Monday, August 24, 2015

Arsenal and Liverpool Play Out a Lively Goalless Draw

Arsenal hosted Liverpool on a rainy evening in London in a game important to both teams. Arsenal needed to build on their narrow win over Crystal and restore the fear factor at the Emirates, and Liverpool were looking to improve against the top teams after a poor showing last season. The bad news started before the game for Arsenal, though, as both Koscielny and Mertesacker were out, the former with a back injury and the latter with an ailment of some sort. The young duo of Chambers and Gabriel were tasked with trying to stop the powerful Benteke and tricky youngsters Coutinho and Firmino. The first two almost took advantage of their inexperience within the first three minutes, with two decent chances including a Coutinho shot that hit the inside of the top bar and bounced out. Arsenal settled though and had a goal incorrectly disallowed offsides in the eighth minute, when Ramsey was clearly onsides before he blasted it past Mignolet from close range. It was the third bad call in Liverpool’s favor in two games and a major disappointment for Arsenal, who haven’t been robbed by the officiating crews in the last two years as they had been in the past. On 14 minutes, more shambolic defending by Arsenal threatened their goal again and led to an important last minute tackle by Coquelin, who suffered a knock but got back into the game immediately, though reminding Arsenal fans how short we are in that position. But Arsenal were dominating possession (to the tune of 70 percent) and had completed almost twice as many passes as Liverpool with an 85 percent completion rate. On 17 minutes, they earned their first corner, though it was easily caught by Mignolet after a looping Gabriel header.

Arsenal were smooth offensively, but giving the ball away in their own half too often. After Cazorla was dispossessed in the 22nd minute, Benteke was all but free on goal, but for another Coquelin intervention, that just nicked the ball and ended the threat. Two minutes later, Chambers gave it away not for the first time and only a last second save by Cech stopped a Milner shot from squibbing into the near corner. Giving the ball away was quickly becoming an epidemic and Liverpool were unlucky not to take advantage as the clock moved toward the quarter match mark.  Chambers was beaten by Benteke soon after, only saved by Bellerin, the most solid member of the Gunner’s back four. The game was back and forth from here, Arsenal’s possession failing to garner any shots while Liverpool couldn’t finish their stronger penetration. In the 33rd minute, Gabriel recovered well to snatch the ball from Coutinho, just as he was lining up a free shot on goal. Cazorla was having a tough first half, as was Giroud, both losing the ball far too frequently under tight coverage. Cech saved the day again in the 38th minute after Bellerin gave the ball away just outside the box leading to a perfect cross Benteke was about to bury when Cech got a finger on the ball and sent it wide. Brendan Rodgers was already celebrating and had to turn and swallow his disappointment. A moment later Cech added another excellent save before Fermino sent a shot from the top of the box wide. The only good news for the Gunners was they were closing in on halftime and a break from the steady pressure and missed opportunities, with far too many passes a little long of targets in dangerous positions, including a free kick by Ozil on 41 minutes. Soon after, Chambers was giving the ball away yet again (the fourth or fifth time) in his own half and the Gunners were only saved by an offsides Benteke.

Cech just touched a brutal shot by Coutinho across goal in the final minute of the first half, sending the ball into the far post and out before punching out a dangerous cross a moment later. Cech was the hero, arguably saving Arsenal from being down two or three, while Coquelin was the key force in front of him. Arsenal were shambolic, Liverpool were rampant, but the half ended 0-0. Liverpool were playing for space over possession in what appeared to be a 4-1-4-1 and it was working, with 11 shots and 5 on target on only 39 percent possession. Arsenal, on the other hand, were looking shaky on the defensive end and in possession but should have been 1-0 up early, after the Ramsey goal was incorrectly adjudged offsides. It is an occurrence that has happened too often in this early season and needs to be fixed. At minimum, the line judges must be told to only raise the flag when they are CERTAIN of an offsides, and maybe the calls for some sort of video replay will amplify after the multitude of poor decisions in the early going.

The second half began with a half chance after Monreal sent in a dangerous cross, but Mignolet was out early and punched it powerfully out. Liverpool were again pressing Arsenal at the back and it seemed to be affecting their passing acumen, as Arsenal continued to have trouble getting the ball in the opposition’s box. Cazorla tried a shot from range, but it was blocked. Giroud, in particular, was ineffective, losing out over and over again in one-on-ones and one wondered if Wenger would replace him with the pace of Walcott, to stretch the Reds. Then, just as I wrote this in the 52nd minute, Giroud got in on goal and forced a corner, though it was dealt with tidily by a solid Liverpool defense that has yet to yield a goal (though two have been incorrectly ruled out). Monreal earned a second corner a moment later and Arsenal began to pass with more efficiency around the box but still failed to register a shot on goal as Liverpool sat back and tried to play on the counter. Giroud got a shot in the 57th minute off a volley, but it was well wide. Oliver finally brought Mignolet and captain Milner together to warn them about the time wasting that had been going on since the opening whistle. Soon after, Sanchez was dispossessed again, but Arsenal were pressing well themselves getting the ball back quickly. On 60 minutes, a beautiful exchange of passes left Sanchez in on goal on the left hand side, but he sent his shot wide. He has only scored in one of his last nine appearances and appears to be off his best, as are Arsenal at home in their last five, having only won the game against West Brom 4-1 at the end of last season, and failing to score in four of those games.

