Saturday, January 16, 2016

Arsenal and Liverpool Share the Spoils

Arsenal visited Anfield on Wednesday trying to solidify their position at the top of the table. Manchester United had drawn a day earlier and both Man City and Leicester City had tough matchups, with Everton and Tottenham, respectively. Liverpool was trying to get the signature win that would show that the Kloppaissance was truly underway, even with the long list of injured players out of the starting lineup. It was the symphony-conducting philosopher versus the heavy medal gegenpresser. The oddsmakers had the Gunners as slight favorites, though others tipped the home team to take advantage of the crowd.

It was the naysayers who had the first laugh as Liverpool were energetic from the start, scoring in the 10th minute with Firmino quickest to a Cech save, blasting it past the keeper to open the scoring. Arsenal were level four minutes later, however, when an excellent pass from Campbell found Ramsey on the right side of the box. The Welshman brushed the ball past Mignolet at the near post. Liverpool were back ahead in the 19th minute when Firmino buried the ball in the upper right hand corner of the goal after two straight giveaways by the Gunners in their own half. Arsenal were level again in the 25th minute, when Giroud got the slightest of touches at the near post on a corner, beating Mignolet; who probably should have done better. And that scoreline of 2-2 was how one of the better offensive halves of football in the league this season finished.

The second half saw the Gunners in the ascendancy and they forged ahead on an excellent individual goal from Giroud, who got the ball with his back to goal, shifted it across his body, pivoted and then planted it into the far corner (55’). Arsenal then went for the kill and had at least two good chances to take the two-goal lead that probably would have sealed an important road win, but were unable to take their chances. As the game crawled toward the final 15 minutes, the Gunners again looked suspect defensively and Liverpool spurned a couple of good chances themselves. Then, in the 90th minute, a header in the box from Benteke found its way to the center where sub Joe Allen beat the Gunner defense and slotted home for the equalizer. Liverpool looked the more likely to snatch the win in extra time, but Arsenal held on for the point.

It was a missed opportunity for the Gunners and a solid display by Liverpool, though their inability to hold two leads will certainly be disappointing. Giroud scored a brace, but could have made it a hat trick and put the game away. Campbell was excellent again, even as it was his mistake that indirectly led to the second Liverpool goal. Ramsey played well in his preferred central role as well, though it is clear that the combination of he and Flamini leaves Arsenal too often exposed at the back. In fact, we could see new signing Elneny slot into the starting lineup as soon as Sunday, though it is unclear whether his defensive abilities are sufficient to stop an improved Stoke City attack. Arsenal have not won there in six years and really need to start establishing some momentum if they are to win the title this year. One player who should arguably be left out is Walcott, who seemed more intent on giving the ball away than actually taking his chances on the other end. Walcott has only 3 goals and 2 assists in 15 league appearances this season (12 starts and 3 off the bench; with another 2 goals and 1 assist in 4 UCL appearances) and has only scored one in his last 11 appearances in all competitions. After a decent start to the season, he has regressed to the player from a few seasons ago who does not show the requisite composure in front of goal, while clearly being a liability in ball retention and defending. With Sanchez coming back and Campbell much improved, one wonders if the English International might soon find himself on the bench.

For Liverpool, this might have been their best display under Klopp, and yet they still only garnered a point. It showed a young team with real potential, as Fermino finally showed off his clear talent (he would have had a hat trick if his dipping left-footed shot in the second half dipped a couple of inches lower instead of hitting the post). And yet they still conceded three goals at Anfield and continued to suffer from a goalkeeper who does not seem to be up to snuff for a team trying to compete for the Top 4 and trophies. Defensively, they have been suspect intermittently throughout the season, and it is still unclear where the goals will come from, from week to week. Benteke does not seem to be the kind of player Klopp wants, Origi is injured and Sturridge, of course, has spent more time on the training table than on the pitch in the last 12 months. The gegenpress certainly unsettled the league leaders for large spells of the game, and the Reds showed forward momentum that has often been missing during Klopp’s brief reign. On the other hand, he has established an incipient habit of getting his players to perform well in the “big games,” beating Leicester City 1-0, Chelsea 3-1 and absolutely smothering Man City 4-1 before the draw Wednesday. It is against lower opponents that his new team have been more suspect, losing to West Ham, Watford and Newcastle, among other suspect results (including the 2-2 draw with Exeter in the FA Cup, even with a heavily rotated starting 11).

For Arsenal, the draw will raise the old questions that have hounded this team since the last title way back in 2004. Can they win games against top opponents? Do they concede at too high a rate in these games, playing too open a style (even when ahead)? Do they have the mental strength necessary to maintain a title charge throughout an entire 38-game schedule? And, most saliently, can Wenger finally compile a squad and tactical approach to again raise the most coveted trophy in England? This result gave mixed signals in that regard, as the Gunners did come back twice from deficits early in the game, rather than collapsing, as has happened too often in the past. They even forged ahead and seemed poised to purloin all three points. But just like Gunner squads of the past, they lost their composure down the stretch and let those two points slip away. Now a tough trip to Stoke awaits, followed later in the second half of the season by visits to United, Tottenham, Everton and City (the second to last game of the season, one might add).

The Gunners have had chances to build a lead at the top, but slipped up in November, lost that bizarre 4-0 game to Southampton and then dropped two points Wednesday. They have a nice run of fixtures coming up following Stoke, with a home game against struggling Chelsea, a home rematch with Southampton and a trip to Bournemouth before a key battle at the Emirates with Leicester on February 13, right before the first leg of their Round of 16 tie with Barcelona. If they can maximize points over that stretch, they could certainly see their lead over a Kompany-less City expand beyond its current three points. Slip up now, though, and the best chance at a title in years might again slip through their fingers. Liverpool seem light of the talent to march all the way up the table from their current position in ninth, 12 points behind Arsenal and Leicester, but given the continued questions at United, Tottenham’s tendency for a “late fade” and the sense among many that Leicester will slip up at some point (even as they are doing a good job of making all of those doubters look foolish), the Top 4 is not completely out of the question yet and a European spot certainly within their grasps with more consistent results. The games Sunday should provide more hints as to where these two teams are heading, as Arsenal head to one of their least favorite grounds in the EPL and Liverpool host United at Anfield.

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