x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Arsenal are paying the price for the lack of poise

Always the bridesmaid, but never the bride as defensive errors cost Arsenal the chance of the biggest prize.

Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue, left, bundles over Liverpool midfielder Lucas over in the area to earn the visitors a 102nd-minute penalty at Emirates Stadium yesterday.
Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue, left, bundles over Liverpool midfielder Lucas over in the area to earn the visitors a 102nd-minute penalty at Emirates Stadium yesterday.

Arsenal 1 // Liverpool 1

Late goals tend to be Manchester United's domain but, even while others are celebrating, they have a habit of satisfying Sir Alex Ferguson. Dirk Kuyt's 102nd-minute penalty ensured United's lead at the Premier League summit is a healthy six points. While, teeth gritted, Liverpool do their fiercest rivals favours, however, Arsenal do themselves few.

They possess a marked self-destructive streak, one that has come to the fore over a harmful couple of months. Think of Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny's costly inability to communicate in the Carling Cup final, resulting in Obafemi Martins' winner for Birmingham City, or Sebastien Squillaci and Manuel Almunia contriving to gift West Bromwich Albion's Peter Odemwingie a goal last month.

The list of defensive disasters is expanding embarrassingly, the latest addition the hare-brained decision of Emmanuel Eboue to barge Lucas in the back. Kuyt's resulting spot kick salvaged a deserved point for Liverpool and, in all probability, effectively ended Arsenal's title challenge.

This was not the welcome envisaged for their new majority shareholder. There was a changing of the guard, a minute's silence observed to mark the passing of Danny Fiszman, the former director who oversaw the move to Emirates Stadium. His successor as the driving force in the boardroom is an investor in sports across the Atlantic.

Stan Kroenke forsook the Denver Nuggets' play-off game against the Oklahoma City Thunder to cast an eye over his new acquisition. Were it to emulate the NBA, Arsenal would be an annual fixture in the end-of-season knockout games but the Premier League is a first-past-the-post format. It does not suit Arsenal, the elegant, economically-minded nearly men. It is their lot to be second, third or fourth to the finish, a trend that is being extended into a seventh successive season.

Kroenke's home state - or at least, its first four letters - seemed all too appropriate. The man from Missouri saw an opportunity missed; a chance to pressurise United gone and a lead, secured in the 98th minute by Robin van Persie's spot kick, lost. Not for the first time, this was a failure of nerve on a grand stage.

The accusation, yet to be rebutted with a gleam of a trophy, is that it is not talent Arsenal require, but resolve and poise.

Eboue's impetuosity was a case in point. When he erred in injury time, there were two teenage ingenues filling the full-back positions. Not for Arsenal - Eboue turns 28 in the summer - but in the colours of Liverpool.

Yet the performances of Jack Robinson and John Flanagan showed maturity and poise. Each was making just his second senior appearance but Flanagan, 18, faced Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin for an hour after being yellow carded without alarm.

Robinson, 17, was arguably better, displaying a precocious judgment as he halted Theo Walcott.

Robinson was introduced when Fabio Aurelio hurt a hamstring; when Jamie Carragher was then carried off on a stretcher and Sotirios Kyrgiakos replaced him, it was, Martin Skrtel apart, nearer Liverpool's third-choice defence than the second string.

Yet Kenny Dalglish's reluctance to complain about injuries has transmitted to his players. Adversity galvanised them. Meanwhile, by blooding local youngsters, the link with the past is showing he has an eye on the future.

There is a timelessness to Dalglish and his methods: organisation and commitment are scarcely novel ideas but they enabled Liverpool to be the antithesis of Arsenal. What they lacked in ability, they compensated with character. The new-look defence were shielded rigorously by two beneficiaries of Dalglish's regime.

Lucas and Jay Spearing were unstinting in their efforts; others have more skill but none displayed more application.

In the context of Liverpool's glorious past, they can be deemed impostors. Yesterday, they were integral. They are unlikely to be deemed the new Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in the midfield but the Liverpudlian was the workaholic, the Brazilian the unobtrusive presence sweeping up beside him.

It is easier to negate than to create, of course, and simpler to frustrate than dominate. It is something Arsenal experience with unfortunate regularity; Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers had set their stall out to get a point at Emirates Stadium and accomplished their aim in Arsenal's previous two home games. Such stalemates were causes of intense irritation to Wenger.

Yet the drama and disappointment of yesterday's denouement rendered it the most damaging of all. A rare moment to unite Messrs Ferguson and Dalglish was the instant that summed up Arsenal's season.