Even though Arsenal fought back to gain an element of respectability in losing 3-4 to Liverpool on the opening day of the season, it shouldn’t mask what was a disastrous period of play after half-time as the Gunners’ lack of experience at the back cost them dearly.
Most of the time, I will always defend Arsene Wenger. I understand his reluctance in the transfer market because of the inflated fees being thrown around at the moment, but there really is no good reason as to why we were in a position of having to start Calum Chambers and Rob Holding together on the first day of the season. A more experienced centre-back should have been being considered at the start of the window, before Per Mertesacker picked up a long-term injury, but after that happened, urgency should have been shown to get someone in. It was already known that Laurent Koscielny would be missing against Liverpool as well, so there really is no good reason as to why Arsenal were left with the situation they were in against Jurgen Klopp’s team.
Having been pegged back to 1-1 just before half-time, Arsenal just folded after the restart. The lack of a leader in the center of the pitch was so obvious as the Gunners didn’t react well enough to Coutinho’s equalizer. There wasn’t much Arsenal could have done about the free-kick from the Brazilian, but they let it affect them too much. Without someone like Mertesacker, Koscielny or Cazorla in the center of the field to pull the team together, they melted down and suddenly found themselves 4-1 down.
It is to Arsenal’s credit that they didn’t throw in the towel and they made a fist of a comeback, but it was always a big ask to get back level in a mess of their own making.
Of the three players Arsene Wenger introduced off the bench, I was surprised that all three didn’t make the starting XI itself, as Oxlade-Chamberlain immediately posed questions to a shaky Liverpool defence, and Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka gave slightly more control in a frantic midfield. Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny had good moments in the game but in the key part of the game, they went missing. With such an inexperienced center-back pairing, the holding midfielders should have offered them more protection.
In the center of the pitch, I was staggered that Santi Cazorla didn’t start the game because of the control he can exert over a game. Apart from Mesut Ozil, he is the one player in the squad that can almost single-handedly control the tempo of a game. As the Gunners panicked at the start of the second half, Cazorla could have been the go-to man to just regain some composure as Liverpool began to overrun the midfield. His ability to take the ball from the back four and relieve the pressure on them by getting them out of tight situations was badly missed in that period of the game before he came on.
Even though he scored an excellent goal in the first half, the match also epitomized fans’ frustrations with Theo Walcott. He wins a penalty, great. He has a poor penalty saved. He scored a goal, superb. He trips over the ball in the penalty area when we’re fighting for an equalizer. It’s hard to get my head round how inconsistent he is, not just during different weeks or months of the season, but during individual minutes of the same match. Oxlade-Chamberlain offered much more than him when he entered the field in the second half, and one of the best attackers in pre-season, Joel Campbell, wasn’t even on the bench.
One of the many daft things about the defeat is that that particular starting XI are highly unlikely to line up for the club again this season. Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil’s chances of being thrust back into first-team action have been done no harm by the way the team played without them. I think one or two new players will come in, with the defeat only hastening the need for that to happen. Plus both Alex Iwobi and Aaron Ramsey limped off, so enforced changes will be needed next week. It just seems bizarre to start the season with a line-up that will only last one game, and it points to poor planning. The injuries in pre-season were unfortunate, but everything else wasn’t a surprise and could have been planned for. It just feels like Arsenal weren’t ready.
Arsenal can recover from this opening day debacle, as they did a few season ago when a calamitous game against Aston Villa was followed by a run of good form and the signing of Mesut Ozil. Hopefully the experience from that situation will help the Gunners to knuckle down and know that they can turn this around. But it just seems strange that Arsenal have allowed themselves to get in the position of having to fight back from an opening day defeat when everything that went wrong could have been predicted and efforts made to stop Arsenal not being ready.
It shouldn’t be the case that it needs a bad defeat to spark Arsene Wenger into action in the transfer market, but bad early defeats in 2011 and 2013 did result in players being brought in later than they should have been when the signs were there that there were holes in the squad prior to the season starting. As I’ve said previously on this blog, I do have sympathy for Wenger in this crazy inflated transfer market, but when the team has suffered in the opening matches in previous years, the manager should have been doing everything possible to stop that from happening again. Waiting for the market itself to open up isn’t a good enough reason to get business done, if the team needs urgent reinforcement before the opening day, Wenger should have forced the market himself by doing deals.
So the same issues remain and Arsenal are making the same mistakes as they’ve have done at the start of previous seasons. It’s good to be back.