Liverpool 5 – 1 Arsenal
1 – 0 Skrtel (1)
2 – 0 Skrtel (10)
3 – 0 Sterling (17)
4 – 0 Sturridge (20)
5 – 0 Sterling (52)
5 – 1 Areta (69 pen)
“What is important is that we respond to the result, especially that we respond with a different performance because our performance overall was poor today – on the concentration level and on the pace. Our defensive stability was very poor, we looked always vulnerable defensively. Congratulations to Liverpool, they were the better team today and we were very poor today. Only our fans were good for 90 minutes, that’s all.”
– Arsène Wenger following yesterday’s game
Defeat always hurts but some are easier to come to terms with than others. Disappointment isn’t strong enough a word and I don’t feel desperation. Dejection certainly but the performance lacked heart, spirit, adventure. Anything. Everything. Something. The thing you most wanted certainly wasn’t shown. Arsenal lost. It was abject, there is no point in trying to dress yesterday in any other way. If I tried to make an argument for the positive, it would extremely short. There are none in a drubbing, just lessons to be learned.
Yesterday offers uncomfortable questions which must be answered. Eastlands was easy to compartmentalise until Anfield; it was nothing short of pre-Christmas madness, Arsenal didn’t readily ship five or six goals in any game. We had the most parsimonious of Premier League defeats. Indeed, take that out of the equation and Arsenal possessed a defensive record which was the envy of every other team. Mertesacker and Koscielny, ridiculed and mocked previously, had turned the tables on their critics. They still have but performances such as yesterday provide cracks in the arguments, flaws which are difficult to avoid. That is not to blame them for the defeat. Matches such as these should not find a scapegoat; there were fourteen on the pitch, all take an equal share of opprobrium. The manager, the coaching staff too.
Chris Waddle called it a “terrible defeat” in a remarkably understated moment and it was. You cannot evaluate individual performances under the circumstances, it is impossible to be objective. Arsène captured that post-match when asked about Jack Wilshere,
“He didn’t look more short than any other player on the pitch. At half-time I could have taken a lot of people off. I just think the whole team failed to turn up with the right performance.”
It is easy to criticise team selection but what impact would Rosicky or Gibbs have made on a match where the first goal came with turnstiles still clicking? Capitulation came too easily over the opening twenty minutes, an uncomfortable habit which had developed at Anfield in previous years most notably when Robbie Fowler scored a quick-fire hat-trick to announce his Premier League arrival.
Football folklore has it that the players will be called in for training today, to iron out the deficiencies of the ninety minutes but I don’t think an extra lap of the Colney pitches will solve the problem. Fundamentally, Arsenal’s mental preparation was flawed. As recently as Southampton, excuses were laid out for the team in such circumstances, became part of received wisdom, of how travel plans caused slow starts. The truth is that it is a habit they have developed. Slow starts are an awful characteristic for a football team. Against smaller teams, you can get away with being a bit lax, of not being ready come kick-off. Liverpool proved there is no such luxury against good sides, they punish any lack of concentration in whatever minute. The opening goal ought to have led to a wake-up call but it did not. Instead it signalled capitulation. Where were the leaders of the team, the leaders lauded for instilling more character into the squad. They were noticeable by the absence.
So where does it leave us?
Arsenal are in the middle of a two-pronged run of fixtures that were testing before yesterday. If the players were feeling pressure ahead of Anfield, they did not show it. They appeared relaxed. They were comatose on the pitch. You would expect them to be quiet before Wednesday; no words on how they want to prove their critics wrong. Words are no longer required, their actions are all that matter.
Predictably, these matches are going to define Arsenal’s season. In the space of a week, all hope of silverware could disappear apparently. In two competitions, that might be true with the knockout nature of the FA Cup and Champions League. But the Premier League? You would think Chelsea had opened a four-point gap at the top; they haven’t, it’s a solitary point. It might be that big come the final whistle on Wednesday and if it is, overhauling that will surely be too much to ask? Yet Manchester City’s result at Norwich shows that even then, towels should be kept firmly in hand for the moment.
The response to this game is going to decide Arsenal’s fate. They must win against Manchester United, not just for the points but to answer the questions in their own and others minds. It is easy to state that Champions do not lose heavily yet I immediately recalled Liverpool’s defeat in 1976 at Villa Park by a similar scoreline. They won the League that season by a single point from Manchester City. 1976/77 sticks in the memory as the year Tottenham propped up the First Division; relegation called and they answered.
But we must also remember that there are three distinctly different matches in the next ten days. United requires a different approach to Liverpool with Bayern somewhere between the two, part Premier League, part FA Cup tie. All three need one characteristic, one entirely absent yesterday and that is mental application. If this team concentrates, they can be impregnable and maybe this is the wake-up call they needed; maybe defensively they were arrogant. Now doubt must creep in, they must now prove it each other that this is just a bad day at the office.
We pontificate, discuss and argue, there is but one question to be answered. Are Arsenal flattering to deceive? The answer comes on Wednesday.