On the face of it a draw at Anfield is a decent result. Given the circumstances of the goal and the lateness of its arrival it seems even more so but you can’t help feel Arsenal missed an opportunity to open the season with all three points yesterday.
The home side were reduced to 10 men just before half-time when Joe Cole ensured his debut was one to forget with a reckless challenge on Arsenal debutant Laurent Koscielny. I don’t think there was any intent to do damage but the way he threw himself into the tackle could have resulted in much more serious injury and I think the ref was right to send him off.
It came at the end of a half in which Arsenal had clearly been the better side even if we didn’t create the chances to go with the possession (sounds familiar). Nasri was pulling the strings in midfield, we looked relatively assured and composed at the back but couldn’t break down the Liverpool defence. We know they’re stubborn at the back, a relic of Rafa’s reign, and with Roy Hodgson’s new organisation it was always going to be tough.
Yet when Koscielny re-emerged for the second half I allowed myself to think positive thoughts. At last we had an Arsenal player who appeared somewhat resistant to injury and against 10 men surely we’d kick on and … what the fuck … N’Gog? Less than a minute into the second half we were careless in possession playing out of defence. An Arshavin pass caught Jack Wilshere on his heels, Mascherano fed N’Gog and his finish beat Almunia at his near post. You can level some criticism at the keeper but it was a vicious hit by the Liverpool player (a player Paul Merson said at half-time the Arsenal defence wouldn’t be worried about all – cheers, Merse) and all of a sudden we’re 1-0 down.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of us and Liverpool had the best of it for at least the next 15 minutes. It was hard to know which team was playing with ten men. Changes were made. Rosicky came on for Wilshere who struggled on his first Premier League start for Arsenal while Walcott replaced Eboue. The threat of Theo’s pace forced Liverpool further back, Arsenal began to dominate possession in midfield yet we overcomplicated things too many times. A tendency to turn back inside and play it narrow when we had players out wide, in acres of space, was frustrating.
The final change saw Robin van Persie come on for Abou Diaby and we began to threaten the Liverpool goal. Robin kept a ball in that Liverpool thought was going for a goalkick and it sparked a bit of a goalmouth scramble involving Theo. Tomas Rosicky forced a brilliant save from Reina after his quick feet on the edge of the box made some space but it looked as if the game was going to finish 1-0.
Then Rosicky crossed from the left hand side, Chamakh arrived as Reina was coming to collect, the ball rebounded off the Moroccan, hit the post and then inexplicably Reina fumbled it over the line. As the Mugsmasher claimed a foul on the keeper I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having a little chuckle at Reina’s mishap following his comments about Cesc at Spain’s World Cup party. In a weekend of goalkeeping howlers Reina’s was the queen of them all and gave Arsenal a point which I think we more or less deserved.
There was still time for Martin Atkinson to become the talking point when he sent off Laurent Koscielny. The first yellow was entirely justified, he hilariously booted Dirk Kuyt right in the balls, but the second, for deliberate handball was a ludicrous decision. It was ball to hand all the way and Atkinson and his officials had ignored an even more blatant and deliberate handball earlier from N’Gog. There was no way we can appeal it but I think he had what you might call an eventful debut. The most important thing for me was that he had a very good game up to that. He looked quick, stronger than I thought, decent in the air and used the ball well. He misses his home debut against Blackpool, his next game could be Blackburn away.
We were quite solid as a team, our passing is still decent and we need a bit more penetration in the final third to take advantage of our possession. That is a bit normal because many players are just coming back from the World Cup and some from injuries. It is a positive that the spirit is there and the attitude was good.
As I said, when you score a goal that late you can’t help but be enthused, but the overall sense that we missed an opportunity remains. It is tough to play against 10 men. We know this very well being rather masterful at times of grinding out a result having had a man sent off but with Daniel Agger seeing stars for the last 20 minutes or so I thought we might have done better.
The other new boy, Chamakh, did ok. His hold up play wasn’t as accomplished as in the pre-season games and like Koscielny he’s going to have to adapt the physicality of the English game. I don’t think we were helped by the performance, or lack of, from Andrei Arshavin. In yesterday’s News of the World he was quoted saying his form was ‘very bad’ and he was carrying constant injuries. Yesterday’s display seems to have rather backed that up.
I suppose the manager could hardly leave him out at Anfield given what he’d produced there before but it was worrying, I have to say. If he’s injured let’s get him properly fit and hopefully his form will return. I’m not, after the first game of the season, going to launch into tirades about players or anything else, but there’s always the sense with Arshavin that he could give you more if he wanted to. We have to make him want to.
So, still unbeaten this season …*cough*… and we head into the Blackpool game on Saturday having had a reminder of the precarious nature of our squad. When Koscielny went down under Cole’s challenge the injury looked bad. Had it been as bad as it looked we’d have been left with one fit senior centre-half. That is an issue which must be addressed this week. There’s talk that Djourou’s injury might keep him out for a few weeks yet.
Injuries aside Koscielny’s suspension for the next game means Vermaelen is our only available centre-half. Alex Song can fill in, as can youngster Havard Nordtveit, but Arsene needs to make the defensive signings as soon as possible.
As for the keeper situation I was glad to see Almunia play yesterday. Not because I think he’s the right man for the job in the long term but because he’s the best we’ve currently got. It’s also a tacit admission from the manager that Fabianski’s pre-season audition was not good enough for him to wear the number 1 shirt. There are unfounded rumours – via Warren Barton on US TV – about Shay Given but it sounds really iffy to me. I think Schwarzer is the likely arrival, if any.
Arsene was asked on Sky if there was any news about a new goalkeeper. He said no. That’s not, as some would have you believe, ruling out the arrival of a new keeper. Hopefully we can get that done this week as well. If we do I think we’ll be in decent shape.
There was enough to positive about yesterday. You can see how much a fit Cesc and a fit van Persie would bring to the team, add a new defender to boost the squad, a new keeper to add some calm at the back, an impressive debut from Koscielny and, once again, the old mental strength to keep going and grab a late goal, something you cannot dispute this Arsenal side have a very decent habit of doing. Of course you can argue it would be much better not to be in a position where a late goal is so badly required but that’s for another day.
On paper a point at Anfield is a good result at any time. We probably should have done better but we could just have easily done worse. I’ll take the point and hope a proper week of training – remember last week was a write off due to internationals – produces a more cohesive and penetrative performance against the new boys on Saturday.