Saturday, February 8, 2014

Arsenal Crumble at Anfield: Liverpool 5 - Arsenal 1

In reality, the match wasn't as close as the scoreline might suggest. Less than a minute into the contest, Arsenal were down 1-0 (although the goalscorer, Martin Skrtel, was clearly offside). Within 20 minutes, they were down 4-0, and the first half might easily have finished 6-0, if Suarez's rocket of a shot had not caromed off the post and Sturridge had not missed another easy chance.

Arsenal were left to play for whatever pride they could muster. And they couldn't muster much. The implausibility of even managing a draw was underscored by Arsenal's failure to register a single shot - let alone a shot on goal - during the first half. For most of the match, it looked as if Liverpool had twice as many players on the pitch as the Gunners. Liverpool came out hot, attacking with incisive passing on offense and pressing hard and high up the field on defense. By contrast, the entire Arsenal squad seemed slow, poorly positioned on defense, and sloppy in possession, which is to say, completely unprepared to play a Premier League match, let alone an match away at Liverpool.

Perhaps some disease vector has spread Mesut Ozil's apparent lethargy throughout the entire Arsenal squad. The defense in particular were poor. The usually rock-solid pair of Koscielny and Mertesacker were ripped apart. Arteta and Wilshire, playing in front of them in the center of midfield, seemed to be running wearing heavy ankle-weights when defending against the fleet-footed Liverpool attackers. Arsenal's central midfield duo were, perhaps, the poorest of a poor lot on the day.

No doubt, Arsene Wenger would have liked to have brought on an entirely new set of outfield players at the half. But he must bear some of blame for the embarrassing performance. A championship caliber squad, which Wenger claims to possess, simply does not play this poorly. Anyway, Arsenal had to play better in the second-half, right? Certainly, they couldn't play any worse.

In fact, Arsenal did play marginally better in the second half, if only because Liverpool weren't pressing them as hard. Nevertheless, Raheem Sterling scored within the first seven minutes after the restart to extend Liverpool's lead to five. But that was, thankfully, the end of Liverpool's scoring for the day.

Arsenal managed to get off a shot or two of their own during the second half. Their lone goal came on a needless penalty given up by Steven Gerrard against Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was on the very edge of the area, and not at all in a position to score. I half expected Arteta to blast the penalty shot over the net, but he dispatched it into the net with the same nonchalance he displayed in his matador-like defensive play throughout the match.

Can Arsenal go on to win the championship after this? Of course they can. But it seems highly unlikely. Man City, Chelsea, and Liverpool all will concede points during the run in, but Arsenal have the hardest finishing schedule by far. And you just don't see the other contenders giving up four, five, or six goals in the most important, really telling, matches against the other big clubs.

Like other hard-core Arsenal supporters, I will be watching game by game, cheering the Gunners on. But it would require far more optimism than I can muster to expect them to finish top of the League.

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