Robin’s daylight robbery steals vital win for Arsenal
March 3, 2012 7 Comments
Koscielny og 23, van Persie 31, 90+2
For the third Premier League game in a row Arsenal dug themselves into a hole and promptly climbed straight back out again as they came from behind to win in a remarkable finish at Anfield. The balance of possession and territory was as lop-sided as a corner count of 12-0 would suggest, and yet two clinical finishes by the incomparable Robin van Persie - his 30th and 31st goals of the season – put Arsenal back on level terms and then snatched victory in injury time. With Chelsea’s defeat at West Brom, the win puts Arsenal in pole position for a top-four finish.
Despite some injury worries during the week, Arsene Wenger was able to name the same side which completed a remarkable turnaround to beat Spurs 5-2 last weekend.
Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs
Song – Arteta
Walcott – Rosicky – Benayoun
At the Emirates in August, Emmanuel Frimpong‘s red card gave Liverpool a decisive numerical advantage as two late goals gave them a lacklustre 2-0 victory.
Arsenal cling on to weather the storm
Liverpool dominated the early exchanges but it was Arsenal who fashioned the first chance of the game. Theo Walcott latched on to a long ball and did well to drill a low shot across goal which had Pepe Reina at full stretch. Shortly afterwards Luis Suarez spun free of Laurent Koscielny, but Wojciech Szczesny was quickly out of his box to clear the danger. Bacary Sagna also had to be alert to cut out a dangerous through-ball for Stewart Downing.
Arsenal were living dangerously, however, and it was only a matter of time before disaster struck. Suarez played a neat one-two with Dirk Kuyt and went down dubiously and theatrically under Szczesny’s challenge. Mark Halsey, whose view appeared to be obstructed, awarded the penalty, but Kuyt’s spot-kick low to Szczesny’s right was brilliantly saved. The Dutchman was first to the loose ball but the Pole scrambled all the way across his goal to complete a magnificent double save.
The reprieve proved only temporary. A swift Liverpool counter saw Arsenal’s back line horribly exposed for at least the fifth time. Jay Spearing found Downing in space on the right, and his dangerous cross was sliced into his own net by Koscielny as he attempted to clear his lines. Anfield is proving to be something of a bogey ground for him, having been sent off on his Arsenal debut here last season. It was also Arsenal’s fifth own goal of the season – no other Premier League team has conceded more than two.
Two minutes later Liverpool nearly doubled their lead. Again Arsenal were indebted to Szczesny, who saved well from Jordan Henderson‘s low drive. Suarez struck the foot of the post with the rebound.
As the clock ticked past half an hour, Arsenal had offered no threat at all other than Walcott’s early half-chance. But, out of the blue, the blue-shirted visitors drew level. Sagna picked up a scything cross-field pass and whipped in a delicious cross. Robin van Persie, an isolated figure up front to that point, attacked the ball at the near post in front of Jamie Carragher and gave Reina no chance with a powerful header for his 30th goal of the season.
Even so, the home side finished the half in the ascendancy. Suarez shimmied past three defenders with a mazy dribble, but Szczesny again got down superbly to turn away his shot. And in stoppage time Charlie Adam‘s low cross was met by Dirk Kuyt, who watched in dismay as his glancing effort cannoned off the far post.
So, all square at half-time. A typically frustrating half for Liverpool fans – lots of chances but an inability to convert them into goals. And it said everything that Szczesny had been Arsenal’s best player in the opening 45 minutes – closely followed by the woodwork.
Van Persie steals it at the death
The second half started with Arsenal’s already shaky midfield being disrupted by the loss of Mikel Arteta, who was stretchered off with concussion after an accidental collision with Henderson. He was replaced by Abou Diaby, making only his third appearance of yet another injury-ravaged season. The French international was straight into the action, firing in a long-range shot saved by Reina.
Liverpool continued to dominate, but without creating many chances. Their best opportunities fell to right-back Martin Kelly. First he was inches away from getting on to the end of a loose ball following a corner, only to be denied by Szczesny’s decisive intervention. Then Kuyt slid a tempting ball across the face of goal, only for Kelly to completely mishit his effort.
But Arsenal, although largely on the back foot, created equally good opportunities. A superb volleyed cross by Tomas Rosicky just failed to find Yossi Benayoun. And Kieran Gibbs teed up Walcott, whose deflected shot was well saved by Reina’s outstretched leg. And they remained positive in their intent, sending on Gervinho in place of the ineffective Benayoun, and later Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the substitute Diaby.
Liverpool continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession and territory in an open final 15 minutes as both sides pressed for a winner. Downing blasted wide from outside the box when under little pressure. Rosicky floated a clever ball through the middle, but Walcott could only direct a looping header straight at Reina.
