14th January 2016: Arsenal remain top despite late Liverpool leveller

Welcome back. So Arsenal remain top of the Premier League tree after drawing 3-3 in a roller coaster encounter with Liverpool at Anfield last night, but now only lead the standings on goal difference after Robert Huth’s late header gave Leicester a 1-0 win at Tottenham.

Although the concession of an injury-time goal saw us drop two points in this fixture for the second season running, when you consider the hosts enjoyed 60% of the possession, forced 9 corners to our 3, and produced 22 shots at goal (albeit with just 6 on target) compared with our 14 (5), a draw was just reward for the performance of both sides in my opinion.

Weather conditions at Anfield were highly conducive to defensive errors and combined with hosts who began the game expending energy like the match would only last for 45 minutes, plus a slow start by Arsenal, it was no surprise to see Liverpool take the  lead after just 10 minutes.

It was a goal Arsenal were just as responsible for conceding as Liverpool were for scoring. First Theo Walcott was dispossessed as he tried to dribble out of our area following a Liverpool corner, Emre Can fired in a shot which Petr Cech should have parried wide and away from danger, but instead could only divert to Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian adroitly took two touches with his left foot in giving the hosts the lead.

That said, having seen the goal again just now, Can actually fouled Walcott, forcing him to stumble, so even if Walcott should have cleared the ball at the earliest opportunity, he should also have earned a free-kick. But there was no denying Liverpool were on top and we were struggling to establish ourselves in the contest, so it was a very welcome surprise to see us equalize just four minutes later.

Olivier Giroud won a header just outside the Liverpool box, Kolo Toure’s attempt at a headed clearance only found Aaron Ramsey, whose looped pass towards Joel Campbell was classily-controlled by the Costa Rican before he played a well-weighted reverse pass back to Ramsey, who rifled home first-time at the near post.

But parity didn’t last long because just five minutes later, Arsenal again heavily assisted a goal for the hosts. Mathieu Flamini shoddily passed straight to a Liverpool player in midfield, they attacked, the ball ricocheted off Campbell to Per Mertesacker, whose clearance pin-balled off Campbell for the second time in the move before it fell to Firmino at the edge of the box, and he curled an admittedly superb strike into the top corner.

Flamini’s role at the start of the move was infuriating enough but our reluctance to close shots down this season is something I’ve spoken about on this blog already this season, after Bayern Munich away I think, and cost us dearly again here. Laurent Koscielny’s half-arsed attempts at closing down both Firmino strikes were prime examples of that defensive deficiency. And it was clear the manager had brought up this very subject during the interval because after the break, not just one, but two or three Arsenal players, seemed to be breaking their proverbial necks in trying to stop shots at source.

Thankfully, Liverpool’s defending remained as abject as ours and we produced a second equalizer after 25 minutes. Ramsey nearly scored after build-up play involving Mesut Ozil and Giroud but his lobbed effort from close range was headed off the line and away for a corner. The Welshman took it himself, whipping a lowish ball to the near post where Giroud managed to apply the merest of flicks through a crowd of players to divert the ball home off their keeper.

Giroud missed an open-goal shortly afterwards, following great play by Campbell and Walcott, in one of those footballing moments so surreal you’re left rubbing your eyes and mouthing ‘how the f*cking f*ck, did he miss that?’. On second glance though, it’s quite simple – he got there ahead of the ball. So it remained 2-2 until the break but Giroud made amends for his glaring miss by producing a turn and finish of the highest standard to give us the lead for the first time in the match, ten minutes into the second half.

Hector Bellerin nipped in marginally ahead of James Milner on the right to turn a poor Flamini pass into an adequate one, before bursting forward in trademark fashion. He then played it short to Campbell, who found Giroud via a deflection. The Frenchman showed he has plenty of dexterity to compliment his physicality, as well as decent spatial awareness, by turning away from his marker and the goal with his first touch, before wrapping his left-foot round the ball to place it emphatically into the far corner. A great piece of opportunistic forward play by a striker in great form. Giroud has now scored 11 goals in 11 away games in all competitions this season, as well as four in his last four league games against Liverpool.

Arsene Wenger made his usual subs in trying to see out the win, with Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta replacing Walcott, Campbell and Ozil, but the changes simply invited sustained pressure on our defence and eventually Liverpool found a leveller when Christian Benteke headed a lofted ball down for Joe Alen to sweep home first-time. Arriving so late, the goal was obviously hugely deflating but in the cold light of day, when you consider how stretched our squad is because of injury, it’s far from a bad result.

I’ve said this plenty of times previously but when a round of fixtures come to a close this season, my main concern is always our position relative to Manchester City, who I think remain favourites to win the league. So the fact they also drew last night, at home to Everton, means we’re still three points ahead of them with one game less to play, so that should temper any disappointment at two dropped points at Anfield.

In terms of individual performances last night, two-goal Giroud was rightly named man-of-the-match I thought, but Nacho Monreal was outstanding at left-back, as was Campbell on the right of the attack. In contrast, Flamini’s had better games shall we say, the Ox was typically clumsy, Gibbs typically uncultured and Walcott typically timid.

Overall, a bad showing by our English contingent but what I would say is for me, their talent is undoubted – it’s their mentality and confidence that needs work. Yet, how you get Theo, for instance, to develop his attitude from ‘after you, old chap’, to ‘get out of my f*cking way’ when he’s on the pitch, is anybody’s guess at this stage – he turns 27 in a couple of months. At Aston Villa recently, he was aggressive in winning a penalty but last night he reverted to looking like a kid playing with adults at times. But I’ll reiterate, it’s a confidence and conviction thing in my opinion – and that can be remedied.

Right, this post has tuned out longer than intended so I’ll leave discussing the confirmation of Mohamed Elneny’s move to Arsenal until tomorrow. In the meantime, this is a good read on our new number 35. Needless to say though, another central midfield option in the continued absence of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin is very welcome indeed.

Back on Friday.

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