Liverpool vs. Arsenal Review: 9 Things We Learned from Sunday's Match
Arsenal had been held scoreless for the first 211 minutes of the Premier League season, a streak that comprised two-and-a-third matches during which the Gunners had fired blanks on 42 separate occasions.
And in a first half that saw them widely dominated by a surging Liverpool side for much of the first half-hour, save a good spell or two of extended possession, it didn't look like Arsene Wenger's side would break that duck anytime soon.
But then came a 31st-minute counter—a sequence of pure, incisive counterattacking fury. Thomas Vermaelen picked out a poor pass from Steven Gerrard in the final defensive third and sprung Santi Cazorla with a pass into space.
The Spaniard carried the ball well into the attacking third before picking a pass for Lukas Podolski, who was running along Cazorla's left side. Podolski collected the pass with a deadening touch and, oblivious to the onrushing Glen Johnson, fired a low shot across Pepe Reina and into the back of the net.
1-0, just like that.
It was the sort of play, actually, that had so often undone Arsenal's own extended periods of dominance in recent seasons. Then, we had lauded the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City for their ability to soak up the Gunners' possessions and hit them on the counter.
Today, we saw a reversed script that contributed to what has become six seasons now that Arsenal have obtained at least a point in their trip to the red end of Liverpool—that is a phenomenal run of form.
Cazorla would add his own name to the score sheet in the second half, enjoying a flipped script that saw Podolski turn provider.
In the end, it was a 2-0 victory that will have done Arsenal a world of good. They head into the international break with five points from three games—a very good return considering they've played two very tricky road fixtures during that spell.
Here are nine thoughts from the Anfield encounter.
Begin with a Strong Defensive Spine
Steve Bould's arrival as Arsene Wenger's assistant manager this past offseason seemed to signal a sea change in the team's defensive department.
Thomas Vermaelen, in his fourth season with the team, had hailed Bould's attention to detail, saying that the side had been working on getting its defensive shape right for much of the preseason.
With the first three league games of the season as evidence, you'd have to say that Bould has done his job well.
Save for some indecisive individual duels to start the game—mostly involving Liverpool forward Luis Suarez getting the better of center back Per Mertesacker, Arsenal's defensive shape was excellent. It was a third clean sheet on the trot, after the ones earned against Sunderland and Stoke.
Considering that Liverpool had shown far more attacking intent than those other two sides—particularly during that harried start to Sunday's game, it was a tremendous performance by Arsenal. Last weekend, Manchester City had conceded two goals to the Reds on their own trip to Anfield.
Vermaelen, who was substituted in the game's final minutes after hobbling around the field (according to a tweet from Wenger, it was "just a kick, and he should be alright"), was again a true battler in the final third. Whether it was making decisive interventions, through tackling, clearance or releasing teammates into space, the captain was excellent.
He was joined by the rest of the back four. While Mertesacker and Carl Jenkinson had looked nervy to start the game, both grew immensely in stature. Suarez still gave the tall German problems—seen most glaringly on separate calls for penalties, but it came to nothing.
Couple with a Strong Midfield Performance
Wayne Rooney, the injured Manchester United striker, tweeted midway through the first half that given Abou Diaby's impressive performance, he wasn't sure why the midfielder "didn't get more games."
It was the second gaffe from Rooney in as many days, after incorrectly referring to U.S. Open tennis player Laura Robson as "Laura Robinson" while he congratulated her for an impressive victory.
The Diaby blunder, of sorts, had to elicit a chuckle from Arsenal fans, who have been forced to cope with the Frenchman's myriad of injury problems ever since a crunching Dan Smith challenge shattered his ankle in 2006.
After making only four league appearances a season ago, Diaby has nearly reached that total. Slotted into a central midfield role a bit more advanced than that of Mikel Arteta's, Diaby played by far his best performance of the still-young campaign.
Bombing forward in attack, tracking back with aplomb, showing a keen sense of distribution—Diaby did it all on Sunday, when he easily produced the most complete performance of any Arsenal player.
Mikel Arteta Again Fantastic
Save for one late challenge where he was forced to bring down Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling (pictured above) just outside the Arsenal penalty area—he received a caution for the offense—midfielder Mikel Arteta again thrived in his holding midfield role.
Whether it was impeccable passing or inch-perfect tackling, the Spaniard again took his place at the forefront of top-tiered Arsenal performances.
Many spoke of the freedom Santi Cazorla was afforded in attack—that roaming capability came in large part thanks to Arteta's dogged defensive work. He's not the most athletic sort, but few players grow in stature so consummately as a game wears on.
Tireless in terms of work rate, there are few more instrumental to their side's success than Arteta.
Arsenal Weather the Anfield Deluge, Hit Liverpool on the Counter
Liverpool had standout performances of their own—midfielder Joe Allen was sensational on the day, rarely misplacing passes (if he ever did any) while fulfilling his own defensive duties well.
During the first portions of the game Brendan Rodgers' side looked like it had picked up right where it had left off last weekend against Manchester City. Rampant in the attacking third, the Gunners had barely a sight on ball during a frenzied first 10 minutes of play.