With the game in the second of eight minutes of added-on time, Arsenal stole all three points with a goal worthy of winning any game. Alex Song chipped a 30-yard ball into the box and van Persie unhesitatingly volleyed it first time with his left foot to beat Reina from a tight angle at his near post. The ball was struck with such ferocity the keeper barely had to time to see it, much less stop it. And unlike at the Emirates last season – where Arsenal took the lead deep into injury time only to concede an even later equaliser – this time they were able to close out the game.
Even for the most blinkered of Arsenal fans, this was the most blatant of snatch-and-grab jobs on the balance of play but It was, however, hard-fought for and settled by the kind of clinical finishing which Liverpool have lacked this season. Too often in the past Arsenal have been on the receiving end of scorelines such as this, so they will gladly take a result which now leaves Liverpool ten points shy of fourth spot (albeit with a game in hand), with their Champions League prospects fast receding. For Arsenal, however, a top-four finish is an increasingly realistic prospect.
Post-match reaction and analysis
After the match, Arsene Wenger spoke about the importance of the victory:
It was vital for us to win the game. Liverpool had a very good first half and we were not in the game – what was flattering for us was to be 1-1 at half time. The second half was much more level. But they had no clear-cut chances in the second half.
Overall it was not one of our best games, but we refused to give in and we played as well as we could. Our goalkeeper and centre forward made the difference.
He praised Wojciech Szczesny‘s performance:
He has shown his potential and I like that he was brave as well. At 21 years old he is a great talent, he is learning his job but because he is a great talent, he learns quickly.
And he reiterated the importance of his captain van Persie:
I must say we will do anything to keep him. I am very proud that he has grown after having seen him arriving here timid, and today being the player and leader he has become. He is playing under big pressure in every game because he knows he has to score. He is up there with the best players in the world.
He also gave an initial update on the injuries suffered by Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and others:
As I sit here now, he [Arteta] is in hospital at the moment and we have no news.
The bad news of the day is that Diaby is injured and did his hamstring. Benayoun has a small hamstring problem, Gibbs has a problem. We look decimated after the game. I don’t know who will be available on Tuesday night [against Milan]. Maybe I will play with six strikers as we have to score goals!
No matter how you look at this game, it is difficult to explain how Arsenal won. Liverpool dominated statistically, although not by as much as it felt like while watching the game. They had more shots (12-10), more corners (12-0), more possession (54%-46%) and territorial advantage (56%-44%), and completed more passes (357-320). They bossed midfield for long spells, and looked faster and more dangerous in attack for most of the game. And yet the real difference-maker in this match was Robin van Persie, who currently stands head and shoulders above every other striker in the Premier League. Isolated and unoccupied for virtually the entire game, he had just two chances – and finished them both. By comparison, Suarez and Kuyt had seven attempts between them and could not find the net, although both were denied by a post.
Arsenal were the architects of their own problems in the first half. As against Spurs last week, time and again they repeatedly left themselves open to fast counter-attacks. Liverpool players were allowed too much space behind the visitors’ midfield and down the flanks to either run or pass into, with Kieran Gibbs repeatedly guilty of being caught upfield. With two hard-working forwards such as Suarez and Kuyt able to exploit the open spaces, Arsenal were extremely fortunate to only concede once. It was fortunate that Wojciech Szczesny was in top form, making several stops of the highest class and snuffing out several other openings with his quick decision-making.
The same midfield that dominated Spurs last week was weak here. One-paced and too often caught dithering in possession, Arteta, Song and Tomas Rosicky were often overrun by the Liverpool midfield of Henderson, Adam and Spearing. Benayoun drifted out of the game, while Walcott‘s work-rate was good, but he was starved of service.
On almost every observable measure, Arsenal were second-best in this game. But they won the only metric that matters: the scoreline. That is as much a cause for optimism as the previous big wins over Spurs and Blackburn. The team which used to find ways to lose games they dominated is now finding ways to win games they ought to lose. It’s a useful knack to develop.
There can surely be little argument now about Arsenal’s mental strength. Come-from-behind wins in their past three league games – and in four of their last eight games in all competitions – are testament to the spirit the team shows in adversity. It is fair, however, to question the lackadaisical and cavalier defending which so often sees them concede the opening goal. Strike a better balance between attack and defence, and a top-four finish is very much there for the taking. Expect Wenger to rest a number of his first XI against Milan on Tuesday in preparation for another crucial game at home to Newcastle a week on Monday.
Arsenal man of the match: Wojciech Szczesny. Van Persie may have won the game, but it was the Pole in the goal who kept Arsenal in it with a string of excellent saves. His double-save from Kuyt’s penalty was stunning.
- Van Persie strengthens Gunners grip on fourth place (independent.co.uk)