It’s not getting better, is it? Wenger’s last couple years were marred by
Arsène Wenger has a problem. For the third time in the last four years, his team has been defeated in the opening fixture of Premier League – and it all happened again at Emirates, in front of over sixty thousand people – most of which being the success-starved, impatient and overly zealous supporters of the home side. One, half-an-hour penalty won and wasted by Theo Walcott and his immediate redemption with a clutch goal were only the beginnings of what could’ve only been described as a total, second-half collapse by the hosts. In the space of just 18 minutes, makeshift backline with three 21-year-olds in it has: allowed Wijnaldum’s run and a neat cross for 1-2 goal; left the space for Clyne to run through and assist Coutinho’s tap-in for 1-3; backed off from Mané, who scored an individual brilliance for 1-4. All that while the senior professionals in CB duty have been ruled out of the game.
Of course one could argue that the absences of Laurent Koscielny (lacking fitness after an extended EURO 2016 leave), Per Mertesacker (out for five months with a knee injury sustained in a pre-season game) and Gabriel (sidelined for about two months with sprained ankle) have put Arsenal in the role of lambs to the slaughter already before the kick-off. Liverpool, free from most of the fitness concerns, freshly uplifted by a 4-0 rout against FC Barcelona, led by a manager already known as a big-game winner – they were by far the favourites for the majority of bookmakers. Still: the disappointment of AFC’s final result would’ve been far easier to bear if the home side just rolled over from the start and accepted it’s ugly fate. But no: what happened is that they actually came out all guns blazing and put up a hell of the fight in the first half, building up the hopes only to smash them down later.
Yes – let’s not forget what’s likely going to be forgotten in a couple of weeks, when all that’s going to be left from this game will be it’s final result. In the first half, Liverpool were really struggling to get their game going. Locked up by the swarms of Arsenal players in the middle of the park, they’d quickly concede the possession and their long balls, played hastily to shake off the pressure, were falling prey to Chambers’ and Holdings movements. Meanwhile, Arsenal have identified a weakness in LFC’s fortress, which was their left-back. Alberto Moreno has already raised some questions about his performance last season, but it took Theo Walcott to fully expose the Spaniard. Frequently out of position and not nearly agile enough to track the dribbles of his man, Moreno suffered his first minor blooper with barely 5 minutes on the game clock – and it only went worse from there.
Concedes penalty. ✅
AWOL for the goal. ✅
A horror show from Alberto Moreno.
— BBC 5 live Sport (@5liveSport) 14 August 2016
Liverpool were lucky at times. Fourteen minutes in, a long ball from Elneny has been cleared by Moreno right into the path of Aaron Ramsey who would’ve found himself in a one-on-one with Mignolet – had he made a good first touch. Unfortunately, he didn’t and the chance went begging. Two minutes later, a swinging, free-kick cross to Rob Holding barely failed to find his head in the penalty box. “If only Giroud was there” – gasped Gunners’ fans all across the world, as the Frenchman has a reputation of a very efficient winner of aerial duels. At 22 minutes, Ramsey has made an interception deep in Liverpool’s half. He totally saw Walcott immediately running into space but instead of serving him with a through ball, he attempted an utterly ridiculous chip from over 35 yards – a chip that went well over the bar. At the same time, literally all LFC’s attempts on Čech’s goal were being easily blocked.
The worst happened in 28th minute. Walcott nearly pounced on another long-ball, the play switched to the left flank, the pass came back to Arsenal’s winger, who’s been eventually tripped by Moreno in a situation where he was actually about to exit the penalty area. Left-back’s decision to make a challenge was absurd, as there was no danger out there whatsoever. And even though Simon Mignolet saved the penalty, the third Walcott’s involvement has finally produced a goal. This time, there were absolutely no excuses for Liverpool: they’ve been repeatedly warned about the weakness down the left wing and instead of adjusting their play, they continued as if nothing wrong was happening. Only after 1-0 already being put on the big board, Klopp’s lads smartened up and improved their ball possession, keeping it as far up the right hand side as possible.
The game had to go past 40th minute for LFC’s improvements to take some effect. Coutinho’s run has been blocked by Holding but soon enough, Chambers has made what it had to be the worst pass of his career. The ball fell for Mané who emerged 2 vs 2 with Firmino to his side. However, instead of bursting forward in his style, the Senegalese spread the ball wide too soon, taking the sting out of the attack which ended with Wijnaldum’s feeble shot. Cameras quickly caught up with Jürgen Klopp, who looked absolutely disappointed about the wasted chance. Rightfully so: he, the apostle of counterattack, has already seen Liverpool’s side finishing far more difficult chances than the one gifted to Reds by Chambers.
