Arsenal showed great mental strength to come back against Liverpool in the second half and were inspired by a bolt from the blue from Andrey Arshavin.
To many, he comes across like Roger Moore in ‘The Saint’ yet beneath the taciturn and urbane exterior is a man who has worked for years on his self-discipline in order to keep his fiery temper in check. But following an uninspiring first period, Arsène Wenger felt half-time in the Anfield away team dressing room was the right place to wake the sleeping volcano. “The boss screamed,” said Cesc Fábregas. “He was really disappointed with us in the first half. I’ve never seen him like that before. He said we didn’t deserve to wear the Arsenal shirt and he was right because we really weren’t good, we weren’t up for it. But that gave us a boost and the second half was one of the best second halves we have played this season.”
Normally so protective of his team, the (controlled) dressing down did the job as Arsenal came out of the blocks in the second half quickly, their focus so sharp they were able to take the lead in no time and were not under any real threat for the rest of the match. Rather than tactically or physically, it was the change in mentality which won the game for Arsenal and indeed arguably, lost it for Liverpool. The luck ran out for the Reds – a penalty shout which in all honesty would have been a free-kick outside the area, a 50-50 challenge between Mascherano and Fabregas went the other way and which resulted in the goal – but they were also unable to keep their high intensity play going after the break.
Andrey Arshavin, starting an away game in the centre, was once again going to be Arsenal’s pivot where goalscoring play was to be built around but Liverpool were very quick in the first half to close the Russian down. The defence was committed to ensuring nothing was going to go through them and by denying Arshavin any room to manoeuvre, limited the space for the wingers to get behind. But in eight quick minutes, that all changed. With Arsenal winning a free-kick in their own half, Arshavin promptly dropped deep to receive the ball thus dragging Agger out. The space this created for Nasri down the left as Aurelio was required to tuck in effectively brought the Gunners the goal and with a help of a little deflection and Glen Johnson’s knee, the ball ended up in the back of the net. Johnson was caught again for the second as Arshavin, lurking behind the England full back, blasted an unstoppable shot past Pepe Reina.
It may have seemed unlikely in the first period as Liverpool played at a very high tempo, disrupting the Gunners on the ball and taking advantage of gaps left in the channels from transitions. Arsenal definitely needed some variety; an outlet to go more direct or in behind and as a consequence, the opposition defence found it easier to defend. Fernando Torres should have put Liverpool in front when he shot low at Manuel Almunia when no-one but he and the keeper were in the box. As it was, Dirk Kuyt gave the home side the lead when Almunia unconvincingly went for a punch but the ball falling straight to Kuyt to complete the formalities.
At the back, Vermaelen was once again a superb influence, Fabregas still initiating while the midfield shield of Song partnered by Denilson, allowed Arsenal to soak up the late pressure. The Brazilian in particular had an assured and composed game and was the go to man when Arsenal were in trouble in possession. “Denilson gives us stability,” said Wenger before the game. “Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”
The importance of the match was magnified following Chelsea and Manchester United’s dropped points and maybe that was translated in the nature of Wenger’s half-time team talk. The side has lost matches against its key title rivals this season but the Gunners are now back in a good position. And asked if his team were back in the frame, Wenger said: “Mathematically yes, and mentally certainly.”
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson (Degen), Carragher, Agger, Aurelio, Mascherano (Aquilani), Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Ngog), Torres.
Subs not used: Cavalieri, Insua, Skrtel, Dossena.
Arsenal: Almunia (6), Sagna (7), Gallas (6), Vermaelen (7), Traore (7) (Silvestre), Fabregas (7), Song (7), Denilson (7)*, Walcott (5) (Diaby 6), Arshavin (7) (Ramsey), Nasri (6).
Subs not used: Fabianski, Eduardo, Vela, Wilshere.
Referee: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire)
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