Doubts plague Liverpool in loss at Arsenal

Posted by Kristian Walsh

In the buildup to the match between Arsenal and Liverpool, it was heralded as one that defied expectations. Arsenal, with the sole (albeit impressive) addition of Mesut Ozil, had found themselves top of the league. Liverpool, with a solid, if unremarkable summer, had played some of the best football in the league and -- crucially -- married that with results. They travelled to the Emirates in third. This wasn't meant to happen.

- Report: Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool
- Delaney: Three things: Arsenal-Liverpool
- Brewin: Ramsey shines amid Gerrard's autumn

After 90 minutes of toil, of ultimate disappointment, of the ball not spinning this way or that, Liverpool found that defying expectation can work both for and against a team throughout the season.

It began with the lineup. Expectation was for Glen Johnson to play in his regular right wing-back role, but illness prevented that. Expectation then was that Jordan Henderson, played on the right-hand side when necessary, would serve that role with Joe Allen or Philippe Coutinho thrust into the centre.

But Brendan Rodgers did not opt for the control of Allen or wonder of Coutinho, instead keeping Henderson in the middle and deciding Jon Flanagan -- underplayed and, after this game, underappreciated -- could quell the influence of Ozil and Santi Cazorla.

That decision was not what saw Liverpool lose 2-0. Indeed, Flanagan was good and played as well as was expected of him. He cannot be expected to function in the same manner as Johnson. But the change edged doubt into the minds of the away side. This Liverpool side can be one of routine and machine performance at times with one pass setting the movement from all over the pitch. There was reticence.

There was yet more expectation unfulfilled and defied. Expectation is for Steven Gerrard to produce a performance so familiar, one of that fine cocktail of intensity, intelligence and unmatched ability. But there was none of that. Gerrard routinely lacked the energy and dynamism required of him, especially after Arsenal took the lead. Time and time again, his decision-making was questionable. To press or not to press? To sit deep and dictate or move forward? They were questions he did not answer. The result was Mikel Arteta having space to do what he does so well -- evidenced, more than anything, with his run that released Bacary Sagna midway through the first half. Cazorla, via head, post and ambidextrous talent, put Arsenal ahead.

Gerrard was not alone. The partnership of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez is not even based on expectation any longer, but rather an inevitability. Suarez or Sturridge, or both, will eventually combine to create chances; Suarez or Sturridge, or both, will eventually take them. But the cohesion was lacking. Suarez persevered and often left defenders askew; Sturridge worked hard, looking to hold up the ball and create space, but it proved futile.

It would be folly to blame the misfiring Suarez and Sturridge. The formula is an obvious one: If a team's best players don't meet their high standards, the team suffers. Besides, given their efforts since the arrival of Sturridge, the night of hassle instead of hustle will eventually come.

More's the pity for Liverpool that it came against Arsenal. Their movement off the ball was dizzying, their passing pinpoint, if not always effective. It did not help that their midfield constantly broke free of the lightly bound fetters placed on them. Lucas Leiva worked and Henderson ran, but sometimes industry is not enough.

Liverpool have quality, undoubted quality that should see them in the Champions League conversation come May.

It is a conversation Rodgers is keen to be a recurring theme in, something he spoke much of in the summer. But first, a conversation of the halftime decision to introduce Coutinho and move from the 3-4-1-2 formation into something that numbers can't quite sufficiently summarise. What is known is that the defence moved into a four, Sturridge and Suarez were separated, and the midfield was outnumbered.

Hindsight is always wonderful, of course. But a change so drastic did not seem required. If not for a contentious -- but ultimately right, perhaps, maybe -- decision, they would have been level. Once the initial second-half buzz quieted, players seemed unsure of roles. It became individual endeavour over teamwork with Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge all looking to slalom through limbs and play cute through balls -- too cute -- around the Arsenal defence.

This all changes if not for Aaron Ramsey's strike, hard and direct. As the game ticks toward its conclusion, Arsenal would have become nervy, and nerves lead to mistakes. But with a two-goal cushion, Liverpool's efforts were constantly halted with little worry. Only Henderson firing over and Suarez hitting the woodwork -- the second coming with the game lost -- truly looked like goal-scoring opportunities.

There were still glimpses of what Liverpool are capable of and why they remain in the top four. Best of all for a side worried about their defensive strength, Kolo Toure, Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel were resolute despite the two goals; those three, and Simon Mignolet, prevented the deficit from being more. It says much of the three that Ozil was mostly ineffective. A shame about the midfield, forward play and management decisions.

But it happens to all sides. The expectation will now be for Liverpool to learn from mistakes and respond against Fulham, Everton and beyond. It is one they have to meet.

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