Monday, April 6, 2015

Liverpool gunned down by four glorious goals

Going into Saturday’s game with Liverpool at Emirates Stadium, I was confident, but nagging doubts remained. Despite the good run of form, this is the Arsenal, and the self-destruct button is never far away. There was a feeling that after wins at Manchester City and Manchester United in 2015, Arsenal needed a victory against a big club at the Emirates to properly showcase the new found confidence. The Gunners produced that and more in an exciting performance.
What is especially great about Arsenal’s run of form is the quality of the play and the beauty of the goals they are scoring. In the previous home outing against West Ham, Arsenal scored three, all of which involved the swift passing and movement that has been the hallmark of Arsene Wenger teams in his time at the club.
Three of the four strikes to beat Liverpool did involve good passing, but they were all done at pace and were direct, as Arsenal adapted their style to expose Liverpool’s weaknesses. After a high-tempo start, during which Arsenal should have taken the lead, the Gunners kept applying pressure to Liverpool’s back three, winning the ball high up the pitch and then springing devastating attacks. The selection of Aaron Ramsey on the right of the midfield initially looked a strange one with Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott on the bench, but the Welshman’s relentless energy helped pressure the visitors, plus without a proper full-back to face, Ramsey was able to be effective in the space between Liverpool’s left centre-back and the wing-back.
Ramsey was involved in the opening goal as he pulled into space on the right to drag Mamadou Sakho out of the back three after an excellent pass to spread the play from Mesut Ozil. This created space for Hector Bellerin to burst forward from right-back and cut inside into the penalty area. For a teenage right-back, the left footed finish into the bottom corner which followed was sumptuous.
I think most Arsenal fans would love to see Carl Jenkinson make a career at the club, but the form of Bellerin recently has been exceptional, and at this rate, I’m struggling to see how the Englishman can force his way past Bellerin in the pecking order when he returns from his loan spell at West Ham.
Bellerin’s goal was the boost Arsenal needed to push on in the game and knocked the stuffing out of Liverpool after they’d had a dangerous period in the match. Moments later, the Gunners doubled the lead with another sensational strike. Mesut Ozil, who defied critics with a silky and dominant display in a big game, was clattered into by Sakho 25 yards out and to the right of goal, and immediately Ozil laid claim to the ball, knowing exactly what he wanted to do with the free-kick. The German delivered a powerful and precise side-footed shot perfectly into the corner of the net, leaving Mignolet reaching for thin air.
Liverpool were really rocking and Arsenal pounced again before half-time. The pressure high up the pitch paid off as Liverpool played a loose pass out of defence, and two passes later, the ball was exploding into their net. Bellerin found Ramsey, whose excellent turn and pass opened up the chance for Alexis Sanchez to fire a cannon into the roof of the net from just outside the box. After his extraordinarily high standards in the first half of the season, Alexis has been slightly more subdued of late, but he had no hesitation or lack-of-confidence to release a thunderbolt past the goalkeeper.
3-0 to the Arsenal at half time wasn’t flattering on the Gunners. They were sharper, faster and more ruthless than the visitors.
Unsurprisingly, the second half was quieter as Arsenal looked to maintain the lead, as memories of games such as Anderlecht still linger from earlier in the season. Liverpool changed formation and did enjoy more possession, but that was partly because Arsenal knew they didn’t have to bust a gut to force the issue in the match with a comfortable lead established. Arsenal still created the best chance as Olivier Giroud leapt above Kolo Toure to head towards goal, only for Mignolet to save well.
Hector Bellerin did show his inexperience as he lunged in on Raheem Sterling to concede a penalty with 15 minutes to go, and it was especially risky when already on a yellow card. Henderson scoring the penalty did create some anxiety around the ground, but Liverpool struggled to create any further openings to really test David Ospina, and any faint threat of a comeback evaporated when Emre Can stupidly chopped down Danny Welbeck having already been booked. His subsequent sending off immediately handed Arsenal back the initiative and opened up spaces for the Gunners to complete victory with a fourth goal.
It arrived just into injury time when Alexis Sanchez rolled the ball forward for Olivier Giroud to run onto and skip past Kolo Toure. At most other times in his Arsenal career, Giroud would probably have looked to pass or take a few extra touches before shooting. Instead, he instinctively fired a brilliant curling shot past the keeper from outside the box, adding some seriously stylish gloss to an already polished performance.
In the Liverpool goal, Simon Mignolet has had a lot of criticism for letting some of the Arsenal strikes past him, but the quality of the finishing shouldn’t be overlooked. Every single one was brilliant in its own way, and had Mignolet saved any of them, we’d be lauding some outstanding goalkeeping.
Arsenal’s attack has, rightly, taken the majority of the post-match plaudits for the way Liverpool were dismantled, but the defence also deserves a lot of praise. In the time when Arsenal’s midfield when slightly awol in the first half, Francis Coquelin put in a fantastic shift to protect the back four. Behind him, I was particularly impressed by Per Mertesacker. Liverpool clearly were looking to target his lack of pace by making Sterling operate on the the German’s side of the Arsenal back-line, but he couldn’t get past Mertesacker as the BFG showed all of his defensive know-how with some excellent positioning and tackling. Nacho Monreal also continued to impress with another solid showing at left-back.
Arsene Wenger saw his team blown away by a Liverpool team playing at a high tempo at Anfield last season, but the Frenchman designed a perfect plan to dish out the same pain to the same opponents. It was then executed really well by players who are gaining confidence game-by-game. Since the turn of the year, Arsenal have added serious substance to the sumptuous style of the play, and when everything comes together as it did for the most part of Saturday, it is quite something to watch.