Arsenals opening day 4-3 defeat by Liverpool was not as concerning as Arsene Wenger’s admission after the match that his side are “not ready” for the Premier League, with frustrations boiling over at the Emirates Stadium in scenes that threatened to turn ugly.
The Wenger out brigade were still on their summer holidays when Theo Walcott put Arsenal ahead shortly after the half-hour mark, less than two minutes after seeing a penalty saved by Simon Mignolet, and there were still plenty of positives to take despite Philippe Coutinho levelling the scores in first-half injury time with an inch-perfect free-kick.
Yet after Adam Lallana, Coutinho again and the rampant Sadio Mane put Liverpool 4-1 up 18 minutes into the second half, north London resembled scenes not witnessed since the 2011 riots. That Arsenal managed to fight their way back into the game to 4-3 said something about their character – and more about Liverpool’s defence – but there were far more negatives here than positives.
“Physically we are not ready,” Wenger said. “You’re in a catch 22 situation with the Euros because you give the players a rest. We are not ready to play this kind of game and they get injured like [Aaron] Ramsey today, or you give them a rest and you start the season without many of your players.”
Wenger’s failure to find a new defender and striker came to light in the second half, and while this is only the first weekend of a 10-month season, it could be Wenger’s most important year of his 20 in the Premier League. His contract is up at the end of this campaign, and a renewal is no longer the certainty it once was.
The good cheer that comes with the start of a new season was in full display in the build-up to kick-off, where fans could lay their hands on a free matchday programme, complete with new signing Granit Xhaka plastered across the front cover. If Arsenal were determined to push their marquee summer signing in an effort to make fans forget about their transfer failings over the last month, no one had informed Wenger, as he left his new acquisition out of the starting line-up. Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny filled the centre of the pitch in an obvious effort to protect Wenger’s young centre-back pairing of Calum Chambers and new addition Rob Holding, a £2.5m addition from Bolton Wanderers after they were relegated to League One.
With every opening weekend comes the admission that it’s a big season for Walcott, and each year he fails to deliver. There were understandably plenty of concerned faces then when, after winning a penalty from a rash Alberto Moreno lunge, Walcott’s poor spot-kick effort was saved by Simon Mignolet to his right. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp insisted afterwards that referee Michael Oliver had made the wrong decision. “It’s not important of course but it’s not a penalty,” he said. “He [Moreno] played the ball is how I saw it but it’s not important because Simon could make the save.”
Walcott’s luck was about to change though. Moreno, himself lucky to be still on the pitch given he had followed up his booking for conceding the penalty by furiously reacting towards assistant referee Stuart Burt after Mignolet’s save, abandoned his defensive responsibilities, and when Philippe Coutinho lost the ball twice in the space of 15 seconds, a committed slide tackle from Coquelin on Lallana released Hector Bellerin, who found Alex Iwobi on the edge of the area.
Iwobi elected to play in an unmarked Walcott on the right, with Moreno by now realising the error of his ways as he sprinted back, but it was too late.
Walcott took a touch before sliding the ball to Mignolet’s right and into the side-netting, his reprieve triggering a passionate celebration and relief around the Emirates that Arsenal had been able to convert their superiority into a lead.
Liverpool had their chances though, with the Arsenal defence allowing summer signing Mane far too much space whenever he got the ball, yet Liverpool’s front three were failing to test Arsenal’s unproven centre-back pairing. Luckily for the visitors, they wouldn’t need to to equalise.
As the clock ticked over into time added on, Holding was harshly penalised for grappling with Coutinho. From 30 yards out, Coutinho unleashed a sublime curling effort into the top left corner that had Petr Cech beat, and the midfielder was already running to celebrate by the time the ball nestled into the net.
Arsenal could take heart from their first half showing, but they started the second half terribly. A lapse of concentration from Bellerin allowed Mane to break down the right, and the Senegalese cut back as he entered the area before chipping a cross towards an on-rushing Lallana in the middle of the box. The midfielder, who had a rather forgettable first 45 minutes, used his chest to cushion the ball before neatly placing it to Cech’s right.
Arsenal were rattled, and it didn’t take long for Liverpool to find a third. Nathaniel Clyne burst down the right in the 55th minute to skin Nacho Monreal and fizz in a low cross to the centre of the box, where Coutinho was poised to hit the ball past Cech first time.
With Liverpool firing on all cylinders, what followed was one of the most bizarre periods seen in Premier League football. Mane by now was terrorising the Arsenal defence, and he burst past Monreal before beating Chambers, the pair both struggling with anything that came their way. The Senegalese cut inside and lashed the ball past Cech for Liverpool’s fourth – the tipping point for many inside the Emirates.
Boos rang out, some made their way for the exits after just 63 minutes citing “disgraceful” and “déjà vu” as they passed the press box. But more alarmingly was the surge towards the Arsenal dugout by a selection of ‘fans’ who felt it necessary to let Wenger know they weren’t impressed with the 4-1 scoreline. Stewards were required to keep them at distance, with the aggressors completely oblivious to the fact that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – on for the injured Iwobi – had worked the ball beyond Clyne and Lallana and fired a shot past Mignolet via the boot of Dejan Lovren to make it 4-2.
With the boos silenced, Arsenal pressed on again and found a third 11 minutes later. Coquelin was fouled towards the left touchline with Arsenal deciding to flood the box and put Mignolet under pressure, the Liverpool goalkeeper beginning to have one of those games. It worked, and Chambers rose highest to meet substitute Santi Cazorla’s floated cross to find the corner of the net..
It wasn’t enough though, and Arsenal’s failure to at least salvage a draw did not sit well with a frustrated Wenger, who after the match was in no mood to talk. It would get worse still, as captain Petr Cech managed to crash his car as he left the Emirates. It was described as a write-off, just like Arsenal’s season unless they make a major statement in the transfer market in the next two weeks.
Arsenal: Cech; Bellerin, Holding, Chambers, Monreal; Elneny (Xhaka, 67), Coquelin; Walcott, Ramsey (Cazorla, 61), Iwobi (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 68); Sanchez.
Liverpool: Miignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Moreno; Wijnaldum (Stewart, 88), Henderson, Lallana (Origi, 76); Mane, Coutinho (Can, 69), Firmino.
Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland)
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