After the first heavyweight game of the 2010/2011 season (or was it, given it pitted 7th vs 3rd from last year?), here are ten observations and conclusions I came to after an interesting match:
1, Missing…Joe Cole
“Joe Cole signed up to be part of Roy’s Revolution” Richard Keys told us in the opening sequence of Liverpool vs Arsenal. Did he? I didn’t see him. Playing in the central role he so craves, Cole was pretty much MIA throughout. Until stoppage time in the first half that is, when a hitherto anonymous Cole flew into another debutant, Laurent Koscielny, by the corner flag and was sent off for a quite reckless challenge. A three match ban now awaits. 81% of Just Football readers judged Joe Cole to be a better player than Yossi Benayoun in a poll held just after Cole joined Liverpool to complete the pair’s Chelsea – Liverpool switch. As debuts go, this was one to forget.
2, Blame game
Manuel Almunia received stinging criticism from the pundits post-match, as the Spaniard was held almost solely responsible for David Ngog’s vicious, roof-of-the-net strike that gave Liverpool the lead seconds after half time. The damning disapproval of Almunia was unfair. Though one is entitled to question a goalkeeper getting beaten at his near post the shot was ferocious, an impressive strike from the Liverpool man.
Whilst Messrs Redknapp, Merson and Gray were only too willing to hurl an uncomplimentary tirade at Almunia, less was said about both Jack Wilshere and Thomas Vermaelen’s part in the goal, with Wilshere playing Arsenal into trouble by giving the ball away carelessly and Vermaelen far too slow to track Ngog’s run. Wilshere and Vermaelen were both equally responsible for Arsenal conceding here, if not more so, than the easy target Almunia.
3, Schtop! He’s not ready yet!
One of the overriding factors in Arsenal failing to control the midfield at Anfield was Arsene Wenger’s deployment of Wilshere in a deeper, almost holding midfield role alongside Abou Diaby. The 18-year-old, making his first Premier League start for Arsenal, is clearly a promising player. However, at this stage in his development he lacks the tactical discipline and awareness to do justice to the defensive responsibilities his position requires. Perhaps he’d have been better deployed further up the pitch, at the apex of the midfield trident occupied by Samir Nasri. Wilshere, hailed as the future of English football after making his England debut last week, had a difficult game.
Conversely, one who looked every bit the part in midfield, as he has done for 3 years in English football on Merseyside, was Javier Mascherano. Put simply, what a player this man is. A behemoth in that defensive midfield role, Mascherano snapped, crackled and popped at the heart of Liverpool’s team, looking every inch the midfield destroyer he is sporting his new gruff beard.
He flew into tackles, distracted and dismayed Nasri (who was sharp) and Arshavin virtually simultaneously at times, and was fundamental to the compact, solid shape Liverpool used to block Arsenal’s centrally-focussed attacks. How Jamie Carragher won man of the match is beyond me. With Mascherano protecting him he barely had much to do. A brilliant, perhaps final, performance from the Argentinian in a Liverpool shirt.
5, Chamakh attack
“I wonder if it will be a drain on Arsenal that (Marouane) Chamakh has to wake up at dawn to crow every morning,” somebody noted in my Twitter feed earlier. True, the Moroccan does have scarecrow-like characteristics. I think it’s the straw-like hair that does it. And for large spells of the game at Anfield, Arsenal’s new boy was about as isolated as a scarecrow, as his surrounding players failed to provide enough support and Liverpool’s defence, Martin Skrtel in particular, snuffed out any sniffs that came Chamakh’s way. However, as proved late on with Arsenal’s equaliser, Chamakh showed he offers a fairly formidable aerial threat, meaning the long balls to Bendtner used in more desperate times last season now have an infinitely more lethal target man to aim for.
6, Pass and…stutter
The story of Arsenal and their passing game is probably the most over-used, oft-trotted out narrative in English football over the last decade. While when on song their pass and move style is both effective and aesthetically very appealing, the idea is often something people thrashing around for something to say about Arsenal resort to whenever a proper analysis of Arsenal’s game proves beyond them. Today, while Wenger’s side dominated possession they did very little with it.
Nasri was arguably their most fluid and inventive player, but him aside the lack of ideas in attacking areas was plain to see. As the following chalkboard demonstrates, Arsenal’s midfield short range passing was nice and accurate, but in the attacking third of the field numerous passes went astray. 3 shots mustered on target is also a minimal return. Liverpool, even with only ten and at one point nine, thwarted Arsenal comfortably – before the late gift.
7, N’not that bad
I haven’t quite grasped why David Ngog is so wilfully ridiculed by both Liverpool fans (sections of them anyway) and others. He is a pretty good player. Young, quick, athletic and, importantly, still learning. His record of 8 goals in 39 league appearances (26 as a substitute) is far from woeful, and as backup to Fernando Torres he’s a useful alternative. With Roy Hodgson, a far better man manager than Rafa Benitez, around to put an arm round the Frenchman and instil some confidence, Ngog could go on to have a good season for Liverpool. Needs to learn how to stay onside though.
8, Roy done good
Although far too early to be talking about title challenges, I get the feeling that conceding so late on will very much have disappointed Hodgson. Having dropped out of the top four, for Liverpool I think beating a title rival like Arsenal with ten men would have provided a huge psychological boon on the back of a disappointing last season, and given the club renewed vigour and confidence heading into a fresh era under Hodgson. A 1-1 draw doesn’t change things too much, and they will still draw positives from the result and performance, but a win would have meant so much more mentally.
9, “Not that type of player”
Joe Cole’s challenge on Koscielny was reckless, unnecessary, and dangerous and earned a deserved red card. But as some would appear to have it, red cards shouldn’t be awarded for appalling tackles in the game anymore. They should be judged by a sort of peverse interpretation of a Martin Luther King philosophy – by the content of one’s character. “He’s not that sort of player, Joe Cole,” was repeated again and again by various pundits in the aftermath of the tackle which forced Koscielny off on a stretcher, as if the red card should have been rescinded by virtue of it having been committed by Joe Cole alone.
“He has enquired as to Koscielny’s health,” we were told. What a saint. I’m sure he also uses recycled scrap metal to build orphanages for the poor in his spare time. Unfortunately though, the rules of the game don’t quite operate in the style of a kangaroo court, and judging a tackle on the character of the perpetrator is just a little bit silly. I wonder what the difference in interpretation might have been had the challenge been committed by a Keane, Vieira or an Essien.
10, Serving an agenda
This was the first ‘Super Sunday’ of the new season on Sky, but overall, except for the shiny EA Sports graphic in the corner of the screen, little has changed. Many of the same agendas, whether self-serving or otherwise, much of the same hype. Between the pro-Cole defendants in the witness stand, the anti-Almunia derision when other, more culpable but also far more fashionable guilty parties avoided reproach, the Jamie Carragher man of the match award (you see where I’m going with this) and the pretty unsubtle World Cup bashing (a month of top-class international football is ‘boring’ and ‘disappointing’ apparently, while a 0-0 draw on the opening day of the season, covered live, is handled as if it were the very first, freshest, most incredible game of football ever played), the old dogs were up to their usual tricks again. Plus ça change.
Anyway I’m off to my nearest 3D pub now. I must try it apparently, or so Richard Keys keeps telling me. And if he says it, what reason do I have to doubt?
(pic via adewale_oshineye on Flickr)