Liverpool gunned down by four glorious goals

Going into Saturday’s game with Liverpool at Emirates Stadium, I was confident, but nagging doubts remained. Despite the good run of form, this is the Arsenal, and the self-destruct button is never far away. There was a feeling that after wins at Manchester City and Manchester United in 2015, Arsenal needed a victory against a big club at the Emirates to properly showcase the new found confidence. The Gunners produced that and more in an exciting performance.
What is especially great about Arsenal’s run of form is the quality of the play and the beauty of the goals they are scoring. In the previous home outing against West Ham, Arsenal scored three, all of which involved the swift passing and movement that has been the hallmark of Arsene Wenger teams in his time at the club.
Three of the four strikes to beat Liverpool did involve good passing, but they were all done at pace and were direct, as Arsenal adapted their style to expose Liverpool’s weaknesses. After a high-tempo start, during which Arsenal should have taken the lead, the Gunners kept applying pressure to Liverpool’s back three, winning the ball high up the pitch and then springing devastating attacks. The selection of Aaron Ramsey on the right of the midfield initially looked a strange one with Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott on the bench, but the Welshman’s relentless energy helped pressure the visitors, plus without a proper full-back to face, Ramsey was able to be effective in the space between Liverpool’s left centre-back and the wing-back.
Ramsey was involved in the opening goal as he pulled into space on the right to drag Mamadou Sakho out of the back three after an excellent pass to spread the play from Mesut Ozil. This created space for Hector Bellerin to burst forward from right-back and cut inside into the penalty area. For a teenage right-back, the left footed finish into the bottom corner which followed was sumptuous.
I think most Arsenal fans would love to see Carl Jenkinson make a career at the club, but the form of Bellerin recently has been exceptional, and at this rate, I’m struggling to see how the Englishman can force his way past Bellerin in the pecking order when he returns from his loan spell at West Ham.
Bellerin’s goal was the boost Arsenal needed to push on in the game and knocked the stuffing out of Liverpool after they’d had a dangerous period in the match. Moments later, the Gunners doubled the lead with another sensational strike. Mesut Ozil, who defied critics with a silky and dominant display in a big game, was clattered into by Sakho 25 yards out and to the right of goal, and immediately Ozil laid claim to the ball, knowing exactly what he wanted to do with the free-kick. The German delivered a powerful and precise side-footed shot perfectly into the corner of the net, leaving Mignolet reaching for thin air.
Liverpool were really rocking and Arsenal pounced again before half-time. The pressure high up the pitch paid off as Liverpool played a loose pass out of defence, and two passes later, the ball was exploding into their net. Bellerin found Ramsey, whose excellent turn and pass opened up the chance for Alexis Sanchez to fire a cannon into the roof of the net from just outside the box. After his extraordinarily high standards in the first half of the season, Alexis has been slightly more subdued of late, but he had no hesitation or lack-of-confidence to release a thunderbolt past the goalkeeper.
3-0 to the Arsenal at half time wasn’t flattering on the Gunners. They were sharper, faster and more ruthless than the visitors.
Unsurprisingly, the second half was quieter as Arsenal looked to maintain the lead, as memories of games such as Anderlecht still linger from earlier in the season. Liverpool changed formation and did enjoy more possession, but that was partly because Arsenal knew they didn’t have to bust a gut to force the issue in the match with a comfortable lead established. Arsenal still created the best chance as Olivier Giroud leapt above Kolo Toure to head towards goal, only for Mignolet to save well.
Hector Bellerin did show his inexperience as he lunged in on Raheem Sterling to concede a penalty with 15 minutes to go, and it was especially risky when already on a yellow card. Henderson scoring the penalty did create some anxiety around the ground, but Liverpool struggled to create any further openings to really test David Ospina, and any faint threat of a comeback evaporated when Emre Can stupidly chopped down Danny Welbeck having already been booked. His subsequent sending off immediately handed Arsenal back the initiative and opened up spaces for the Gunners to complete victory with a fourth goal.
It arrived just into injury time when Alexis Sanchez rolled the ball forward for Olivier Giroud to run onto and skip past Kolo Toure. At most other times in his Arsenal career, Giroud would probably have looked to pass or take a few extra touches before shooting. Instead, he instinctively fired a brilliant curling shot past the keeper from outside the box, adding some seriously stylish gloss to an already polished performance.
In the Liverpool goal, Simon Mignolet has had a lot of criticism for letting some of the Arsenal strikes past him, but the quality of the finishing shouldn’t be overlooked. Every single one was brilliant in its own way, and had Mignolet saved any of them, we’d be lauding some outstanding goalkeeping.
Arsenal’s attack has, rightly, taken the majority of the post-match plaudits for the way Liverpool were dismantled, but the defence also deserves a lot of praise. In the time when Arsenal’s midfield when slightly awol in the first half, Francis Coquelin put in a fantastic shift to protect the back four. Behind him, I was particularly impressed by Per Mertesacker. Liverpool clearly were looking to target his lack of pace by making Sterling operate on the the German’s side of the Arsenal back-line, but he couldn’t get past Mertesacker as the BFG showed all of his defensive know-how with some excellent positioning and tackling. Nacho Monreal also continued to impress with another solid showing at left-back.
Arsene Wenger saw his team blown away by a Liverpool team playing at a high tempo at Anfield last season, but the Frenchman designed a perfect plan to dish out the same pain to the same opponents. It was then executed really well by players who are gaining confidence game-by-game. Since the turn of the year, Arsenal have added serious substance to the sumptuous style of the play, and when everything comes together as it did for the most part of Saturday, it is quite something to watch.


