x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Profligacy proves costly for Liverpool as Arsenal victorious at Anfield

The three points from their trip to Anfield will help the Gunners' Champions League pursuit, but it should not mask the fact the home side should really have been out of sight by the interval, writes Duncan Castles.

Robin van Persie, right, escapes the attention of Jamie Carragher, left, to put Arsenal on level terms at Anfield. He also scored a late winner to seal three points for the Gunners. Peter Byrne / PA
Robin van Persie, right, escapes the attention of Jamie Carragher, left, to put Arsenal on level terms at Anfield. He also scored a late winner to seal three points for the Gunners. Peter Byrne / PA

Forget about Liverpool recovering their painfully ceded Champions League status next season. Now 10 points and three places off an Arsenal side they had every opportunity to overcome yesterday, Kenny Dalglish's return to European competition will be strictly second tier.

Pay heed instead to Arsenal extracting a critical result from a match their opponents had the better of, a feat that has become tellingly rare of late.

"A big win," said Robin van Persie, Arsenal's perennial match-winner. "A massive win."

Winning in times of adversity is what the top teams do, and Arsene Wenger needs to sustain his side as one by qualifying for next season's Champions League if they are to retain any hope of keeping Van Persie. Even that might not be enough.

These three points will help but should not mask the fact the home side should really have been out of sight by the interval. Liverpool kept opening their visitors up. Dirk Kuyt had a penalty and the resulting rebound saved, Luis Suarez hit one upright after Wojciech Szczesny produced another block. Kuyt's shot between goalkeeper and defender skidded past both and bumped back off the other post. All they had to show for their dominance was an own goal from Laurent Koscielny who sliced a Jordan Hendeson cross into his own net midway through the first half.

Arsenal's attacking contribution to the first half was a smartly angled Theo Walcott drive and Van Persie's headed equaliser that would never have been had Jose Enrique closed down Bacari Sagna's cross, or Jamie Carragher stayed the right side of the striker.

Arsenal's issues were not simply a shortage of meaningful possession; they were also running short on able-bodied central midfielders. Starting without the injured Aaron Ramsey, two more were lost at Anfield.

First, Mikel Arteta was caught in the face by Henderson's elbow, seemingly by accident. The concussion suffered by the Spaniard was heavy enough for him to be taken to Aintree Hospital for further precautionary observation. Then, Abou Diaby limped out after just 17 minutes of his return from a long-term hamstring problem. Wenger's makeshift solution was to install teenage winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre of the field.

The move that decided the game in Arsenal's favour exemplified a recent change in tactical approach. Stripped of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, this group are not the possession obsessives they used to be. Arsenal now play more on the counterattack, emphasising a back-to-front directness that first emerged last season.

This is nothing like the simple percentage game of a Stoke City; it is based on precision passers hitting fast forwards as they slip behind the opposition's defensive line. Their second goal was archetypal, almost a carbon copy of a beauty that undid Everton in December.

Again, Alex Song lofted a curling, defence-splitting pass in between centre and full-back where Van Persie manoeuvred himself and executed an immaculate over-the-shoulder first-time finish. Van Persie ran off to kiss Song's creative boot.

"It was the same pass from the same guy, Alex, an unbelievable pass," said Van Persie. "This one I hit with the inside of my foot, but again it was an unbelievable pass. Alex is a really good player, he can see it and actually do it."

Indeed he can. The surprise statistic of yesterday afternoon was that the Cameroon international, perceived by many as functionary holding midfielder, has hit more successful throughballs than anyone else in this season's Premier League.

Liverpool have the Carling Cup - just. Their progress in the league though has been handicapped by a frustrating inability to exploit home advantage. Though this was the campaign's first Anfield defeat, the difference between seventh and fourth lies in their eight home draws. Hardly anyone scores in the red half of Merseyside, with fewer goals on this turf than at any other Premier League ground.

Once more electing to start without his £35 million (Dh169,652m) centre-forward Andy Carroll, and deprived of Steven Gerrard by injury, Dalglish has still to solve the problem of scoring. "I think we are competitive all right," said the Liverpool manager. "I think those stats tell you we are attack-minded and can create chances and get penalties - the next bit is to be ugly and get a winning goal.

"To come away without three points is disappointing. The performance was outstanding - if we get a bit of luck it will make a difference to us."

It may require slightly more than better fortune.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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