Liverpool 1 Arsenal 1 - The Dawning Of A New Era

Posted by Garstonite on August 15, 2010, 09:35:33 PM

A cacophony of smells, an array of the usual sights and a cocktail of weirdos inhabiting Walton Breck Rd. As the tiresome ownership saga drags on, it’s nice to be back. A new season and a new era under the tenure of Roy Hodgson commences with the tie of the opening weekend: Libpool versus Arsenal. Ever the optimist, the philosophical side of me hopes that the first sight of sun Merseyside has seen for weeks is a metaphorical indication of things to come.

First, team news, starting with our opponents. In goal, Manuel Almunia, across the back four Backary Sagna, new signing Laurent Koscielny alongside Thomas Vermaelan and left-back Gael Clichy. In midfield, from right to left, Emmanuel Eboue, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere and Andriy Arshavin. Up top, Samir Nasri playing off bosman buy Marouane Chamakh.

For Liverpool (hooray). Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger; in midfield, Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Milan Jovanovic. Up top, Joe Cole off David Ngog.

Two new signings to cast our beady, judgmental, hopeful but often cynical eyes upon. Both cost us a grand total of bugger all. War-chest. Eyebrows were raised over the inclusion of Javier Mascherano, who got a mixed but mostly warm reception, in the midst of a transfer saga that requires a swift resolution one way or another.

The Kop was in good form before the start of the game. Despite the World Cup and early start in the Europa League making things feel as though we had never really gone away, May to August is still a long wait for the hungry Reds fan. Joe Cole received the best reception of the day, but two special mentions for the pick of the banners. Firstly, RAWK's very own "Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse"” effort that will hopefully earn the exposure your hard work warrants. Well done. Secondly, the "Against Modern Football" flag that was waved defiantly at the very heart of The Kop. Perhaps some light can come at the end of this very dark tunnel that we’ve seen magnified since February 2007. We can only hope. And, err... the less said about the Union Jack with the Liverpool badge in the centre of it, the better. KFS.

On to the game itself and, firstly, a confession. I absolutely hate playing Arsenal. They are one of the very few teams that I actually fear being torn apart by. If you're not at your best tactically, they can destroy you. And despite every man and his dog writing off our chances of finishing in the top four, Liverpool are rightly expected to win every time they step on the hallowed Anfield turf. This, along with the "new manager effect", all eyes were on us, so Wenger's men, to my eyes, had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And that is precisely how they played. The North London outfit do have some glaring shortcomings though. Their Achilles Heel is clearly how shabbily they defend from set-pieces. They still haven't bought the top-class goalkeeper they've lacked since losing Crazy Jens over two years ago; they still haven't bought the destructive force in midfield they have lacked since losing Vieira over five years ago and there are question marks on whether they have successfully bought a top-class centre-forward they have lacked since losing Thierry Henry over three years ago, but more on that in a short while.

Few were surprised at how the game developed. Arsenal's superior passing ability meant we were chasing shadows for the vast majority of the first half. Despite the shortcoming I mentioned from this Arsenal side, there are two aspects of their game you can't help but admire. One, their confidence: perhaps it is sometimes unfounded, but I can't remember a side that has ever won a league title that didn't have the arrogant swagger about them. They go to any ground in the league and look to impose their game on the opposition. You have to respect that. Secondly, their pressing. When our opposition are awarded a goal-kick, watch our front four – they retreat. The left and right-wingers sticks themselves inbetween their full-back and winger, the centre-forward stands in the space between midfield and defence and the advanced midfielder sticks himself between the two central-midfielders. Arsenal consistently had two players standing within five yards of our centre-halves, which makes it very difficult to build from the back.

There were very few moments of attacking intent from Liverpool in the first-half. Milan Jovanovic showed great tenacity to shrug Sagna off the ball before unleashing a shot towards goal within the first five minutes. There will be no six months “bedding in” period, where he is on a strict regime to bulk up. He’s a tough lad, who looks like he’ll offer our team a nice balance from early impressions. Good start. As the half drew near a close, Glen Johnson played a delightful one-two with Dirk Kuyt before curling a left-footed shot at goal that was helped on its way over by Almunia. From the resulting corner, N’gog had a headed effort blocked on the line from Clichy.

Despite these odd moments, it was Arsenal who dominated the first-half. Nasri and Arshavin dictated the game. Jack Wilshere, too, looks every bit the player the pundits are tipping him to be; composure personified, totally unfazed by the occasion. Chances for the opposition were few and far between however: a testament to how well we marshalled them. Skrtel and Carragher took it in turns to close off the channels they continued to try and play in. Textbook defending but the scenario was growing increasingly ominous. Vermaelen's free-kick which was punched away from Reina after just five minutes and Gael Clichy's speculative effort that flew just over the bar were closest the visitor's came.

As the half drew to a close and fans shuffled off to get their pies and relieve their lager-filled bladders, the first major talking point of the game took place. Joe Cole, who seemed to find the way the match was developing increasingly frustrating, tried to block a Laurent Koscielny clearance upfield down by the left-hand corner flag at the Anfield Rd End. Having seen the replays since, the ‘challenge’ can be described as rash at the very best. It was, as the cliché goes, a ‘forwards challenge’ but I have no doubts that the intentions were pure. Was it a red? In today’s game, probably.

