One team was hungry for the title, while the other was hungry for a top 4 finish for next season’s Eurotrip. Emirates was the perfect setting for two giants of English football – Arsenal and Liverpool – to battle it out for their respective season ambitions. As usual, it was an encounter that came with heightened expectations, and it turned out to be a game that stretched the muscles of every player whose efforts were dedicated for a victory. The game however, circled around its own dynamics and ended in the most dramatic of fashions. Liverpool might still have an outside chance to wiggle their way into the top 4 but Arsenal’s title hopes have taken a blow, again.
The home side took the field in a 4-3-3 formation and Arsene made no hesitation in fielding all his top performers in a game that was going to decide his team’s charge towards the title. Although their central defense did not boast of the strongest pair, the presence of Wilshere and Fabregas in the middle of the park, along with Van Persie, Walcott and Nasri upfront clearly defined the Gunners’ mindset on Sunday.
Dalglish, on the other hand, was not going to tamper with the winning side that he listed for the game against Manchester City early last week, which meant a 4-4-2 with the same set of players in the park. Many would have been skeptical about the inclusion of 18 year old John Flanagan at right-back but the defender showed that he does have the mettle to be present on the big stage. Expectations were implicitly laid on the shoulders of Carroll, who enjoyed a good game against Manchester City last week. Attack was the way to go, but given Arsenal’s style of football, it was important to keep an eye for that odd pass that would come through from anywhere in the park.
First Half: Liverpool’s Pass and Move: There was the pass, but where was the move?
The first 45 minutes were as they were expected to be. Arsenal was the big giant approaching its prey and Wenger cannoned each of his players into Liverpool’s half without wasting any time. Arsenal’s build up game starts only around a few yards before the 18 yard box and save Arsenal’s central defense, every other player made sure he was going to fit into the scheme of a clever pass. It is never easy to deal with the likes of Fabregas, Nasri and Wilshere. And for a good part of 20 minutes, Liverpool struggled to get out of their own half. Arsenal were spot on with the way they had wished to begin the game.
Dalglish has instilled the whole pass-and-move philosophy into every Liverpool player and it has, no doubt, yielded fantastic results. Prior to this game, out of the 12 matches that Kenny has been in charge of, Liverpool had scored first in 11 of them. It is fine as long as you pour this sauce in Liverpool’s attacking recipe. But when it comes to winning the ball from the opponents and knitting an attack from its own half, Liverpool aren’t there yet. It was one big black melee for Liverpool as each player was looking for a counterpart to receive his pass. It is easy to just clear the ball out in any random direction, but to be actually applauded for a good goal, you should have a good build up. Liverpool failed to do just that and were very lucky not to have gone down by a goal or two in the opening half of the game itself.
Kenny’s big gamble
When you take a risk on something that is very important to you, you never stop thinking about its consequences. For a manager, this transcends into making the right choice of players before and during a game. But if you are making the right choice, there shouldn’t be any risk, right? Such was a moment in the first half when Fabio Aurelio was struck by the hamstring curse again. The Brazilian has had a troubled season for this lone cause and fell prey to a hamstring injury. There was no doubt he had to be taken off, but the bigger question was, who would come in place of him?
The other Jack, and this one’s a gem too!
Surprisingly, Jonathan Wilson was not included in the squad and with a depleted defense, Kenny had to pump in academy players to carry on the responsibilities. Flanagan was already performing his duties on the right and he was then joined by Jack Robinson, the 17 year old left back who has had no Premier League experience this season whatsoever. From a lay man’s perspective, it was nothing but a gamble. Only Kenny knew what Robinson was all about and as it would turn out, he was right in bringing on the Liverpool product. Robinson performed exceptionally well against a dangerous Walcott and deserved some kind words from one and many.
Kenny doesn’t bring a new face, nor does Wenger
Judging by his body language, it didn’t seem like Wenger was unhappy with the first half performance. There was very little that Arsenal did wrong in the first half and it was believed that a goal was around the corner. The Reds however had 15 minutes in their dressing room to think about their stale performance, but came out looking like the beads of the same thread.
