Abou Diaby’s header was enough to see off Liverpool as Arsène Wenger’s switch to drop the goalscorer deeper gave Arsenal more solidity.
The sense of relief was overwhelming at the final whistle. Only one goal had been scored previously in the sequence of supposedly deciding fixtures, Vermaelen’s goal in the defeat to Manchester United only in vain while before that, Dean Whitehead’s own goal was in a competition that ceases to matter much nowadays. You had to go back to the 4-2 victory over Bolton when Arsenal last scored in a winning cause, sending the Gunners to the top of the table. Abou Diaby reminded fans what celebrating in jubilation felt like again and with both Chelsea and United dropping points, the win put Arsenal back into the title race they apparently weren’t meant to be in.
The game itself began in a tepid and somewhat scrappy way, the first thirty minutes representing the relative vulnerabilities both sides were in before the start of the game. Neither side were willing to give an inch with Rafa Benitez as always, setting his side out to “control zones”. That meant the wide areas which are Arsenal’s Achilles heel were not to be fully tested in transitions as Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez’s instructions were as much defensive as they were attacking. The 4-4-2 deployed by Liverpool also effectively cancelled each other side out in the centre as when in the defensive phase that adjusts itself into a 4-2-3-1 and the triangles Arsenal set about creating were blocked off.
Arsène Wenger realised that the best chance the Gunners were to have in breaking down Liverpool in open play was to disrupt the pairing of Lucas and Mascherano in front of the defence. So with half-an-hour on the clock played, he dropped Diaby alongside Alex Song and pushed Fabregas up behind Nicklas Bendtner. The result was a more open encounter but Arsenal’s greater positive approach saw them through while Diaby gave more structure to the side. Indeed, it was an interception by Song that led to the goal, as Diaby picked up the ball in his own half and powered his way into the box. Fabregas running into an offside position may have helped inadvertently create the space in front of the goal for the cross to be played as it meant the Liverpool backline having to push up. Tomas Rosicky found Diaby with a well whipped cross and the Frenchman caught Degen flat-footed with a strong run and finish.
Arsène Wenger entered the game promising to take a more visceral approach and it showed with Arsenal pressuring the opposition defenders with great intensity. The attacking play was also more direct as the wingers sought to get close to Bendtner at all times and the ball played forward much quicker. The Gunners were not exactly cohesive in terms of passing last night but they were more functional – and even with Fabregas not at his best, the side dug in and produced a result. Bendtner’s inclusion was a big plus as the Dane made it akward for the Kop defence while represented a direct outlet to relieve pressure from the back.
The slight switch, though, to a 4-2-1-3 may have made all the difference as Diaby was afforded more space to come from deeper and duly obliged with a powerful header. The advantage of playing the double pivot with two strong midfielders meant it was harder for Steven Gerrard to get into the game, reminiscent of the shackling job Diaby and Denilson did on Totti in last season’s 1-0 win against Roma. It also gave more cover to the full backs should they have needed it but Clichy and Eboue came out with another plus (7 and 14 attempted tackles respectively); their intensity and willingness to get tight on the wide men when the ball was lost gave Kuyt and Maxi no time to take advantage. Liverpool were unable to profit from the channels on the counter as Chelsea and United did, representing a welcome tactical victory for Wenger and an indication of the Gunner’s growing mental strength.
Arsenal 1-0 Liverpool: Diaby 72.
Arsenal (4-2-1-3): Almunia 7; Eboue 7, Gallas 8*, Vermaelen 7, Clichy 7; Diaby 8, Song 7; Fabregas 6; Arshavin 6 (Walcott), Bendtner 7 (Sagna), Nasri 6 (Rosicky 7). Subs not used: Fabianski, Denilson, Traore, Campbell.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina 6; Carragher 6 (Degen), Skrtel 6, Agger 6, Insua 6; Mascherano 7, Lucas 6 (Babel); Kuyt 5, Maxi Rodriguez 5; Gerrard 6, Ngog 4. Subs not used: Cavalieri, Riera, Aurelio, Spearing, Kelly.
Referee: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire)