Goals: Suarez (5), Henderson (59), Giroud (64), Walcott (67)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Ramsey (CM), Cazorla (CM), Walcott (RF), Podolski (LF), Giroud (CF).
For the fifth consecutive league fixture in January, Arsenal first went behind after shocking defensive errors gifted two goals to Liverpool, but they managed to come back with goals from Giroud and Walcott. If Arsenal are trying to show us that they do not take control of games before gifting a couple of goals to opposition, then they have done a terrific job and caused enough frustration.
Arsenal started the game by conceding a goal which was spectacular in the defensive ineptitude they managed to display. Suarez (who was given a wide left role) tried to play Glenn Johnson behind Sagna with a one time pass, but he miskicked the ball. Instead of starting a counterattack, Sagna slipped and the ball reached Johnson. When the cross came into the 6-yard box, Vermaalen was in a position to comfortably clear it, yet he kicked the air with a wild slash (remember the Manchester United game and Van Persie’s goal in the 3rd minute? Yes, that one!). The loose ball fell kindly for Sturridge whose point blank shot was saved by Szczesny. The rebound got a deflection from Ramsey’s heel and Henderson passed it to Suarez. The Uruguayan’s tame shot got another deflection from Mertesacker and wrong-footed Szczesny.
Arsenal equalized almost immediately. Wilshere turned away from Lucas and chipped in a delicate ball to Walcott. The winger/striker controlled the ball, yet his shot from close range produced a great save from Reina. Arsenal kept pushing forward while Liverpool sat deep trying to hit another sucker punch. Suarez found Sturridge’s run behind Vermaalen with an insane pass with the outside of his foot, but the striker shot wide. Then Cazorla found space in a central area and released Podolski. The German’s precise cutback to the edge of the box was sliced wide by Giroud
At the quarter hour mark, Arsenal almost gifted a second goal, when Szczesny tried a Cruyf-turn in the 6-yard box under pressure from Sturridge. Minutes later, Liverpool failed to clear a corner, Cazorla’s disguised ball into the penalty box found Vermaalen in a dangerous position, but the Belgian’s shot was blocked by Agger. Arsenal knocked the door again after a good interplay between Wilshere and Cazorla released Podolski whose cutback was cleared in the goal mouth by Carragher before Giroud could pounce.
The tempo remained frantic after the eventful first 20 minutes. Liverpool’s game plan involved Suarez tracking Sagna’s overlaps, Gerrard and Lukas screening the central area against Cazorla and Wilshere’s scheming and Henderson pressing Ramsey’s ball circulation deep in Arsenal’s half in a 4-5-1 formation. When their pressing worked, it immediately forced Arsenal into errors. Mertesacker gave the ball away in Arsenal’s half. From the resulting corner, Podolski cleared Agger’s header off the line.
After half an hour, Gibbs picked up an injury and was replaced by Andre Santos with the home fans fearing for the worse. A brilliant Liverpool counterattack found Downing running inside the left channel. As it was so often the case in this game, Arsenal defenders did not look like they knew what they were doing. Vermaalen charged forward to stop Downing, asking Mertesacker to cover while both Henderson and Suarez were running behind. Mertesacker was caught flat when Downing’s pass released Henserson with Andre Santos on the far left playing everybody and their mothers onside. Szczesny had to come rushing outside the box, as there was no other covering defender and then retreated back to his goal, tempting Henderson to try a difficult chip which ended up going over the bar.
Arsenal started the second half on top and Liverpool sat even deeper unable to break forward. A long spell of Arsenal pressure suggested an imminent equalizer, yet it was again Arsenal who conceded another comical goal. When Henderson received the ball inside the right channel 40 yards away from goal, he had no support. He drove forward towards Mertesacker and dribbled past him with annoying ease (the big German defender looks painfully out of form). Andre Santos should have muscled him off the ball, but Henderson proved too strong and persistent, bursting into the box. Ramsey’s sliding block of Henderson’s shot comically rebounded off Santos and fell kindly to Henderson’s path when Szczesny had already committed himself. The young midfielder clearly had deserved his luck with his sheer persistence and finished into an empty net.
To their credit, Arsenal did not let their heads go down, immediately hit back and equalized with two quickfire goals in 5 minutes. First, Giroud headed home Wilshere’s delivery from a set piece after Walcott was fouled by Lukas. Then, good interplay on Arsenal’s right saw Cazorla combining with Giroud whose cushioned pass set Walcott up for a shot from a tight angle. The forward produced a great finish to the far corner past Reina.
Arsenal sensed victory and kept pouring forward in the last 20 minutes. They nearly went up when the lively Walcott cut inside from the right and fired a left-footed curler that missed the post by a small margin. A brilliant Arsenal counterattack from a Liverpool corner saw Podolski releasing Cazorla on the left, but Giroud could not connect with the Spaniard’s hard and low ball across the 6 yard box. The best chance to win the game fell to Giroud, when Wilshere dispossessed Suarez. The inspirational midfielder combined with Cazorla and the Spaniard found Giroud in the box. The striker’s one time silky touch played Podoski behind on the left, but Giroud missed the cutback from 6 yards.
In the last minute of extra time, Liverpool almost nicked all three points after yet another series of inexplicable and unforced errors by Arsenal defenders. Under no pressure at all, Santos gave the ball away in Arsenal’s half and Henderson released Suarez. Santos fell down while trying to run back! Wilshere did track back, yet he could not stop the Uruguayan’s shot inside the box. Szczesny parried it away from the danger zone when Gerrard was lurking to pounce the rebound.
The game was a great spectacle for the neutrals, but most Arsenal fans must have thought they require a heart transplant given the ability of Arsenal defenders to produce a gift out of the blue for the opposition. Arsenal looked creative and hungry going forward with Wilshere, Cazorla and Podolski poking holes in the tight Liverpool defensive shape at will, Walcott looking much more consistent, willing and dangerous on the right flank and Giroud displaying much improvement as the target man. Ramsey also played reasonably well in the defensive midfield role. Yet, the defensive shape, organization and the form level of Sagna, Vermaalen and Mertesacker is a complete mess, and is a cause for great concern. With Gibbs now injured for at least 3 weeks, it is not comforting at all to see Andre Santos joining this shambolic defense. Stoke at home is next, and with Santos completely lacking any aerial ability, it would not be surprising to see Wenger shifting Vermaalen to the left back, and pairing Koscielny with Mertesacker.