Morning – I’m ill, grumpy and have been in the office since 6.30am.
If you’re hoping that this match review will brighten your mood, then either stop reading; or continue in preparedness for disappointment. Without any context, a point at home to Liverpool is fine, but football does not operate in a vacuum – each game and how it’s retrospectively assessed falls into the wider landscape of the league, the form of the team and recent results.
Had we beaten West Ham on the opening day, our points tally would be a relatively healthy 7, but as it is, we are already lagging behind. Going into the game, this felt very much like a must-win, which seems ridiculous at this stage of the campaign, but as we saw last year – a slow start can negate from a superb second half to the season.
In terms of line-up, the surprise(s) came at centre-half with Chambers and Gabriel replacing the injured Koscielny and poorly Mertesacker, who I understand was suffering from a bout of scurvy. I would imagine this news would provide a boost to the Liverpool dressing room, particularly Benteke who would no doubt fancy his chances against a rookie playing with an unfamiliar partner.
As it was, our back four looked shaky from the get-go. Within 5 minutes, they had struck the woodwork when Coutinho really should have finished Benteke’s cut back. This seemed to shock us into life, as we began to attack with more verve and intent, culminating in Ramsey’s perfectly timed run being found by Santi and the Welshman finishing unerringly. To my, and all and sundry’s, bemusement the linesman incorrectly flagged for offside – a bafflingly poor call. I know it’s quick and fine margins, etc, but too many of these mistakes happen. It’s long time that the FA face up to the fact that goal line technology is readily available, it wouldn’t halt the momentum of the game and it would do away with the needless contention. Mr Luddite at the pub will doubtless say “it’s all part of the game”, but if that’s the case, it’s an element I’d happily do away with. Mr Luddite’s mate would then chip in that “things balance out over the course of a season” – they patently don’t.
The disallowed goal seemed to blow the wind out of sails completely, with Liverpool getting in behind our back four with alarming ease. Benteke was besting Chambers in the air and was turning him far too easily when the ball was played to feet. The most frustrating element of this from the stand was seeing events unfold, but Chambers’ team mates failing to react. Akin Swansea away last season, I felt Chambers was hung out to dry somewhat. He was very poor in that first half and looked nervous, which is excusable given the circumstances; but the lack of intelligence and nous from our midfielders was very poor indeed. Coquelin should have seen that Chambers was struggling with the long ball and taken responsibility by positioning himself directly in front of Benteke, allowing Chambers to cover goal side. As it was, we let Benteke have free reign to attack Chambers and he did it with relish. In addition, I felt Gabriel was too far away from his central defensive partner and should have sat tighter to him to pre-empt errors from Chambers.
By half time, we had our goal keeper to thank for holding parity, by virtue of two world class saves. Both saves were different, but both were spectacular – the first diving at the feet of Benteke to prevent a simple tap in; the second a sprawling, fingertip save to divert Coutinho’s curler onto the upright. My criticism of Ospina was always that he failed to make the type of save that gained you points, whereas Cech certainly earned his corn last night. He was superb all evening, commanding his box and adding a semblance of assurance, which was sorely lacking at times.
Whilst Chambers was singled out for criticism – he was really, really bad – it diverted from the malaise and amateurish performance from both Santi and Coquelin in midfield. Despite having a lot of possession, there was no incisiveness to our passing and it certainly felt as if we gave the ball away with alarming regularity. Defensively, Santi was caught too far up the pitch regularly, allowing their midfielders to bypass Coquelin and have a straight run at our defence. I know I sound like the most shattered of broken records, but Coquelin’s inability to receive the ball deep under pressure caused us a lot of problems last night too. It’s no coincidence that Chambers looked far more assured with the ball in the second half when Santi sat deeper when we had possession, acting as first receiver from the defence and providing a safe out ball. Clearly it’s a problem Wenger recognizes, given his only change at the break was to play Coquelin in a far more advanced role – a tacit acknowledgement of his limitations.
The second half was far better, it must be said. We retained the ball far better we looked comfortable at the back. I believe this was a combination of the swap in midfield, along with Liverpool playing more defensively, seemingly happy for a point. On that note, referee’s failure to book goalkeepers earlier in a match for time wasting is quite bizarre – it never seems to happen before the hour mark, regardless of how many times it happens before that point. It feels as if time wasting in first half is fine, but becomes bookable after a certain time in the game.
We certainly created more chances, with Mignolet saving from Ramsey and Alexis hitting the post when he really should have scored. I thought both Ozil and Ramsey were superb in the second half, taking the game to Liverpool and constantly trying to make things happen. I do feel Ramsey can be effective from the right, but I still can’t accept playing our best midfielder out of position to accommodate a sub-par defensive midfielder – it feels completely counter-intuitive. In Ramsey we have one of the league’s most complete midfielders, yet we’re wasting him. In addition, I do feel we missed a trick by not having more of a go at Gomez – he looks a talent but is an inexperienced, right footed centre half playing left back – it’s a shame Oxlade didn’t have more minutes to run at him.
Giroud has also come in for criticism and whilst he was lacklustre in the first half, I thought he improved in the second. He really should have had a penalty when he was pulled down on the turn in the box. He managed to get a fairly tame shot away and that, along with a lack of appeal, seems to have done for the referee. Giroud’s link up play tends to be intelligent and most of what he does is decent. Unfortunately his main issue is one that is emblematic of our side – a lack of clinical finishing, illustrated by the five (?) home games we have now failed to score in. Something in that final third isn’t right, but I feel it’s purely related to finishing chances, rather than creating them. With the likes of Ozil, Santi and Alexis, we regularly break through defensive lines, but all too often we fail to take our chances. I have no idea what the answer is, but if we’re serious about challenging for the title, then it needs urgent attention. It isn’t an issue with early season rustiness either – it’s a hangover from last term.
I’ll leave you to ponder that and leave it there. Most frustratingly, we should have won this game – we weren’t particularly good, but were it not for an incorrect call, we’d likely have the 3 points.
Until next time x
Give me a follow on Twitter @BeardofPires