Arsenal 0 Liverpool 0: Three talking points as Petr Cech stars
Three talking points as Arsenal can't find a way past resilient Liverpool at Emirates Stadium
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone
Arsenal’s struggles to hit upon a dependable back-four unit, ever since Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole formed the cornerstone of the Gunners’ invincible season of 2003/2004, have been well-chronicled. There have been hints across the past 12 months, however, that Arsene Wenger might finally be on his way to shoring up his rearguard. Integral to that renewed stability have been Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. To lose one of his centre-halves for a fixture as sure to be as keenly contested as this one against Liverpool, then, would have been considered by Wenger to be unfortunate. To lose two, well that was downright careless – or, more accurately, it was a blow that left the home team extremely vulnerable whenever the Reds got on the front foot. The two missing pillars of the home side’s backline are not without their faults. Indeed, whenever either man delivers a sub-par performance, it wouldn’t take long to assemble an orderly queue of critics, willing to pinpoint the deficiencies in the respective games of the French-German pairing as being indicative of the soft-centre that lets Arsenal down, when the heat is on. Here was a reminder, however, that Wenger’s side is in far ruder health when Koscielny and Mertesacker are guarding the back door. The knitting together of a few pretty passing patterns in opposing territory notwithstanding, the Gunners were devoid of any cohesion as they tried to set about Brendan Rodgers’ men in the opening half – and the hosts’ uncertainty stemmed entirely from their replacement centre-halves, Calum Chambers, in particular. While Gabriel Paulista overcame his initial nerves to locate a measure of composure, Chambers was floundering from the off. The ex-Southampton man never recovered. On three occasions within the first 25 minutes, the 20-year-old presented possession to Philippe Coutinho, before having to rely on, first, Francis Coquelin and then Liverpool’s inability to capitalise on his errors, to bail him out. Things were no better when the defender sought to compete with his opponents physically, Christian Benteke, especially, feasting on the Arsenal man’s hesitancy and sheer lack of presence. It didn’t take long for Chambers’ obvious unease to permeate throughout his team-mates, the inability to retain possession suddenly spreading through Wenger’s side like the most virulent of diseases. At the time of his £16m move to The Emirates last summer, there was a premature rush to acclaim Chambers as an England defender for years to come. Certainly, the Gunners’ new-boy was broadly viewed to be well advanced of fellow centre-half John Stones in his development. There are plenty of mitigating factors to take into account when assessing Chambers’ difficulties against the Reds – a lengthy period of inactivity leading into tonight and confidence dented by an unhappy spell as his team’s right-back last season, among them. Nevertheless, this was a chilling reminder for Wenger and his enterprising team that it is rather difficult to function without a reliable defensive pairing. Regardless of the occasional lapse, Koscielny and Mertesacker are the closest thing Arsenal have had to that for a long time.
Redemption night for Cech
Touted as the signing that would save Arsenal 10 points a season, Petr Cech was actually in the red after the stopper’s opening day travails helped a visiting West Ham to take a maximum haul from their trip to The Emirates. Well, the payback started here. And what a night for Cech to demonstrate his mettle. With Chambers and Paulista edginess personified directly in front of him, and a good deal of the Czech’s remaining team-mates adversely affected by their defensive colleagues’ uncertainty, Cech took it upon himself to save the day. Stops to deny Benteke and then Coutniho late in the first-half were of sufficient quality for a couple of Cech’s fellow goalkeeping union members, Ben Foster and Shay Given, to take to Twitter in praise of the former Chelsea number 1. It wasn’t solely Cech’s shot-stopping catching the eye. If there has been a criticism of his game over the years, it has been the 33 year-old’s reluctance to come off his line. Against Liverpool, though, Cech was ready to dart from his goal with conviction, taking command where others were unsure. It would have been easy for Cech to retreat into his shell after making such an inauspicious start to life at his new club, after what was a high-profile switch across the capital. It would have been easier still to sit comfortably on a fat contract at Chelsea, a luxury replacement for Thibaut Courtois whenever the need arose. It is a measure of the man that he plumped for the difficult option, to trade in the love of the Stamford Bridge faithful for a fresh challenge with Arsenal. On tonight’s evidence it is a challenge the Cech is ready to tackle head-on. Proof also, that there might be some validity to the suggestion that the ‘keeper will win his new team a fair share of points by his deeds alone. Without him here, the Gunners’ Premier League tally would read one less than the four it shows tonight.
The expressive Roberto Firmino’s final contribution to the action, before his withdrawal for Jordon Ibe just after the hour mark, was to hound and harry an in-possession Alexis Sanchez. It was a moment that epitomised Liverpool’s relish for hard work in north London. Sanchez’s appetite to complement his trickery on the ball with putting in a wholehearted shift off it is legend. At The Emirates, the Chilean’s fellow South Americans in the away team, Firmino and the excellent Coutinho, were in no way inferior to the Arsenal forward with respect to their industry. The standard was set for the Reds’ Brazilian duo by the three midfielders sent out by Rodgers, with the twin-responsibilities of subduing their famously enterprising opponents and, wherever possible, taking the game to the Gunners. On this evidence it is rather baffling that Liverpool’s boss appears ready to allow Lucas to depart for a season’s loan with Besiktas. Proficient holding midfielders are in short-supply – Rodgers need only ask the man on the opposing bench tonight for confirmation of that fact – and the experienced Lucas fits that bill. The third Brazilian in this Reds’ side, the 28 year-old’s expert positioning enabled him to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm, while his closing and chasing contributed to the Gunners’ playmakers being deprived of the time on the ball that allows them to flourish. To illustrate Lucas’s value to his team’s exertions at The Emirates, seconds after he had departed to a 75th minute ovation from the travelling Reds’ supporters, Mesut Ozil gathered possession surrounded only by space in front of Liverpool’s back-four. James Milner, meanwhile, looked as though his legs might give way at any moment in the second period. They never did, and the England international, along with the returning Emre Can, covered acres of ground, as the pair defended manfully and attacked with intent. Much was made of Liverpool atoning for their 6-1 defeat at Stoke on the final day of last season by winning the same fixture 1-0 in their first game of this campaign. In truth, though, the Reds’ surrender at The Brit was the result of a perfect storm; the end of a pretty miserable campaign that was already petering out into a state of nothingness. It is fair, however, to read far more into this brave, adventurous display in north London, with memories still fresh of their being dismantled 4-1 inside the same stadium four months ago. Rodgers’ side didn’t take a backwards step at the home of one of the Premier League title favourites. With that intent, Liverpool have taken a meaningful step forward as they strive to mix it with the big boys, once more.