Second half surge secures the points

Apart from the obvious horror show against against Monaco, Arsenal’s recent form has been excellent. A lot of the points picked up have come from the team getting ahead in the first half and doing enough to see the game out. While the 2-1 win at Loftus Road against Queens Park Rangers on Wednesday night finished with the Gunners just doing enough to win following Charlie Austin’s late strike for the hosts, it was an impressive second half showing that did the trick for Arsene Wenger’s team.
Rather than controlling the first period, Arsenal struggled to impose themselves on the match as they looked subdued. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez weren’t receiving the ball in dangerous forward positions and QPR were succeeding in disrupting the Gunners by causing problems with a direct game plan by playing the ball up to Bobby Zamora. As the half progressed, Arsenal grew into the game, but it was a very even and competitive match at half time.
That changed in the second half as Arsenal seemed to rapidly go up through the gears. Mesut Ozil ran the show, and while he didn’t get an assist, it was one of the German’s most dominant performances. The supporting runs from players around him were more decisive and more direct, with both Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs regularly storming forward from full-back to cause overlaps against the QPR defence. It felt like it was only a matter of time until the opening goal.
That came just after the hour mark as swift counter attack featuring Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil culminated with Alexis Sanchez feeding a rampaging Kieran Gibbs on his left. The full-back’s shot was blocked, but Oliver Giroud showed good predatory instincts to sweep the ball in immediately after it hit the defender. Hopefully, after two goals in two games since, Giroud has put the Monaco shocker firmly behind him. The fact he now has five goals in four domestic matches just makes that Monaco showing all the more bizarre.
Moments later, Giroud and Alexis put pressure on Steven Caulker, robbing the centre-back of the ball and giving the Chilean a golden chance to double the lead. He tried to pass the ball to Mesut Ozil, allowing Robert Green in to intercept the ball. After his decisive performances earlier in the season, I think every Arsenal fan was concerned to see Alexis not go for the kill after getting the ball. Gooners didn’t want to believe he was in a goal drought, but at that moment it seemed it was getting to him.
But this is Alexis Sanchez. He’s not shown many signs of weakness since joining the club, and just as doubts might have begun to creep in, he jinked his way into the QPR box and fooled the goalkeeper and defenders with a clinical finish into the near post to double the lead. He has been slightly below par by his standards in recent weeks, but in the second half he looked more determined, constantly wanted the ball and completely rebuilt any confidence he might have lost. With Old Trafford on the horizon on Monday, it was well timed.
Robert Green made a few excellent saves to stop Arsenal further extending the lead as the Gunners looked able to create chances at will for the majority of the second period. It was probably the most convincing half of football from Arsenal since the demolition of Aston Villa. That was what made Austin’s late goal all the more surprising. But, after scoring, QPR didn’t really test David Ospina again.
A large reason for QPR not creating another clear chance was a quietly effective game from Per Mertesacker. It felt like a lot of fans and pundits were quick to declare the German’s career almost over after he was dropped for the game against Everton. The BFG was rotated back in against QPR, starting alongside Gabriel, and he was able to deal with the hosts’ direct balls into the box with his usual excellent positioning. It was a shame to see Gabriel go off with a hamstring injury, especially after his good performances against Everton, but fans shouldn’t be worried about Mertesacker coming back in. The rest against Everton could have been just what he needed to refocus the mind and get back to his best.
With all the other sides in the top seven winning, the three points were vital. It was another step on the path to getting Monaco out the system, and kept a winning momentum going before the FA Cup quarter-final. That is a huge game, made bigger by the unlikely progression in the Champions League, but with Giroud scoring and Alexis back in the groove, Arsenal will go to Manchester in decent shape.