Kenny was right in not making any substitutions prior to the second half because, quite simply, his team had done nothing as yet. So it wouldn’t be right for him to judge the performance of any player in order to take him off. Walking over to the other side, Wenger had no real need to make any substitution either because his team was the dominating one.
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky
Liverpool were doing a good job with some disciplined defending at the start of the second half but then opened the Pandora’s Box. Flanagan and Carragher both went after the ball and resulted in a nasty collision. With the youngster’s head smashing into Carra’s jaw, Liverpool’s chances of a victory seemed as crushed as the latter’s teeth. Play was stalled for about 6 minutes which should’ve given Wenger enough time to ploy his next move. But, he didn’t.
The Professor got it wrong at the Emirates.
The opponent’s most experienced and important defender was just knocked out cold and stretchered off the pitch. If this is not an ominous sign, then why wasn’t Marouane Chamakh introduced onto the pitch? Carra’s substitute, Kyriagkos, is over 32 years old and has lost his agility and pace. He would never have matched the aerial power and presence of Chamakh. With the presence of Nasri and Walcott, putting in those crosses was never going to be the toughest thing to do and Wenger simply got it all wrong there. The result was that Arsenal continued to push the ball along the ground and Liverpool still had more than enough players to deal with it.
The Jonjo Shelvey substitution
Kenny went a little too far in trusting the youth in the game against Arsenal. Players like Flanagan and Robinson have come through the academy and are well versed in the Liverpool style of play. However, Jonjo Shelvey, having come from Charlton, is a diamond that needs some polishing. Yesterday’s game summed up this description about the youngster.
Hailed by many in the dressing room as the next “Steven Gerrard” doesn’t really win you games and Kenny made a big mistake in bringing Shelvey on. The midfielder’s impact was there to be seen. He not only failed to deliver the ball into the box but also his misplaced passes and his mere presence on the right unbalanced Liverpool’s pace that they were just starting to gain.
Time was a friend indeed
It was an evening where Wenger had got two of his substitutions wrong. There was simply no point in bringing on Alex Song for Diaby, and prior to that, bringing on Nicklas Bendtner, instead of Chamakh. Arshavin was a good choice and given his recent history against Liverpool, few would argue that it was a wrong move. However, even with all the missed opportunities and mistakes that Arsenal made, the Gods were still kind. Faces around the Emirates glistened when they heard the announcer say “8 minutes.”
If Kenny was really going for the win, then Liverpool should have tried something unexpected in these last 8 minutes. Meireles has been prolific when he has marched down the pitch and with the absence of Carroll, he should have taken a more central and attacking role upfront. Liverpool instead continued to play a 4-4-2 that led to nothing substantial.
And then, there was madness
The funny thing about football is, when a high-tension game is drawing to a close, with two sides getting more desperate with each passing second for a victory, all the discipline and professionalism suddenly vanishes into thin air and all that matters is to put that ball into back of the net.
Seven minutes into extra time, hell broke lose when out of nowhere, the pint-sized Jay Spearing tripped Fabregas. Now it was all done in a state of panic and it is not really right to say that it was a reckless challenge. Nonetheless, Arsenal finally scored and looked good to give Manchester United a run for their money. But it was never going to end so soon, was it? Liverpool started in the centre of the park again and it was hocus pocus again.
What went wrong here is that Arsenal panicked. They panicked as soon as they scored because of the last minute that was still remaining. Had they kept their cool and pushed the Liverpool players away from their goal, we would now be telling a different story. Instead, the players lost their concentration and this resulted in the free kick at the edge of the box. With so many players in the box, it was near to impossible for the ball to go in, but when the ball was deflected off the wall and fell to Lucas, Eboue committed a blunder that threw a wet blanket on Arsenal’s game and also on their title hopes.