Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 in a comprehensive victory at the Emirates stadium, to stay at the top of the table and setting the Gunners on course for their first Premier League title challenge since the 2007-2008 season when they finished just four points behind Manchester United.
Arsenal supporters have been told time and again this season that the Gunners are pretenders, that the team hadn’t been tested, despite beating Napoli and Tottenham, and that they have been playing football at an unrealistically high level and were due for a correction. Gooners have been told that Liverpool, with their 3-5-2 formation straight out of the old George Graham/Terry Venables playbook, were the real threat. And if the pundits are correct, this match was a test of Arsenal’s title credentials, the Gunners took those credentials, balled them up, and shoved them down the throats of their critics.
Both teams started nervously with Mignolet nearly gifting Arsenal two chances from blown clearances in the opening 20 minutes and Sagna making a back pass that caused panic. Liverpool seemed to get the most of those opening minutes and Cazorla was caught out by Jordan Henderson who then drove unmolested straight into the Arsenal box. Fortunately, Henderson is still Henderson and his scuffed shot dribbled wide.
That seemed to be the wakeup call that the Gunners needed. Bacary Sagna and Tomas Rosicky started piling pressure on Liverpool’s left back, Aly Cissokho, beating him easily and getting in dangerous crosses aimed toward Olivier Giroud. Liverpool’s center back, Squirtle, was called upon time and again and did very well to head away crosss after cross against the very physical Giroud.
The goal was almost inevitable even if the finish was a surprise. Sagna pumped in what seemed like his 10th cross of the opening 20 minutes and it was slightly behind Giroud. This time, however, Squirtle was busy with Giroud and instead of finding his head or no one, Cazorla ghosted in and hit a powerful header from 10 yards that hit the upright. The tireless Spaniard then followed the ricochet and lashed home a powerful shot to the rapture of the Emirates faithful.
Barely 20 minutes had expired but with the nerves on the field and in the stands, combined with the end-to-end play from both teams, it felt more like 20 days had passed.
Getting the early goal and holding on to the lead has been the hallmark of Arsenal’s great run of form since the win over Bayern Munich last season. They have scored first against their opposition in the first 30 minutes of matches 16 times since then and they have won 14, drawn 1, and lost just 1. If you knew that fact, you might have viewed the last 70 minutes of the game with an air of inevitability. If not, you might have been prone to worry. Or perhaps you just like a good worry. But once they had the lead, Arsenal weren’t going to give it up.
With the ball, Özil and Cazorla were simply unstoppable. Their passes in to Giroud who would find a midfield run of Ramsey had Liverpool chasing ghosts. Ramsey had a shot saved well by Mignolet from exactly that kind of interplay as Rosicky nicked the ball back, passed to Cazorla, to Giroud, and Ramsey made a run.
When they didn’t have the ball Arsenal swarmed the Liverpool players to win it back. Ramsey and Arteta combined for 13/17 tackles while Arteta and Cazorla combined for 24 ball recoveries — nearly half of Arsenal’s total of 56. Which isn’t to say that it was all perfectly timed tackles and interceptions: Sagna got the first caution of the game for a professional foul that stopped a breakaway by Suarez and the Gunners were more than willing to simply end the Liverpool threat from open play and make them take a free kick..
From the free kicks Arsenal were playing a high line and leaving loads of space between Szcz and the defenders. This gave Liverpool their best shot of the half as Toure rose up and forced a kick save from Szczesny which was ruled offside.
At the start of the second half, Brentan Rodgers opened his envelopes and found out that it was Aly Cissokho who had in fact let him down. So, he subbed the defender and put on through-ball specialist Coutinho.
The change worked a bit as Liverpool started getting the ball in to Suarez behind the Arsenal line. The Uruguayan had zero shots in the first half and three in the second. But Suarez never got a shot on goal as he was smothered time and again by the Arsenal defense who were keen to avoid his bite.
Despite their defensive stance, Arsenal had the best chance of the 2nd half when Kolo Toure gave the ball away to Giroud who was clear through on goal. The big Frenchman got Mignolet to commit low and tried a chip over which rippled the net. The side net. The outside of the side net. It just wasn’t meant to be for Giroud as minutes later, Giroud had another shot saved. He wins the clearance in defence, plays to rosicky, who cleverly plays across to Cazorla. The Spaniard’s little cross between Kolo’s legs was just in front of Giroud and his shot was tamely at Mignolet.
After that, the game settled in to a rhythm from which it looked like neither team would score. But with not much happening, Özil played a square ball to Ramsey who just stuck a foot through the half-volley, from distance, between two large-assed defenders, and curled it past the grasp of Mignolet. It was the kind of goal that an “in-form” player hits and was Ramsey’s 6th in 7.
Wenger looked to shore up the defense and brought in two fullbacks (for Rosicky and Cazorla) and Vermaelen (for Gibbs who picked up some knock) to close the game out. Still despite Arsenal having 8 defenders on the pitch, Liverpool had a real chance through Sturridge which was smothered by Szczesny. That was followed by a brilliant Szczesny moment where he cleared a back pass off Sturridge so that he could collect in his hands and then Mertesacker gifted the ball to Suarez whose shot was just inches wide. It was a nervy final few minutes but the Arsenal of the last few years who might have crumbled in this position kept the clean sheets and almost piled on a third goal for Özil, whose shot from inside the box was well saved.
It might seem early to start crowing about the Gunner’s title chances but after playing the second best team in the league, scoring two goals, getting the lion’s share of the big chances, and keeping a clean sheet you might indulge Arsenal supporters. After all the Gunners just did that with a team who have played five more games than Liverpool and who are suffering injuries to no less than four to major players.
It may be too soon to call it a title charge, but at the very least it was a shot across the bow.
PS — I was going to do a By the Numbers post as well but this is what you get.