Giroud and Arsenal survive the post-Monaco hangover

Following a defeat as chastening and painful as the one suffered against Monaco last week, Arsenal were never going to be at their fluent best against Everton at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. There were always going to be nerves, some apprehension and caution from the Gunners. Fortunately, Everton didn’t take advantage as Arsenal kept concentration and secured a good 2-0 win.
The man who’ll have had the most to worry about before the game was Olivier Giroud. In a team who all fell below the expected level against Monaco, Giroud’s wasteful performance up front stuck out horribly on Wednesday. His excellent form prior to the Champions League game saved his place in the side, and while there were a few more missed chances against the Toffees, the Frenchman opened the scoring just before half time with an excellent swept finish from Mesut Ozil’s corner.
Giroud was physical, looked to get involved and didn’t shirk responsibly, when other players could have gone into their shell after such a dreadful showing in his previous game. His usual good link-up play was off against Monaco, but his clever lay-offs and physical strength contributed to the majority of chances the team created against Everton, including an excellent flick-on that allowed Ozil the space to set up the clinching goal.
That clincher was scored by Tomas Rosicky, who reinforced his use to the squad by coming on at 1-0, when the team could have got nervous and sat back too deep, but his high-energy style pressured the visitors. After Rosicky hung back on the edge of the box just before the 90th minute, Ozil found the Czech with time to fire low at goal. The shot took a deflection off Phil Jagielka to go over Tim Howard, but after the blocks and deflections went against Arsenal against Monaco, it felt like the team deserved a bit of luck.
While Arsene Wenger kept faith with Olivier Giroud, the main team change came in the back four as Gabriel made his first Premier League start ahead of Per Mertesacker. Regular SMR readers and listeners will know of my admiration for Per Mertesacker, so I must admit to being slightly disappointed to not see him play. He was horribly exposed against Monaco, but that was partly down to the whole team being a bit kamakaze in the second half. Even so, given how he’s been a pillar of the team for the last few seasons, it was a surprise to see the Mertesacker-Koscienly partnership broken up. With doubts still existing about Laurent Koscielny’s achilles, who limped off slightly again at the end of the game on Sunday, I’m certain we’ll see the BFG back in sooner rather than later; if not against QPR on Wednesday, then I think he’ll play at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, where an experienced pairing will be useful. He’s played a lot of football in the last few seasons, so the occasional rest after a poor performance should do him good.
When he does play again, Mertesacker will know he has to perform to stay in the team, as Gabriel was impressive against the Toffees. There was a mistake in the first half where he needed to be bailed out excellently by David Ospina, and there was a loose pass in the second half that could have cost a chance, but he didn’t look overawed by his first full Premier League experience, especially against a powerful forward like Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker was on the end of a stunning last ditch tackle from the Brazilian in the first half, before there was a similarly no-nonsense style challenge on Ross Barkley that endeared him to the home fans.
Gabriel was in front of David Ospina, who kept his place after an iffy showing in the Champions League. The Colombian was much improved and made some excellent saves. As mentioned, his sweeper-keeping to bail out Gabriel and deny Lukaku was first class, as was his flying save from the same player in the second half. It was the sort of confidence-boosting performance he needed, and one that helped calm the rest of the team down on a day when things could have become very edgy.
Everton looked a shadow of the team that really tested the Gunners last season, but this was the sort of match Arsenal needed to rebuild some of the confidence lost in the Champions League. It strengthened the club’s position in the top four and kept the league momentum going. Realistically, knowing the type of match it was going to be, the 2-0 win was about as good as Arsenal fans could have hoped for.