Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Glimpses of greatness amid familiar flaws
Miguel Delaney, Emirates Stadium
In the end, two of the most inconsistent teams in the Premier League produced a contest of which almost every aspect could have been anticipated.
Virtually every element fitted an existing trend. The only deviation from that was the fact that this was Liverpool's first draw in 11 games and only Arsenal's second in the same period.
But given the way in which both sides' results have wavered so wildly, as well as the general traits of the teams, that was perhaps always going to be the case. Their pros and cons cancelled each other out.
Both sides remain good enough to occasionally suggest a bright future, but are still too flawed to have any faith in, and they produced a truly open contest to reflect that.
The first of the game's predictable elements was provided Luis Suarez's sumptuous brilliance. Although his goal illustrated his typical - and still improving - opportunism, the real moment of quality came moments later when, on a Liverpool break, he instantly and incredibly controlled the ball with his chest before swerving an enticing ball to Daniel Sturridge with the outside of his boost.
If not quite as drastically as they had done in the face of Juan Mata during the defeat to Chelsea ten days ago, Arsenal's defence looked anxious whenever the Uruguayan had the ball.
The opening goal was a case in point, as the Gunners' backline made four consecutive errors to gift Liverpool the first goal.
Of course, that illustrated another trend: a disappointing Arsenal first half in a key game, complete with a series of defensive calamities. Worryingly, Arsene Wenger claimed such issues sometimes escape "rational explanation".
"We were nervous defensively," the Arsenal manager said. "I believe recent history has an impact on the way we started the game, and we have to get that out of our minds.
"I believe that the quality is there and we have to trust our quality and forget what happened in the past. You could see it was in our heads at the start of the game."
Although Arsenal responded rather well to Liverpool's opening goal in attack, their defence remained on edge - especially when the hapless Andre Santos came on for the injured Kieran Gibbs.
Given Bacary Sagna's continued poor form, it meant Arsenal looked vulnerable on both wings. And so it proved when Jordan Henderson trundled forward after half-time. Although his goal was born more of determination than any dribbling, he deserved it for sheer perseverance. It was further evidence of a young player getting more comfortable at the club and improving overall.
Whether Liverpool are doing so at the same rate, though, is still hard to say because, after that second goal, the game took an odd turn. Curiously, or perhaps predictably given the two teams, that came out of a vacuum rather than any vigour - the somewhat mobile object against the unsteady force.
Although Arsenal weren't actually pushing forward with any great pressure and even seemed to have lost belief, Liverpool increasingly withdrew and lost possession. Brendan Rodgers perhaps recognised this given that, after the game, he explained that he was desperately trying to get Jose Enrique on in order to fortify the team's backline.
But, with the left-back struggling to "get his boots on", Liverpool's existing issues in defence cost them in the meantime.
Despite the fact that they had previously found it easy enough to cover Arsenal in the opening stages of the second half, Daniel Agger completely lost Olivier Giroud, allowing the French striker to plunder a goal back.
Out of nothing, almost, Arsenal were a new team. Again, this was another trend: the second-half transformation. All of a sudden, they were rampant, returning to the levels of their performance against West Ham United a week ago.
Theo Walcott continued his own improvement. Not for the first time this season, he scored an important goal, and the assured manner in which he despatched the equaliser reflected a more mature player who is more frequently taking the correct decisions and starting to take command of games.
One of the duels that conditioned the pattern of this match the most was Walcott continuously attempting to expose the otherwise excellent Jamie Carragher with his pace. "He is a man now when he plays football," Wenger said of Walcott. "He takes responsibility."
He is also developing a promising relationship with Giroud. Although Arsenal fans mightn't appreciate the comparison, the striker provided a Teddy Sheringham-esque touch for Walcott to score.
Giroud still hasn't completely settled, though. Late on, he squandered the opportunity to finish the game off. It was part of a general Arsenal onslaught, but one that still could have been undone by Santos's inexplicable backpass in stoppage time, which almost allowed Suarez to steal the points. But, as competent and occasionally impressive as Liverpool were, a draw was probably the right result.
"I think there's an initial disappointment when 2-0 up," Rodgers admitted. "My overriding emotion is real pride. We played Arsenal earlier in the season and they outplayed us. I always thought this would be a benchmark of how we're progressing. We should have won but we didn't. We showed great resilience and quality."
Wenger could say much the same. "We could have lost, but we could also have won by three or four and that shows we created many, many chances," he said. "It was a great football game. Both teams went for it."
That we know. What we don't know, however, is where these teams will finish in the table. And this compelling contest only underlined that question even more.