Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1 match report: Arsene Wenger admits he fully understands that doubts over the Gunners' title credentials will now be raised
While the Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny labelled the performance 'embarrassing'
Arsène Wenger had laughed when it was put to him that this day might be the beginning of the period when his team were finally found out. The smile had vanished last night.
His team faced a force of nature here and just didn’t fancy the fight. Wenger talked in the aftermath of the side’s “defensive stability” being poor but the technicality of his explanation could not disguise the awful brittleness at the heart of Arsenal. His midfield was a desert; all those stationed there absent, bar Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – the only player who could leave Anfield with perhaps a modicum of self-respect intact.
Wenger said he “fully understood” that questions will be raised of his sides stomach for a title race after a performance which was inferior even to the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City in December, and included Mesut Özil failing to look the manager in the eye or acknowledge fans after he was substituted on the hour. Wenger admitted that his players lacked concentration, though insisted that his team could still win the title, with City also failing to capitalise.
The goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny offered a concise summary of the painful performance, writing on his Facebook page last night: “That was f...ing embarrassing,” before apologising to the supporters. “Apologies to anyone who sat through 90mins of that game.”
The casual surrender of possession and fecklessness in the tackle made Arsenal’s first half one of their most dismal in recent memory but none of which should subtract from the performance of a Liverpool side who, only five points behind Arsenal today, would be fighting for the title if they didn’t mix mediocrity with one of their new characteristics: that ability to destroy teams in incredible bursts of football. It was three goals in 10 minutes against Everton 11 days ago; four in 20 here.
Brendan Rodgers won the tactical victory. He talked last night of his players being “tactically brilliant” but it was he, of course, who took the bold decision to position his best player, Luis Suarez, out on the right to destroy Nacho Monreal in the same way that Jesus Navas and Pablo Zabaleta had reduced him to dust in City 6-3 victory at the Etihad Stadium.
Behind the attack was Steven Gerrard, the Premier League’s new regista, playing so deep that he was often a de facto centre-half, allowing Martin Skrtel to saunter off, and also killing what very little space Arsenal were allowed.
Jordan Henderson’s relentless pressing and box-to-box running revealed a man recast as a Rodgers midfielder. Philippe Coutinho’s passing precision relentlessly punished Arsenal’s failure to keep the ball.
What unravelled in the first 20 minutes defied comprehension. It was a cyclone that consumed an Arsenal defence that had conceded 0.88 goals per game until then, tearing away at the League leaders’ supremacy and self-belief. Wenger’s high defensive line was an act of naivety, leaving them caught again and again by Liverpool’s searching ball from deep.
One of the many remarkable aspects was the relatively incidental role of Suarez. He certainly set it all going – ripping away down the left flank to draw the foul from Per Mertesacker and earning the whipped Gerrard free-kick which Skrtel stepped into the six-yard box to prod in off his knee, 53 seconds in. Mikel Arteta’s touch as the ball sailed through played him onside.
Suarez was on the outskirts of the second goal, planting the ball through Santi Cazorla’s legs in the Arsenal half, on the way to another of the captain’s corners. Skrtel planted an angular, technically excellent header on it, steering it up and over Oxlade-Chamberlain on the goalline.
Liverpool’s goal per minute ratio had them on track to score about 20 when Özil, loose and lazy in possession, was robbed again for Suarez to level across the box and Raheem Sterling – unhindered – slid in a third. Coutinho picked off Özil for the fourth, sending the ball around the back of the defence for Sturridge – unhindered – to despatch left-footed. The Anfield scoreboard did not tell of the volley that Suarez thumped against Szczesny’s right-hand post, despatched as he reached a foot for a corner played behind him by Gerrard. Nor Sturridge’s cardinal miss, a chip wide of the keeper’s left post after Coutinho and Suarez had processed the ball into his path.
The interval was a staging post on the road to more punishment. Monreal was opened up again by Kolo Touré’s high ball with Sterling, racing free onto it, striking straight at Szczesny but burying the rebound.
Wenger’s three substitutions made little material difference, though Gerrard’s mistimed tackle on Oxlade-Chamberlain gave Arteta the penalty which reduced the deficit. An Arteta free-kick brought a smart, low save from an unsighted Simon Mignolet, though Coutinho and Sterling had further chances before the curtain came down on a game which leaves Arsenal with a mountain to climb in their minds.
Liverpool (4-1-4-1): Mignolet; Flanagan, Skrtel, Touré, Cissokho; Gerrard (Ibe, 76); Suarez (Aspas, 86), Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling; Sturridge (Allen, 66).
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal (Gibbs, 60); Arteta, Wilshere; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil (Rosicky, 60), Cazorla; Giroud (Podolski, 60).
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Coutinho (Liverpool)
Match rating: 8/10
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