Arsenal Still in Pole Position but Can't Keep Squandering Opportunities

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Arsenal Still in Pole Position but Can't Keep Squandering Opportunities
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

ANFIELD, Liverpool — Wednesday’s 3-3 draw at Anfield was a brilliant mess of a game, one that ended with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp charging down the touchline through the snow, pumping his fist after Joe Allen had volleyed the equaliser, vindicating his introduction as a late substitute.

In the slightly warmer light of morning, though, this feels like a tale of an opportunity missed for Arsenal.

Maybe they will go on to win the league, but if they do not, this night will be remembered as the time they looked like going five points clear of Manchester City but ended up level on points with Leicester City at the top.

The assumption is still that Leicester will fade, and probably they will. But this has not been a normal season and perhaps it shouldn’t simply be assumed that the familiar patterns will play out. Everybody is vulnerable and (almost) everybody is capable of brilliance.

Perhaps there is more skill and technique in the elegant thrusts and ripostes of other leagues, but there’s no denying the entertainment in the vast free-for-all of the Premier League.

This is like one of those bar-room brawls in classic Westerns, everybody smashing chairs and tables over each others’ heads wondering why the sheriff doesn’t turn up with his superior weaponry and calm everybody down.

The difficulty in trying to form any sort of coherent analysis this season is that there are no patterns. Nobody is consistent. And that means that one goal can make a huge difference to how things are perceived.

This had seemed like it was going to be a story of Arsenal character, of them twice coming from behind to win.

With Manchester City only drawing at home against Everton (and being denied a blatant penalty) and with the weather conditions spectacular, everything seemed set for one of those pivotal nights fans look back on at the end of the seasona game to be etched in the history of the club as one that set them on the way to the title.

As it turned out, that narrative was ruined by Christian Benteke’s header back across goal for Allen’s leveller.

A point at Anfield is by no means a bad result and, in other circumstances, this probably would have been seen as an awkward hurdle safely negotiated. Arsene Wenger was determinedly positive afterwards, but it’s almost impossible in such circumstances not to engage in "what ifs?"

What if Arsenal’s marking had held firm? What if Nacho Monreal hadn’t been forced to leave his man to try to deal with Benteke? What if Laurent Koscielny hadn’t been left to skitter across the box trying to put out fires?

Jon Super/Associated Press
Liverpool grabbed a late equaiser.

And it can always be taken further back. In the 10 minutes or so after going 3-2 up, Arsenal seemed comfortable. But gradually they dropped back—or at least some of them did.

There were mystifying moments when they had four men up the field, six men back and almost nothing in between.

Bringing on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs for Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott with quarter of an hour to go changed the tone; it encouraged Arsenal to sit deep, a message reinforced when Mikel Arteta was introduced for Mesut Ozil, and led Liverpool on to the extent that Klopp decided to field Steven Caulker as a centre-forward.

But that’s one of those issues where there is no right or wrong, only outcomes. Going more defensive perhaps did invite pressure. But then if Arsenal had kept fighting toe-to-toe and conceded, Wenger would have been blamed for not altering approach.

“I am frustrated by the result and not disappointed by the performance,” he said. “We started a bit apprehensive in the first 20 minutes, a bit on the back foot, 1-0 down, came back convincing, 2-1 down, shown character again, 2-2, 3-2.

"The frustration comes from the fact that at 3-2 we had three situations where we should have made it 4-2 and made bad decisions. The frustration then comes from conceding a goal in the last minute. We have shown again great character to come back with a point.”

That is true. But it’s also true they showed an absence of character to concede so late. It felt very like Arsenal to grab the opportunity and then let it slide through their hands.

There were clear positives. Campbell had a fine night and, while he will never offer the sophistication of Alexis Sanchez, Walcott or Ozil, it may be that his more direct approach provides a useful counterpoint, much as Ray Parlour used to in Wenger’s earliest days at the club. And his touch is only heavy by comparison with Ozil.

Campbell's assist for Aaron Ramsey’s goalplucking the ball out of the sky and playing a reverse pass into the boxwas superb. He looks more and more part of the side each week, learning the intricacies of their passing movements.

Olivier Giroud had another excellent night. His first goal was opportunist, but his second, turning sharply in the box, was brilliant. “He had more chances but overall he had a positive performance,” Wenger said. “It was not easy. He was exposed many times to a very physical battle. He was precious for us.”

And yet at the same time there were negatives. However gifted Arsenal’s players may be, it seems they can never escape their diffidence.

This wasn’t the first time this season they have started a game slowly. It happened against Southampton and it happened against Manchester City (although Arsenal went on to win that game). It happened as well in patches at Norwich and West Brom.

That is part of Arsenal’s allure: There is an ephemerality to their brilliance, a sense that it could melt away at any moment. But that tends not to be a trait of champions; this is not the remorseless Arsenal that won Wenger his first Premier League 18 years ago.

The defensive issues remain, although that was true of Liverpool as well, and is true of almost every Premier League side this season.

When a seal in the roof of the Anfield main stand gave way at the final whistle, unleashing a torrent of icy water onto fans and journalists, it felt like a metaphor for the entire season: leakiness is everywhere. That, perhaps, is the main source of encouragement for Arsenal: they are still vulnerable but so is everybody else this season.

On a night that could have been read either way, Wenger’s message was determinedly positive. “We have to transform the frustration in the dressing room into even more motivation,” he said. “There are a lot of positives. What happened tonight should strengthen our belief.”

*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated

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