Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla Proved Arsenal's Title Credentials vs. Liverpool
As the game clock ticked toward 90 minutes, tens of thousands of Arsenal fans raised their scarves and bellowed their approval.
They had stayed to watch the Gunners go five points clear at the top of the table by beating second-place Liverpool.
A loss would have seen Arsenal drop to second place and allowed Liverpool to hop into the top spot in the standings. More importantly, the team's confidence, built up so well during the opening weeks of the season, would have been shattered ahead of the club's most difficult period of the campaign.
A draw would have been satisfactory. But Arsene Wenger's men really needed a victory.
Though Arsenal were playing in front of their own fans, leaving with three points was always going to be a formidable task. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are two of the hottest strikers in the Premier League at the moment; the former has elevated himself to the upper echelon of players in Europe.
Arsenal have been more defensively solid this season than in years past—the now-standard back four of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs has proved an unchangeable bunch. Still, the Gunners had only kept two clean sheets in the Premier League before taking on Liverpool.
And those defensive breaches occurred against teams that were decidedly inferior to Arsenal. Fulham, Sunderland, Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion (twice) and Norwich City all found ways to pierce the Gunners' defense.
When Arsene Wenger sent his team out against world-class opponents like Dortmund and Chelsea, Arsenal could not muster the offensive firepower to recover. In both matches, unforced errors led to opposition goals.
Liverpool, then, was to be the litmus test. If the Gunners could not see the Reds off at the Emirates, there would be little hope for victory in successive trips to Dortmund and Manchester United.
As the opening minutes of the game unfolded, it was not apparent that Arsenal would be able to dispatch the challenger to their top spot.
But as the first half wore on, the Gunners began to grow in confidence and Wenger's system began to visibly gel.
Wenger: 'You cannot single anybody out, the defensive performance was outstanding' #AFCvLFC— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) November 2, 2013
For the most part, Mertesacker and Koscielny were able to deal with the persistent threat of Suarez and Sturridge. To some degree, they assisted the centre-backs by committing several unforced errors—especially Sturridge.
But Arsenal stuck to the fundamentals of defensive play, remaining disciplined and composed whenever Liverpool threatened to break and keeping their shape to defend set pieces, an old bugaboo.
Whereas in the past they would have relied solely upon the back four to stop Liverpool's attack and dispossess tricky forwards, the Gunners worked as an 11-man unit to snuff out attacks in every area of the pitch.
Pressing excellent teams high up on the pitch is absolutely essential to throwing them off and preventing their quality from becoming a threat. Against Dortmund and Chelsea, Tomas Rosicky was the only player in red and white who was committed to doing so for the entire match.
Not this time.
Arteta, in particular, was outstanding. He is best at playing the metronome when he has Mathieu Flamini beside him to aggressively shield the defense.
In the Frenchman's absence, he performed both roles. He was visible on both wings, in the middle of the pitch and further forward during different periods of the game, never shying away from a single physical confrontation.
In so doing, he helped Arsenal thoroughly expose Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva's lack of pace in midfield. The two simply could not cope with the Gunners' relentless energy and were never able to match Arsenal's attacking fluidity.
Behind everyone stood Wojciech Szczesny, who delivered one of his best performances in what is probably the most consistently excellent spell of his career. He dealt with some serious jitters early in the season, but has metamorphosed into a commanding and confident shot-stopper.
During several stretches in the last 20 minutes of the match, it appeared that Liverpool were close to pulling a goal back. Chaos existed in Arsenal's penalty box more than once, as Liverpool feverishly peppered Arsenals' defense on the ground and in the air.
Szczesny glued the team together.
Standing tall, he came off his line to snuff out chances before his defenders had to deal with them. When Arsenal were trying to hold on toward the end, Szczesny boldly leaped to snatch corners and crosses out of the air to settle the game down.
He did once hit Sturridge squarely in the boot when attempting to throw the ball to a teammate, but that was the only blip in an otherwise faultless display.
Title winners need an unquestionably solid and reliable foundation on which to go forward and score. But the attacking players must have the ability to produce extraordinary moments to win games against distinguished opposition.
Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, please step forward.
They are, of course, not the only players capable of producing breathtaking brilliance. But that is exactly the point: Unlike in years past, this Arsenal team has a plethora of men who can electrify the Emirates.
4 - Of the five players to make a joint-high four assists in the Premier League this season, three play for @Arsenal. Slick.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 2, 2013
Liverpool are a fantastic side, and the Gunners needed such a moment to earn the spoils.
They got two. The finesse that allowed Santi Cazorla to follow in his own header was remarkable enough, but Aaron Ramsey's spectacular dipping effort to seal the game slackened the jaw. It was an effort indicative of Arsenal's newfound swagger.
To win the title, a club has to be able to defeat lesser teams when it does not quite click and find its best form when it plays the best teams.
Arsenal's victory over Crystal Palace last weekend exemplifies the former, and their dispatching of the seemingly ascendant Liverpool affirms their ability to do the latter.
Before Arsenal play Manchester United next weekend, Arsene Wenger should remind his team of their humiliating defeat at Old Trafford last year.
The Gunners lost by one goal, but were thoroughly manhandled by a team that was obviously superior. A side that would eventually go on to win the title simply crushed a very good, but decidedly inferior, group of players.
There is little chance of a repeat performance this year.
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