Skrtel earned the first yellow of the game on 61 minutes after a harsh foul on Sanchez that led to a Cazorla free kick, again easily handled by Liverpool. Liverpool took out Firmino for Ibe a minute later, after a decent performance by the youngster. Arsenal were in control of the game with Liverpool appearing to be playing for the draw or to catch the Gunners on the counter, while Ozil and Cazorla looked more lively creating a series of half chances before a Ramsey cross just missed a charging Giroud. Gabriel then earned a yellow on 65 minutes with a professional foul to avoid a rare Liverpool counter in the second half. After a small spell of possession for Liverpool, Ramsey stole the ball and was on the counter himself when fouled by Can, who earned the third yellow of the evening. Giroud has 42 goals in his first 99, and only four Arsenal players have scored more in their first century, but he scuffed a good chance in 68th minute and then another even better chance from five yards a moment later he really should have scored on, though Mignolet saved well. It was another average performance from Arsenal’s striker who could have easily put in two and further evidence that another striker is necessary for Arsenal to make a real run at the title. Liverpool were soon on the counter, but Milner shot hard right at Cech. Ramsey almost planted the ball in the far corner on 72 minutes, though Mignolet recovered well to grab it and then Benteke sent his own shot on the other side long after a long goal kick. Giroud finally made way for Walcott on 73 minutes, a move that maybe should have come ten minutes earlier.

Walcott’s first touch was an attempt to get around a defender, though he dribbled the ball out of bounds, after Bellerin again impressed with a dispossession of the slick Brazilian Coutinho in the box. With 15 minutes left, the highly effective Lucas was taken off and replaced with the potential youthful exuberance of Rossiter. Some good work from Ramsey down the right flank earned a free kick and a yellow on Gomez in the 79th minute and Gabriel had an excellent challenge on the edge of the box from Ibe, continuing a solid performance, before another good save from Cech. Oxlade-Chamerlain was on for Coquelin as the clock shuttled past 81 scoreless minutes. Ramsey sent a shot in from distance on 83 minutes that almost deflected past Mignolet at the near post. Ox got past Gomez and sent a dangerous cross that Walcott looked likely to tap in before a fine last second intervention from Srktel. Mignolet was finally given a yellow for more time wasting as Liverpool looked like a team hanging on for a point. Arsenal were shooting from distance, but without much effectiveness as Cazorla sent it high and wide with four minutes left in regulation.

Coutinho was subbed out in the 87th minute, replaced by Moreno as Liverpool tried to further shore up the defense. Arsenal were still dominating, but failing to make the key pass, when a terrible sideways pass by the largely ineffective Sanchez sent Liverpool on the counter with only two minutes left in extra time, only for Moreno to make the wrong choice and Gabriel to again intervene. Ox sent in a dangerous shot on the return but Mignolet was there again to send it out for a corner. Then Gabriel almost scored on the final touch of the game, beating Mignolet to the ball but heading just over. It was the fifth game in six in the league that Arsenal have failed to score at home and any notion they don’t need reinforcements now seems absurd (it was also the first time since 1979 that they failed to score in their first two home games). Will Wenger sign anyone up in the next week? The reality, of course, is Arsenal should have won this game 1-0 but for a terrible call from the referee, with Liverpool arguably having been gifted four of their seven points this season, but they appear in trouble. When teams sit back and absorb their pressure, they run out of ideas. With Giroud, they lack pace, without him they lack height.

Maybe Cavani could solve some of these problems, as Benzema seems like a distant fantasy, but is Cavani really coming to the Emirates? There are also rumors of Arsenal coming in for Real’s Illarramendi, who could shore up the back a little more and serve as good cover for Coquelin. They can take positives from the performance of Cech at the back and Gabriel right in front of him, though Chambers still looks shaky. And they certainly should have scored. But isn’t this the problem? Cazorla will chip in a few goals, Ramsey as well, but Sanchez doesn’t seem to be the same player in the early going, Ozil rarely scores and Giroud is only good for about two every five games. Maybe Walcott can go on another scoring streak, but as has been apparent in the results, Arsenal are short of goals after the fine run from the New Year until early April. Liverpool, on the other hand, looked bright throughout the first half and more solid at the back than they have been in a few years. They could easily have put the game away in the first half but for Cech’s brilliance and held out for a point after absorbing pressure for most of the second. They now have seven points from nine in their first three and though, as I mentioned previously, one could question four of them, they find themselves near the top of the table above Arsenal, Chelsea and United. Arsenal now have two winnable games against Newcastle and Stoke, before a visit to the Bridge on September 19th that is looking increasingly important if the Gunners aren’t to again fall out of the title race early. Liverpool, on the other hand, have a nice run of games against West Ham, Norwich and Aston Villa, with only a visit to United sandwiched in and the derby at Everton to end that promising fixture list.

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