But after withstanding the onslaught and getting that crucial first goal from Podolski, Arsenal settled while Liverpool never really seemed to recover. They'd come close on separate, isolated occasions later in the game—a Suarez effort here, a Stewart Downing curler there, a Jonjo Shelvey snap-shot as well—but without ever really troubling Vito Mannone in goal.
Again, much of that must go down to Arsenal's defensive resilience. Apart from one free header granted from a corner kick in the first half, I could count not glaring positioning miscues.
Bould had to be happy with that.
Prince Poldi Is the Toast of the Town
"He scores when he wants, he scores when he waaaaaants. Lukas Po-dol-ski, he scores when he wants!"
That cheer, which coursed around the Anfield rafters after the German had opened the scoring in that 31st minute, brought chills to my body.
Not only was Podolski's finish succinct, it meant a whole lot more.
In breaking Arsenal's scoreless run this season, the new No. 9 helped banish the memories of Robin van Persie—for whom Gunners fans had sung that aforementioned song so frequently last season (over 30 times)—to the periphery of London.
Maybe now it can join the Dutchman in Manchester. Either way, Podolski was again sensational on the left wing, where he looks as if he is ready to thrive.
After impressing last week against Stoke—his first game playing on the wing this league season—the 27-year-old again produced invaluable work in defense, tracking back with frequency and making decisive challenges.
For Gunners fans accustomed to the likes of Andrei Arshavin and Gervinho on that wing, seeing that sort of tireless work ethic tracking back had to come as a bit of a surprise.
And after coming so close to opening his scoring account last weekend at the Britannia, where a trailing elbow from Andy Wilkinson denied him a sure-fire goal, Podolski finally got his goal.
He added an assist to boot (68th minute), and when he was substituted 14 minutes later, the traveling band of Gooners—who had been wonderful throughout the game, frequently out-singing the Liverpool supporters who vastly outnumbered them—gave him a rapturous reception.
Santi Cazorla Incrementally More Muted, but Still Hugely Effective
Three games: one assist, one goal—so go the returns for Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski during this very young season.
Like the German, Cazorla has been a revelation in the attacking midfield role for Arsene Wenger. While he will likely find it difficult to enjoy the same sort of freedom seen in the first match against Sunderland at the Emirates when he heads out onto the road, it speaks to the Spaniard's effectiveness that he can still impact games in a very big way even when he sees decidedly less of the ball.
Whether it's bringing a teammate into play with a delightful pass or flick, or showing the sort of effectiveness seen today in the final third, Cazorla has already embedded himself in the discussion for best signings this season.
Given his debut, it's going to take an awful lot to unseat him.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Quiet in Midfield
Before leaving the game in the 73rd minute with what looked to be an apparent injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had been strangely quiet. This observation comes, of course, thanks to the near-impossibly high standards the "Ox" had set during a 2011-12 season when he'd become one of the toasts of the Premier League.
It should be noted that the teenager had fought off an injury to return for the Stoke game last weekend, during which he'd been a late substitute alongside Theo Walcott—who didn't play today.
Whether or not that injury is still affecting him may become known this week, but Oxlade-Chamberlain was unable to really get going on a right wing where he was countered superbly by excellent work from Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's class is such that he will certainly come back stronger after the approaching international break.
Olivier Giroud Will Come Good
Whether it was the miss against Sunderland, or his two missed attempts (a scuffed left-footed shot, a bottled header) against Liverpool, the 25-year-old Frenchman has endured a mountain of criticism.
After just three games played in a new league, with a new side, it's criticism that frankly falls into the realm of absurdity.
Giroud's class has been proven at the top level of France; it was confirmed last season during a sterling debut with the French national team. When on form, there are very few more clinical finishers than the 6'3" striker.
Should he have put away some of these chances early in the season?
Of course, and he'll be the first to tell you that.
All strikers go through lulls—Robin van Persie scored only one league goal through the first five games last season, and it was a meaningless consolation in the August thrashing at Old Trafford.
What the best ones do is come out stronger on the other side.
When Giroud starts getting more consistent service—Kieran Gibbs missed him twice, once sending a cross too long, the other time firing a shot at Pepe Reina when Giroud had gotten into an excellent position at the far post—he will open his account.
It's a matter of "when," not "if."
The Revolution Continues
That Andrei Arshavin, scorer of five goals in his first two trips to Anfield (including that four-goal masterpiece in April '09) failed to be named even to the substitutes' bench on Sunday was telling indeed.
Arsenal are a new-look side this season, one with a decidedly more resilient defensive spine, a tactically tweaked midfield and an attacking three that have undergone a makeover.
ESPN's Michael Cox had written, following the signing of Cazorla early last month, that the over-dependence on van Persie last season had rankled Wenger, whose best sides have always featured a number of attacking options who could share the scoring.
The additions of Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski to the front four, as it were, are a different element—like helium to tungsten—entirely, compared to the foursome seen during the last trip to Anfield, in March.
Then, it was van Persie who got both goals in a heroic 2-1 victory. On Sunday, the goals were scored in palindromic fashion, by Cazorla assisting Podolski before Podolski assisted Cazorla.
Five points from three games, and seventh in the table—although Manchester United could surpass them with a win against Southampton (in progress).
For all the criticism about Wenger's lack of ambition in the transfer window, it was a stirring statement of intent from Arsenal.