Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2 (Podolski 31, Cazorla 68)
There was a moment in today’s game where you sensed that something had changed with this Arsenal side. Lukas Podolski had just put us into the lead after an electric break involving Santi Cazorla, but up until then the match had been fairly even, so a response was expected. Pressure was certainly anticipated, given that we were up against a Liverpool team eager to impress their new manager, and backed by a supposedly raucous Anfield crowd, but as we awaited the reaction, a strange sense of comfort washed over many of us, the kind of comfort that a single goal lead hasn’t provided in years.
Liverpool looked bereft of ideas, certainly ideas that would cause the towering duo of Vermaelen and Mertesacker any serious issues, and they had no-one (bar Downing, so genuinely no-one) to threaten from the bench. The goal had already proven our potency on the counter attack, and with further pacy options waiting in the wings, we had plenty of threat if the home side pushed forward too far. And Liverpool knew it. One goal down at home, in the first half, against a side supposedly not at their best, and their belief was gone.
Heads dropped on the pitch, and in the crowd. You could hear a pin drop in three quarters of the stands, with the away support gleefully going through their repertoire and banishing the notion that Anfield is an intimidating place to go. On the field, Arsenal chests puffed out, and an unprecedented level of control was taken of the match. For the rest of the game, Mannone was troubled only by a few crosses (that the defence dealt with) and a couple of late efforts by Shelvey, which came after Cazorla’s strike had put the game beyond Liverpool’s reach. It was bizarrely comfortable.
A lot of the comfort stems from the improved defensive solidity throughout the team, to the point where Liverpool lost the belief that they would ever break us down, an impact we’ve rarely had on opposition teams in recent years. Most are putting this down to the Steve Bould effect, and there certainly is a big element of that, but I don’t think it is all that simple. You also have to bear in mind that the defensive side of our squad is settled – our first choices and reserves in the whole of the back line are unchanged from last season, and that alone helps the cohesion.
However, you can see Bould’s influence on the organisation, particularly from set pieces. It is easy to overlook the fact that we already had plenty of coaches who were defenders in their day (including the outgoing Pat Rice), but ultimately fresh ideas rarely hurt, and a man schooled in the George Graham era is always going to have new wisdom to impart. In a way, we saw the merging of two Arsenal eras – Graham’s fearsome, physical and impenetrable back line and Wenger’s slick attacking units. For every body thrown on the line to deny Liverpool an opening, there was a beautiful thirty pass move dizzying them into submission. The defence was classical, the goals were counter attacks attributable to the best of Wenger’s ideals.
It was a potent combination, and far too much for a Liverpool side who were made to look extremely poor. When you consider that this was the same team that should have beaten the champions last weekend, it was a very creditable victory that should instill the squad with a great deal of confidence. The attacking unity was much improved, particularly between Podolski and Cazorla, and the improved barriers at the back mean that we shouldn’t have to go chasing a game over and over again (no more stupid 4-3 losses to Blackburn, please). And all this without Szczesny, Koscielny, Sagna and Wilshere. Not bad, not bad at all.
One of the most pleasing things about the game was that we didn’t just outplay Liverpool, we outfought them. Defensive responsibility was never shirked, most evidenced by the hugely impressive Podolski, who took it upon himself to protect Gibbs throughout the entire match, playing a box to box role from the flank. But while the whole team performance was impressive (Jenkinson’s second half shackling of the impressive Sterling, and Arteta’s efficiency throughout deserve special mention), the standout man was one who spent the match confounding critics in a big way – Abou Diaby. The guy was an absolute monster in the middle of the park, with power combined with incredibly quick feet, and Liverpool never got near him. Even when he suffered a Skrtel clattering in the second half, he just got up and carried on dominating those around him, providing the platform from which the likes of Cazorla could build.
Fitness will always be the worry when it comes to the Frenchman, but he served up a timely reminder of why we have stuck by him so long – he is a fearsome talent when fit and firing. He always takes a few games to get up to speed, and too often has then been cut down by another problem. He deserves better, and it would be a wonderful story for this to be his breakthrough year after so many seasons of strife.
Back to the present, and today could be a breakthrough match. Two goalless draws left many unsure whether to be optimistic about the clean sheets or pessimistic about the lack of goals, but the signs of improvement are now clear to see. Time to build on them.
A good day.