cock-ups.
Successful tackles – 3/3
Successful clearances – 8/8
Headed clearances – 6/6
Aerial Duals – 3/4
— Kop Data (@KopData) August 14, 2016
* If there is one ‘take home’ from this Liverpool performance, it is a simple one: Klopp’s side are going to be magnificent to watch this season. The lack of midfield enforcer (Emre Can is good, but not quite that yet), adequate left-back and weaknesses at defending set-pieces means they will ship a few goals, but a front four of Mane, Firmino, Coutinho and Georginio Wijnaldum could be about 55 different types of fun to watch.
Yet we can’t end anywhere other than Wenger, firmly pushing that buck back into his hand as he tries to throw it at anyone within earshot. Wenger first said in May that Arsenal needed a striker, and none has arrived. He first said in July that a central defender was needed as a matter of urgency, and none has arrived. These things are not matters of misfortune, but mismanagement.
“It seems like it’s difficult for Arsenal to attract players,” said Henry in the studio after the game. “Vardy rejected Arsenal. I don’t know why, but it’s difficult.”
Let me tell you why, Thierry, or at least offer a hypothesis. Arsenal are a club in perennial stagnancy, never doing more than taking two steps forward and then another two back. Potential signings don’t see a club with ambitions of glory, but consistency. Sadly, they don’t see a manager capable of creating a squad greater than the sum of its parts. They see a team destined to forever finish fourth, and always celebrate that achievement without dreams of what might be.
Most of all, they see a club with massive cash reserves, increased broadcasting revenues and the highest-priced tickets in the country who are unable or unwilling to lay the foundations of a serious title challenge. We all see it; how could you not? Wenger now has less than three weeks to address the problems in his squad, but we’ve seen little in the last three years to give us confidence.
Early hope, punctured by a setback that allows the rot to set in and a key player sustaining a muscle injury. Response when the pressure is finally off, followed by a rally that takes Arsenal to brink of achievement. It might only be their opening fixture, but it feels like we just watched Arsenal’s Groundhog season in one afternoon.