They eventually went on to finish one, though. Even though play still wasn’t linking properly for them, even though it’s actually Arsenal who had two, very dangerous breaks stopped by Lovren’s and Henderson’s fouls – it was Coutinho who finally managed to draw a foul from Rob Holding and then took the matters in his legs. 30 yards out, he curled the shot splendidly over the wall, right into Čech’s top corner. Seconds before that, the ex-Chelsea goalkeeper has urged his teammates to move further right, to cover that part of the goal. Not that it would have mattered anyway: the only chance for Arsenal goalkeeper to stop that shot would’ve been to deliberately stand in it’s way from the get go – something which no sane, professional goalie would’ve ever done.
This was most likely the moment that broke Arsenal. They came seconds from walking off the pitch for a break with the lead and now, they had to swallow a bitter pill and start all over again, against the relieved Liverpool side. At the same time, Klopp’s players must have slipped to the fifth gear, as they came back to that pitch pumped full of energy, aggressiveness and intent. Their 49th minute goal has pretty much put it all together: after a lengthy build-u down the left wing, Henderson provided Wijnaldum with a one-touch layoff, the Dutchman spotted Lallana’s diagonal run and the rest was history: Arsenal defenders were too slow and indecisive to stop that move at any stage of it’s creation.
By this point, the game was pretty much over. Arsenal’s morale took a major dip and the visitors bossed the possession for six straight minutes, without even allowing Gunners to have a sniff on the ball. I even counted: between Lallana’s goal and Coutinho’s tap-in, the visitors have completed exactly 70 passes, while the hosts had only 24 passes reaching it’s destination. In other words: Klopp’s lads were free to roam the runner-ups’ half without being exposed to interceptions or even fouls. This lethargic policy eventually backfired when, after a prolonged spell of aimless passing, Nathaniel Clyne finally picked up the pace, beat his man and crossed the ball well enough to earn himself an assist.
If this was a fairly pathetic display of defending by AFC, then what happened just seven minutes later can only be described as inexcusable. Mané, the player strictly known for this kind of stuff, went through like a rocket, cut inside from the right leaving Chambers behind his back, sprinted in front of Monreal, got the ball to his left foot and then powered an unstoppable shot into the top-left corner. The fact that seconds later, this feat has been copied by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain proves that on Saturday, both backlines have done a fairly poor job. Still, it was Liverpool, who had easily the better offensive potential and used it to it’s full extent to humiliate their opposition.
Careful Mané; Lallana’s goal already costed Klopp a pair of glasses.
A late wake-up call from Cazorla and Chambers wasn’t enough: it ended 3-4. For Wenger, this is yet another game to the list of embarrassments. Dinamo Zagreb away, Olympiakos at home, Southampton away, West Bromwich away, Swansea at home… Even the list from the last year looks dangerously long for a man of such huge reputation. On Saturday, his team was booed after the final whistle. Pundits and journalists pointed out Gunners’ lack of transfer activity (Xhaka, the only big signing, lost 6 tackles against Liverpool and committed 4 fouls without contributing much else); unwillingness to sign an emergency centre-back (while LFC’s Klavan had another good game); poor midfield choices (Elneny had no impact whatsoever while substitute Cazorla produced 2 assists) and a decision to play Sánchez upfront (which only resulted with a handful of offsides).
Can Arsène even be sacked? Of course not: he’s approaching his 20th anniversary in charge of Gunners and getting rid of him would be unthinkable. Should he resign on his own behalf? Probably. The team is not moving forward, after all: this summer, it has not been bolstered by Higuaín, Lacazette, Draxler or Icardi – forwards potentially capable to pounce on more Mesut Özil’s passes than Olivier Giroud is able to finish with goals. This summer, even Jamie Vardy rejected the move Emirates despite being so close to it that AFC fans already prepared dozens of photoshops of him in the red and white shirt. A year ago, Wenger had a shot at winning his farewell league title – and he missed it by quite a margin. Let’s be honest: without a top, top striker and with Manchester clubs spending fortunes, Arsène’s days of glory are not coming back anytime soon.
But still – he is going to stay. And then what?