A Bastion of (Near-) Invincibility: Victory Over Arsenal

Posted by Paul Tomkins on November 28, 2004, 08:10:43 PM

Sometimes a moment within the game of football takes on an other-worldly aspect - a magical super-realism - and the action appears to slow down, so it feels like you are already watching a slow-motion replay as events unfold; that you have seen into the future, and so real-time feels like deja vu. One such moment for me was the point the ball left Neil Mellor's foot in the 92nd minute, and I could see the arc of the ball's trajectory in my mind - and knew, before it had travelled more than a few yards, that it was in.

Away from home our form continues to cause some concern, but we've seen enough examples of character from the side under Benitez, in games against Man City, Fulham, Deportivo, Crystal Palace and now Arsenal, to know that he's the right man for the job; there has been so much upheaval this season - in every sense - that consistency was always going to prove incredibly difficult. There have been quite a few lows in the league, but the highs - in terms of performances - have been higher than in recent years. We play with boldness (at home, at least) up until the last whistle now, and we've learned to come from behind - as evinced twice already in the Premiership, once home, once away.

Today we lost the lead, but never looked like losing the match. I'd have settled for a draw before the game, given their class and our injuries, but after 91 minutes I felt cheated. But that's two consecutive home games where we've deserved to win and looked destined to draw, until the very last kick of each game. Against Palace it was Baros; today it was Mellor. After two years of woeful home form, it's great to see that sign of a top side - piling on pressure until the last minute.

People said about us not playing anyone decent at home up until this game, but I always feel that those lower key games can be more tricky, as the crowd is subdued and expectations high, while the opposition sit back and look to make it a stale encounter. They were the games that cost us dear in recent seasons; except last year, we started to lose the bigger games too.

That's all changed. Six wins in seven home league games tells its own story; as Shanks once said, Anfield can become a bastion of invincibility. On this form, bring on Olympiakos - who could get stuck in the very tricky 'do we defend or attack?' trap in a couple of weeks. Our tempo will be high in that game, and the Greeks will struggle to cope with our passing and movement - we just need to take our chances. If we go ahead, the Greeks will be set in their original mindset; teams who go away looking to avoid defeat find it hard to suddenly try and win games, if the need arises. At least we know we have to be 100% positive from the outset.

In the circumstances, today's victory felt like winning the FA Cup all over again. It was such a massive game, as the pressure building on Rafa was getting out of proportion. Given the players absent due to injury, and the run of tricky games coming up (as well as Everton's freakish league position), a defeat would have compounded the recent miseries, and left us stranded mid-table. This gives us a massive shot in the arm.

I said earlier in the season that we'd give the big sides a far tougher time at Anfield this season - because of the way we are playing this year: quick possession football. We take the game to whomever we play; not just Norwich or West Brom. That line 'ah, but it's only... [West Brom, etc]' continually irked me, as I could see that the quality of pass and move would cut through better teams. It's the 'positivity' at home that I have felt most encouraged by.

We were better than Arsenal for sixty minutes last season, and then we fell apart as they got back into the game with a lucky goal. Same pattern this year - except we were even more dominant. The biggest plus was that we held it together at the back after they equalized. Yet again Kirkland had no chance with the goal we conceded, but it was a bolt out of the blue from Arsenal. They had not managed a sniff of goal, and then some world-class passing undid us in the kind of way defences just can't do anything to stop. C'est la vie.

Our defence was superb throughout - with Sami Hyypia just shading Carra this week, and Finnan again showing the form that made many feel he deserved to start this game on merit, and not purely down to Josemi's horrific injury. Finnan was outstanding at both ends of the pitch, and suddenly - as with Biscan and Traore - looks, under Benitez, like the player Houllier no doubt wanted upon signing (but couldn't subsequently get to perform).

More unlucky decisions went against us, but thankfully this time we managed to overcome the bad luck; denied a clear penalty when Gerrard was hacked down, and then Vieira should have been sent off - and it was Sod's Law that he blocked Gerrard's goal-bound shot late in the second half. I thought that would be our last chance of the game. Thankfully I was wrong.

There were plenty of star men in this game, not least the hero of the hour (and thirty-two minutes). It was a great all-round performance from Neil Mellor, in a difficult role.

At last he does it on the biggest stage. As soon as he hit his shot it was in all the way, you could just tell. But even without the goal, he was quality in terms of his workrate, and also had a big hand in the first goal, dragging Campbell across to leave the space for Alonso to drift into (and what a pass by Gerrard!).

I've never said Mellor wouldn't make it, but I had my doubts he could live with the pace and pressure of the top division. I've always wanted to see some proof - and that was a huge statement about his ability. The goals against Boro were in a less-intense fixture, and against a reserve keeper and a back four lacking a couple of key defenders; they were well taken, but this was the real-deal. This was against Arsenal with Sol Campbell back in the line up. He's now learning to find that Kop net, and that's a habit we all love to see.

The best thing about it for Mellor is that it will relieve some pressure on him -  and what a way to get your first ever Premiership goal, a couple of years after making your debut at that level.

When he was through one-on-one in the first half he took an age to get a shot away - dithering before hitting the bar (and then wrongly chalked offside). It's the shots where you don't have time to think (often the harder chances) that are the ones you tend to break your scoring droughts with - and hence when the ball fell thirty yards out, there was no time to worry, and no other option but to welly it. However, you need talent and instinct to strike a ball that sweetly into the corner. It wasn't a wild slash, but a guided missile.

Now the next time he gets a chance like that one-on-one, he'll have the confidence to relax and pick his spot quickly. Tonight he'll be thinking to himself "I know I can do it". Before he would have had his own doubts. Now it's about building on it, and getting as many goals as possible before Baros is fit again.

Playing just behind Mellor was Stevie G, motoring around the pitch with amazing stamina, given he's only a week back from two months out. His deployment ahead of Alonso and Hamann was crucial to us out-gunning (I love that phrase today!) Arsenal's midfield. It is the first time Gerrard and Alonso have started a game together for months, and their quality was telling, with Didi also playing a big part.

Elsewhere, Kewell was so woefully low on confidence that he had a torrid time when in possession. But he still worked hard, and made a number of impressive interceptions and tackles. A quality header on target was only kept out by a brilliant save by Lehmann, and it was in the air he proved his quality. As with the Palace game, he still played a key role in two goals. The first a lovely cushioned touch to Gerrard, and the second a brave challenge that led to the ball falling nicely to Mellor. Players can be as awful as possible if they still work hard, and manage to play a big part in the goals that lead to us winning games; although the chances of him making telling contributions every week will be much improved if he finds his best form. 

Then there was Nunez - just a twenty minute cameo, but he looks big, strong, quick and displayed a few bits of skill (although nothing to quite match Pongolle's turn past Vieira and Lauren, which was a delight).

Nunez seemed to get into the pace of the game very quickly - impressive, given he can't be anywhere near match-fit after just half a reserve game this season (and no full pre-season training). So that has to bode very well; he looks like he'll fit in very nicely indeed. I remember making such an assessment of Xabi Alonso after twenty minutes for Spain just before we signed him - sometimes you can tell by a player's balance, touch and movement that they have quality; Nunez may not be in Alonso's class, but you could also tell very quickly that he possesses some quality. How he puts it to use, only time will tell.

There'll be disappointment in the coming weeks - we're bound to lose another game or two before Christmas, given the circumstances - but today we showed how good our football can be, how perfect our tactical organization can be, and how impressive our work-rate can be. For a supposedly ailing patient, the vital signs are surprisingly good.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

View Comments | Post Comment

More