At kick off of Saturday’s game between Liverpool and Arsenal, Liverpool went up to second without kicking a ball after Chelsea lost 2-0 at Newcastle United earlier on Saturday.
Before the match kicked off, Liverpool were two points adrift of Arsenal and had the chance to go top of the league had they won at Arsenal, but went down 2-0 in what was a sobering reverse that left Liverpool now five points behind league leaders Arsenal.
Brendan Rodgers was unable to pick the same team that beat West Bromwich Albion 4-1 last week, with Glen Johnson ruled out through illness. Rodgers did spring a surprise in picking Jon Flanagan to play the role that Johnson would normally have played, given that Flanagan has been unable to feature that much under Rodgers due to injury. It was his first appearance of the season, and in fairness he was not the worst in the team.
However, Liverpool were a shadow of the side that beat West Brom last week all over the pitch. Up front, the “SaS” strike partnership of Luis Suarez & Daniel Sturridge lacked the chemistry that got everyone excited about it. Suarez had some moments, but otherwise, both he and Sturridge had little impact on the game. I’m sure there will be some more great days for the “SaS,” but yesterday wasn’t one of those days, which is not what you want in a big game such as this.
This was also a game that was going to be won or lost in midfield. Arsenal have what I, and many others believe to be the best midfield in the league, with players like Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, not to mention Jack Wilshere & Mathieu Flamini. Liverpool’s midfield did very well last week, restricting West Brom’s goalscoring opportunities, but on Saturday, Arsenal cut through the Liverpool midfield like it wasn’t there, exploiting the gaps. That’s how Arsenal scored their first goal. When Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna put a ball into the box, Cazorla had made up a lot of ground, and saw his header hit the post and was quickest to react to the rebound. Gaps in the midfield – and in the defence – became a recurring problem for Liverpool as Arsenal sliced Liverpool open with their short and crisp passing, and also thundered forward on the counter-attack, exploiting these gaps (and the lack of defensive cover that resulted from the wing backs pushing forwards.)
Henderson was perhaps the pick of Liverpool’s midfield, showing great energy in the early stages to steal possession, charge forward but failed to find a finish. Steven Gerrard and Lucas did not play well at all. Central midfield is one of the areas that needs strengthening with urgency in January. In fact, the central midfield is the area of the pitch that many Liverpool supporters said needed strengthening throughout the summer. The Liverpool management ignored that problem and now cannot afford to do the same in January.
Liverpool brought on Philippe Coutinho at half time for the struggling Aly Cissokho, which is a positive that Liverpool can take, and there are very few of them. The Brazilian played his first match since the shoulder injury sustained in September against Swansea City, and tried to get Liverpool going in attack. It was important that he got some minutes under his belt, with the crucial run of games that Liverpool have coming up, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Liverpool ditched the three at the back formation which obviously wasn’t working in the first half, and went to 4-4-2 (or variations). I’d rather not see three at the back because when the wing backs attack, and the ball is lost, the defenders are left exposed. Even Rodgers said after the game “Every system has a vulnerability” on the formation he deployed. Liverpool went to 4-4-2 at the start of the second half, and if I am being honest, that is the formation I’d prefer to stick with.
Even so, Arsenal took a stranglehold on the game as Liverpool tried to adjust to a new formation and added to their tally. Ramsey is in the form of his life, and was afforded far too much room, giving him the opportunity to arrow a shot into the top corner from long range. It was almost a carbon copy of the goal Yohan Cabaye scored for Newcastle just the other week, but that’s not to take away from either of those two very good strikes.
Liverpool huffed and puffed but could not break through even though they looked at their likeliest to score when they were 2-0 down, with Coutinho looking decent and trying to impact on the game. However, there was no way through and Liverpool must now dust themselves down and look ahead to the upcoming period.
After Liverpool’s loss at Arsenal, and Sunday’s result, Liverpool sit 3rd in the table, with 20 points from the ten games they’ve played so far. They’ve got two points per game this season. Teams that get into the Champions League tend to get that average or at least come very close. Qualification for the Champions League is a realistic aim for Liverpool this season. With the likes of Tottenham going through great change in terms of playing personnel, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City going through a period of acclimatising to new management, and Liverpool having no European commitments, reducing the number of games they’ve got to play, there is a fantastic opportunity for Liverpool to return to next season’s Champions League.
Their fixture list throughout December looks daunting, with trips to Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Chelsea to come in that month, with the latter two fixtures happening over three days. In between now and Liverpool’s return to North London to face Spurs, Liverpool have five games – Fulham (H), Everton (A), Hull City (A), Norwich City (H) and West Ham United (H).
It’s not unrealistic for Liverpool to get 10 points from those next five games. Let’s go to the Fulham game now. Liverpool host Fulham next week, a side who aren’t generally good travellers, and they come into the game on a run of poor form that’s seen their manager Martin Jol come under pressure.
Liverpool’s trip to Arsenal was not going to define their season. Arsenal are top of the league for a reason, and played very well against Liverpool. I’m sure that most Liverpool supporters would have settled for being third with 20 points after the opening ten games. The key now is for Liverpool to sustain that kind of form over the season.