The whistle went for half time moments later and the already anxious crowd responded angrily. The talk on the concourse was that a point now would be regarded as a very good result. Roy Hodgson’s first Premier League team-talk had now become an awful lot more difficult, but realistically, nothing was going to change. We were still going to operate with the two banks of four that were working overtime in the first forty-five. The person I felt most pity for was lone striker David N’gog: an already isolated figure, his task became that much more difficult. Some fans around me were quick to brand his performance as useless, but in his defence, what exactly are you supposed to do when the ball is either coming at you neck height or completely over his head?

Kicking into The Kop in the second-half though – anything can happen. And so it was. No more than a minute into the second forty-five, Javier Mascherano slipped the ball down the line for N’gog. The first decent bit of service he’d received in open play all game and wallop! One-nil, a scorcher. Thousands at the back of The Kop tried to think up a song for the Frenchman, finally settling on “I don’t know why you say N’gog, I say N’go” to the tune of The Beatles “Hello, Goodbye”. It may well catch on.

For the next fifteen minutes, it was the Redmen that were playing as if they were the side with the men advantage. Buoyed by the goal, N’gog played the two Arsenal centre-halves like an accordion, cleverly winning free-kicks in good positions.

On sixty minutes, Wenger was the first to twist. Jack Wilshere wasn’t having the same impact he had in the first half and was replaced by Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott – off the back of an impressive enough display for England in the week – came on for Eboue.

Arsenal successfully weathered the storm that we did exceptionally well of mustering up and began to knock the ball about menacingly again. Everything they did was going through Rosicky, but the midfield denied the front men with hardly any service. Mascherano was a monster – tackling anything in yellow that moved. I feared for the stewards. If the ball somehow made in past Javier, Carragher and Skrtel pounced upon the Arsenal strikers. In the full-back positions, Johnson looked reassuringly solid and Agger was touch-tight to Walcott, refusing him the time and space to turn. Maxi Rodriguez took over from Milan Jovanovic, whose first impressions were good.

With fifteen minutes to go, Mascherano had to be replaced by Lucas due to an injury. Hopefully it won’t be too serious. David N’gog, who chased lost causes all game, was replaced by Torres who looked sharp. Torres took on a personal battle with Laurent Koscielny, who resorted to desperate measures to shackle the Spaniard.

Given Arsenal’s man advantage, Liverpool’s efforts were heroic. Abou Diaby’s free-kick was palmed around the post smartly by Reina and Rosicky’s placed shot was tipped over again by Reina. If things weren't bad enough, Daniel Agger went down with a concussion blocking a cross from the right with his head. As he stood on the touchline counting fingers, we were forced to absorb pressure yet another man down. Agger was evidently uncomfortable, but he returned to the field and we went from 4-4-0, back to 4-4-1. As the game drew to a close and the dream start drew ever nearer, the sucker-punch came. Rosicky was given too much time on the ball and his floated cross was met by a good run from Chamakh, who impressed me throughout. The ball fell loose and rebounded off the post. Uncharacteristically Reina fumbled the ball into the back of his own net. Arsenal were level. 1-1.

Having been so close to victory, the five minutes of added time that was shown on the board that was met by groans. The visitors now looked favourites. Positively, we came forward once again thought and won a corner immediately down at the other end. Arsenal scrambled the ball clear but when the ball fell loose on the edge of the penalty area, Koscielny Judo-kicked Dirk Kuyt. Yellow card and a free-kick in a dangerous position. Steven Gerrard stepped and fizzed his effort at Almunia. Too hot to handle but an easy one to parry away. Arsenal countered again, going for the kill, but the ball was launched long from Steven Gerrard. Torres took his clearance down and attempted to dink it over Koscielny. The ball hit the Frenchman on the hand and he was awarded his second yellow in the space of three minutes. A red card on his debut, just like Cole. The final whistle went and the season opener ended in a very hard earned point.

In the end, it was a result that Arsenal would have taken at the beginning of the match, we would have taken at half-time but in the end, both were left a little disappointed by. Nobody, however, could be disappointed with our effort and endeavour. We have the substance in our first-team squad. That much is clear. Adding that style – and imposing it against the likes of Arsenal – is going to be a different task completely.

In retrospect, it was a match that didn't answer much. After all, when you go down to ten men, gameplans and expectations quickly changed. There are still lots of questions that need answering over the coming months. Joe Cole's performance was a necessary reminder, in my opinion, as to why top managers such as Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho before him held reservations over his tactical discipline. David Ngog's performance may shift opinions about the necessity to sign a back-up striker. Steven Gerrard certainly showed that he is capable of sticking his foot in and manning a midfield from a deeper position, but are we losing his drive further up the pitch? We will know over the coming months. But the biggest question of all is, without any shadow of a doubt, why is Carlsberg still the only beer available inside the ground and why do idiots continue to buy it?

MOTM - Javier Mascherano – A flawless display. Created our goal and snuffed out Arsenal throughout the entire match. I don’t think we lost that bite in midfield when he left the field, but we did lose his acceleration and perfect positional sense which glued the team together. If Inter or Barcelona are put off by his price, then they should bloody well watch this match to see what he is all about. Then again, lets hope not. Because his inclusion could be the difference between a good season and a great one.

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