Sunday, August 27, 2017

Arsenal Shamed by Liverpool at Anfield (4-0)

Liverpool bulldozed Arsenal today at Anfield, cruising to a 4-0 win that could have been even worse, but for a couple of decent Cech saves and a few missed opportunities to score. It was a truly disgraceful performance by the Gunners that was universally condemned, even by their own “stars.” The opener came in the 17th minute, when Arsenal killer Firmino (four goals in five games against the North London outfit) snuck between the Gunner’s three centre backs and headed the ball in off the turf from an Emre Can cross, after one of at least 30 needless turnovers by the Gunners. The second, which all but sealed the victory given the lack of offensive thrust from the Gunners, came on 40 minutes, with a deadly Liverpool counter, aided by undisciplined play by Ramsey for the second time, was finished by the impressive Mane. Arsenal started the second half a little brighter and looked poised to make a game of it before Salah robbed Hector Bellerin halfway inside his own half and charged forward to score. The humiliation was made complete in the 77th minute, when Daniel Sturridge scored his first of the season with an open header from a Salah cross.

Three thoughts on the game:

1. Last Week Finishing, This Week …. Everything
It is rare that you witness a game where one side can have no complaints, with everyone chipping in to their strengths, and the other can take absolutely no positives. Liverpool, of course, are the former and Arsenal the latter. This was about as abject as I have ever seen Arsenal play, even worse than the two 5-1 losses to Bayern last season or the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of United in 2011. It was not just the errant passes, the defensive mistakes and the lapses of reason, but the general lack of passion, conviction or effort that defined this capitulation by the Gunners.

In the end, this loss comes down to a lack of effort and will to win by the players, but that is the job of the manager. Sanchez wants to leave. Ozil might want to leave, if there were any worthwhile takers. Ox has an impressive offer on the table, but seems like he would rather move on to Chelsea or another EPL side. And in a surprising story this morning, it appears Mustafi might want to leave a mere year after arriving. That is not healthy for any team and speaks to the sense that the team is just not good enough. On top of that, was the tactics employed by Wenger in this game, and in most of the games against the rest of the top 6 over that past almost decade. He refuses to play defensively, hoping he can outscore his opponents, even on the road, and seems to have no Plan B as things fall apart.

Some questions for Wenger: 1. Why are there still no leaders on this side since the departure of Viera et al? 2. Why not play Mustafi or Kolasinac through the middle, instead of continuing to use Monreal there, even as it is not a natural fit for him? Or what of Mertesacker (though maybe his pace would be an issue against this Liverpool side)? And why did you sell Gabriel? 3. Why wouldn’t you play the prolific striker you signed for a record fee against a Liverpool side that has shown defensive liabilities over the past few seasons? And why play the wasteful Welbeck through the middle instead? On top of that is playing Bellerin on the opposite side of his strength, just to accommodate a player who appears ready to leave no matter what (Ox, for those who are wondering), 4. Might it have made sense to start Coquelin beside Xhaka, to give your side more solidity through the middle? 5. Why has your side been so bad against the Top 6 (and the best teams in Europe) for a full decade now – except a couple of seasons ago when you actually played a more defensive/counterattacking style that actually reaped some positive results? 6. When are you going to leave?  

2.  Want-aways Showed It Today
Ox showed up with a couple of early runs, but was nowhere to be seen in covering the defense on counters or providing anything meaningful on the offensive side. Ozil was downright awful; so bad, in fact, that he collapsed to the pitch at the end of the game looking baffled and lost by how poor he had played. He apologized to the fans via social media this evening, but does that really make up for his continued tendency to disappear in big games. And Sanchez, though just returning from a long layoff, did not display the usual passion or drive we are used to finding from the Chilean. In fact, him grinning on the sideline after being substituted essentially sums up all that is wrong with the side at the moment.

All three seemed like they would rather be elsewhere, and every indication is that their play might just match their desire moving forward if they are not allowed to leave a club they feel will not improve dramatically enough to challenge for the title or in Europe. Who can blame them at this point, though it is worth noting that, beyond Sanchez (and even him on occasion), these players have been on the pitch for at least the past four years and have failed to deliver when the stakes rose.

There are also rumors swirling that Mustafi might move on to Inter. Having watched the game today from up close, let’s hope Wenger realizes he needs Mustafi more than ever, as Holding is starting to look a little out of his depths against speedy wingers and Monreal just shouldn’t play through the middle any longer – the step he’s lost in the last season or so together with his height making him a consistent liability. Koscielny cannot do it alone, and the rest of the side seems more intent on attacking as a unit than ensuring they keep their discipline and, as counterintuitive as it appears to Arsenal, the odd clean sheet.

3. Liverpool Irresistible as Dominance of Top 6 Continues
Liverpool were the best team in the division against the rest of the Top 6 last season and have continued that with one of their most impressive victories since their near miss in 2013. Without two of their best players, in Coutinho and Lallana, they absolutely dominated Arsenal across the pitch, using their pace on the counter to dust the visitors. More impressive was the defensive display, with their three midfielders dominated Xhaka and Ramsey (and later Coquelin).

Klopp might finally have a team close to one of his own making, and that is starting to show. He is among the finest managers in football not only for his tactical nous, though we will again have to see if the players tire around Christmas, as they have the past two seasons, but for his ability to get the best out of his players. Without the budget or stars of the sides around him, he has found a way to compete at the top level, even as trophies have eluded him in recent years (a rather poor record in finals that goes back to his last few years at Dortmund).

The team has plenty of attacking power and pace, with Salah looking like an excellent signing, Mane among the best wingers in the league, Firmino growing in stature, and Sturridge able to score at a stellar rate, even if the rest of his game does not suit his German leader. The back line has improved since the first game of the season and Can and Henderson were everywhere across the pitch, potentially forming a partnership shield that can address the leaky defense that has cost them far too many points, particularly against lesser sides, over the past few seasons. And as a reminder, this is a side that was lacking their most talented player, in Coutinho, and another attacking threat in Lallana.

United seem like the early form team in the league, City are finding ways to garner points without being terribly impressive and Chelsea have bounced back nicely from their shock opening defeat, though three games doesn’t tell us as much as the pundits would like to pretend. But Liverpool should certainly be in the conversation for a title contender, particularly as Tottenham continue to struggle in their temporary home at Wembley, blowing two points in extra time to put a wry smile on the face of Gooners, like me, who are considering simply forgetting about football and following professional bocce tournaments as neutral supporters instead.

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