Thursday, January 14, 2016

Frustration following another late Anfield leveller

When Arsenal were pegged back late on against Liverpool at Anfield last season, it was hard to feel hard done by as the Gunners had, generally, been dominated in that 2-2 draw. That game came at a time when Arsenal were struggling for a run of form and had stuttered through the season. But on Wednesday night at Anfield, Arsenal arrived as the league leaders, and while they were still top of the pile on leaving Liverpool, the points lead in the table had been eaten into after a late equaliser salvaged a 3-3 draw for the hosts.
Conceding a late equaliser in any game is incredibly frustrating, and it was made more so by the fact Arsenal had worked hard, and played some good football, to get that lead having been 1-0 and then 2-1 down at different points in the first half. In such a bizarre and unpredictable season, it could turn out to be a good point, especially when Arsenal started sluggishly and were some way from their best for parts of the match, but with other big away games still to come in the second half of the season, a win at Anfield would have been a massive boost of confidence for the squad.
The slow start has been a common theme in a lot of Arsenal’s recent trips to Anfield, as it seemed the initial ploy was to sit a bit deeper and soak up pressure, as has worked for Arsenal in other big games this season. But with Jurgen Klopp’s team pressing high up the pitch, it meant it was difficult for Arsenal to make serious inroads into the Liverpool half and it invited pressure. That pressure told when Petr Cech parried a shot from outside the box and Roberto Firmino put away the rebound.
Arsenal’s response was excellent though as they crafted a lovely goal in one of their first meaningful attacks. Olivier Giroud won a good header in the Liverpool half, with the ball eventually reaching Joel Campbell. The Costa Rican slid the ball behind the defence for Aaron Ramsey to run onto and finish past Mignolet at his near post.
The goal was typical of the threat that Aaron Ramsey brings to the team, especially when playing in central midfield. But Ramsey’s willingness to burst forward can leave Arsenal’s midfield exposed and often means the match as whole is a more open affair. In some ways, it’s just a trade-off to be accepted, that playing Ramsey means we could be more vulnerable but have more of a goal threat from midfield. But Ramsey needs to become a better judge of when to make a gung-ho run forward and when to just sit in central midfield alongside the holding player. Too often there is too much of a gap between him near the centre-forward and Mathieu Flamini as the holding player, but Ramsey mustn’t curb all of his attacking instincts as he is a nightmare for defenders when he joins the attack.
Having got back in the game, Arsenal were caught out again as Firmino found the top corner from outside the box to make it 2-1. The finish itself was unstoppable, but from an Arsenal point of view, the Brazilian wasn’t closed down quick enough and was invited to try his luck from 20 yards.
But once again Arsenal responded brilliantly. A clever passing move almost put Ramsey in for his second, but his chip was headed over the bar by Sakho on his own line. From the resulting corner, Arsenal exposed Liverpool’s weakness at set-pieces as Ramsey whipped in a flat ball to the near post and Olivier Giroud deftly flicked the ball through Mignolet.
Instead of sitting back after equalising, Arsenal sensed a chance to lead before half-time and should have taken the lead when Giroud misjudged Theo Walcott’s low cross across the box. Walcott linked up brilliantly with Joel Campbell but Giroud mistimed his attempt and somehow missed from a few yards out. At the other end, Firmino almost grabbed a hat-trick before half-time as he flashed a shot just over the bar. No side really had control on the game, which was great to watch for a neutral but pretty torturous for fans of either team.
In the second half, Arsenal came out positively and did take control of the match, with Liverpool looking increasingly vulnerable. That positive start to the second half paid off when Giroud, after such a bad miss in the first half, scored a superb second goal. Campbell looked to link-up with Ramsey in a similar way to the first goal, but when the ball broke to Giroud in the box, he took an excellent first touch to shift the ball away from the defender before whipping a clinical finish into the bottom corner.
Gradually, as the second half went on, Arsenal retreated slightly and were predominantly playing on the break, using Giroud to hold up the play. But they couldn’t kill the match off as a few opportunities went begging as the final pass wasn’t right or the runner with the ball on the counter-attack was dispossessed too easily. Arsenal were punished when Benteke won a header in the box in the 90th minute to set up Joe Allen to shoot into the bottom corner. It wasn’t terrible defending from Arsenal that cost them, but just small details made a difference as Benteke could have been challenged more in the air, Bellerin could have been quicker to close down Allen and Cech might have got a stronger hand on the ball to keep it out.
On the balance of play in the game, a draw was definitely the right result, but the worrying thing will be if there is any lasting damage to Arsenal psychologically from drawing the game late on. We should get an answer on Sunday with the trip to Stoke, who will be very keen to expose that damage if possible.