First the early-season surge. Today came the landmark victory over one of their fellow title contenders. Arsene Wenger has been told in recent weeks that his Arsenal side must prove themselves against the Premier League’s form teams. What better response than a victory over the swashbucklers of Liverpool?
Ten games in and, with Chelsea beaten as well, Arsenal find themselves five points clear of Jose Mourinho’s team in second place. There was an excellent goal in either half from Santi Cazorla and then Aaron Ramsey and a performance that made Liverpool look, well, pretty ordinary. As for Luis Suarez, he was managed by Arsenal defence as well as any opposing team could hope with a player of his menace.
Brendan Rodgers may well reflect that his team could have done more in only their second defeat of the season. The Liverpool manager changed formations at half-time and he pursued the game hard with attacking substitutions. But he came up against an Arsenal defence that was composed and underpinned by a very solid performance from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. No major fuss from the Premier League leaders, simply a very professional job.
Of course it helps when the man of the moment Ramsey comes up with the kind of inspired goal he scored in the second half, his tenth of the season already. But that is the confidence this team is playing with and it shows all over the pitch.
It is notable that this is an Arsenal side that is still carrying a lot of injuries. Jack Wilshere was out with an “inflamed” ankle, Wenger said later. Mathieu Flamini was already missing, along with the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski. The bench was light on game-changers, featuring, as it did, Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden among others but the team is strong.
In seasons past, Arsenal would have buckled against the Suarez-Daniel Sturridge attack which was a danger to the very end of the game. Concentration was required at all times and, in response, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were excellent. They did not win ever challenge but they triumphed overall.
For Wenger, the pain of the post-match inquest has subsided in recent months. They are becoming a pleasure for him. “It was vital to win, I said that before the game,” he said. “I haven't changed my mind. Had we not won, people would have said Arsenal cannot win big games at home. It's done in a convincing way. We had a good solidarity, a good focus.”
As for Liverpool, this was a reminder of the limitations of their squad. The 20-year-old right-back Jon Flanaghan took the place of Glen Johnson who spent the day in hospital with an infection. “Look at the squads around us, teams who have been in the Champions League for a number of years.” Rodgers said. “I can't ask any more from the players.”
The first Arsenal goal came on 19 minutes when Mikel Arteta set Bacary Sagna on a run down the right wing and his shrewd ball back, having bounced once, was met by Cazorla. His original header came off the post and in the moment that followed he adjusted beautifully to volley the rebound which fell quite nicely for him.
Liverpool had their chances too and felt aggrieved when referee Martin Atkinson refused to let play go on after 25 minutes following a foul by Sagna. A header from Daniel Sturridge set Suarez running in the Arsenal half and he was hauled down by the Arsenal right-back.
As Suarez went down he took the free-kick quickly. Sturridge continued and crossed for Jordan Henderson to score, but Atkinson had blown the whistle in order to book Sagna, as he later explained to Rodgers, which he was obliged to do in that break in play. “A poor decision” Rodgers said later, although correct by the letter of the law. To his credit, the Liverpool manager said that he believed the better side had won.
On nine minutes, Henderson had been as surprised as anyone when he won the ball from Cazorla and was allowed to run at an Arsenal defence that melted away as he advanced. Mertesacker appeared reluctant to leave Suarez’s side at any cost. Henderson could just not get the shot away cleanly.
In the latter stages of the first half, Arsenal pushed back again and Ramsey had a decent shot saved. As for Suarez, the man for whom Arsenal were first prepared to break their transfer record this summer, he was the subject of only the most inoffensive, “You should have signed for a big club” chant from the home fans. They sounded as if they hoped that Wenger may yet try to buy him again.
Rodgers’ half-time play was to throw on his Brazilian playmaker Coutinho in place of the side’s least effective first half performer, the left wing-back Aly Cissokho, and switch his formation. He changed to 4-4-2 with Mamadou Sakho pushed out to left-back and Henderson dispatched to the right wing.
Coutinho, starting on the left but moving around, was the more likely to pick out the runs of Suarez. The latter broke down the left five minutes after half-time but aimed for Henderson at the back post rather than the more realistic Sturridge in the centre.
It was Arsenal who took control. Olivier Giroud might have scored when Kolo Toure sold Martin Skrtel short with a ball in front of his own area and Arsenal’s French striker nipped in to take it away. With an ever-diminishing sight of goal, Giroud just reached the limits of his technique when he tried to chip the advancing Simon Mignolet. His effort went wide.
Through Rosicky and Cazorla, Arsenal worked another good opening for Giroud on 57 minutes and then Ramsey struck a brilliant second. He took the ball from Mesut Ozil out on the right and using the little bounce in the pass, he teed it up with his left and struck a swooping shot with his right foot that beat Mignolet easily.
Suarez drew another shot across goal on 73 minutes, with Rodgers having changed again. Victor Moses came on for Flanaghan, necessitating Henderson’s third switch of the match – this time to right-back. Suarez’s best chance came in the 87th minute when a Mertesacker mistake allowed him to run at goal and he shot wide with Sturridge free in the centre. Arsenal got lucky on that occasion but to be fair to them, there was nothing fortunate about this victory.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Ramsey, Arteta; Rosicky, Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud.
Subs: Rosicky/Monreal 70, Gibbs/Vermaelen 78, Jenkinson/Cazorla 82
Liverpool (3-3-2-2): Mignolet; Toure, Skrtel, Sakho; Flanaghan, Lucas, Cissokho; Henderson, Gerrard; Suarez, Sturridge.
Subs: Cissokho/Coutinho ht, Moses/Flanaghan 67
Bookings: Arsenal Sagna, Jenkinson Liverpool Cissokho
Referee: M Atkinson
Man of the match: Ramsey