Arsene Wenger had clearly decided to shake things up for a very important fixture. The back five were as expected but ahead of them there were no starting places for Mesut Ozil (ill?), Alexis, or Theo Walcott. Ahead of Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka were Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck, and Olivier Giroud. Arsene explained pre-match his reason for leaving out his leading goalscorer and provider,
“Decided to play with Giroud and Welbeck up front because we need to be a bit more direct maybe.”
Would we really go 4-4-2? The answer would be revealed after kick-off. Giroud was very much a lone striker as Liverpool dominated the early possession. The Ox started on the right and Danny on the left leaving Iwobi to be the playmaker in what looked a very familiar 4-2-3-1. A rapid counter attack in the fourth minute ended with Giroud being denied from a Bellerin cross at the expense of a corner.
Coquelin was fortunate to avoid a yellow card for a high boot that caught Coutinho a glancing blow. It was a genuine attempt to play the ball but dangerous nonetheless. That paled into insignificance three minutes later when the Arsenal themselves were caught on the break. Monreal was not at home and, with the freedom of the flank, Mane crossed over the exposed back three for Firmino to drill a deflected effort into the roof of the net.
Liverpool 1-0 Arsenal
With not much of a response forthcoming the first chants of “Alexis Sanchez baby” were heard coming from the away end in little over a quarter of an hour. We finally produced an attack when Oxlade-Chamberlain showed no little skill to create space for a far post cross that Mignolet tipped away from the head of Giroud. Encouraged Arsenal earned another couple of corners which failed to clear the first man.
The sight of Alexis warming up induced another rendition of his song. Watching Liverpool’s rearguard having time and space to play was a reminder that the always industrious Chilean was absent. Arsenal had Petr Cech to thank for a wonderful save from Coutinho’s thumping drive. Giroud, seemingly with a muscular problem, appeared to take an anti-inflammatory pill around the half hour mark.
Coutinho tumbled dramatically under challenge from Coquelin and Shkodran Mustafi. The referee, Bobby Madley, wasn’t fooled but Coquelin’s inevitable booking arrived when he tugged Lallana’s shirt right under the referee’s nose. Arsenal’s defence was opened up again in the fortieth minute when Mane found himself in acres of space on the right hand side of the box to smash a drive beyond Cech. The Gunners defensive naivety was painful to watch.
Liverpool 2-0 Arsenal
Two could have been three when Coutinho killed a Lallana chip beautifully before firing straight at Cech. The half-time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for these brittle Gunners. Coutinho tried his luck again only to see his effort blocked for a corner. If we had been sent out to be more direct then Wenger’s team had clearly disobeyed instructions.
At the start of the second-half the immediate introduction of Alexis for Coquelin appeared a visible admission by the Arsenal manager that he had got his team selection wrong. The Ox dropped in alongside Xhaka and Alexis took up position on the left flank. He immediately brought a desperate save out of Mignolet with a teasing cross. When he repeated the move Giroud’s goal bound header was again parried by Mignolet.
At the other end Firmino’s clever turn set up a shot that Monreal did well to block and Cech gratefully gathered the ball. When Coutinho tumbled theatrically once more Liverpool had a free-kick in a dangerous position but the wall held firm and Cech saved the second ball in comfortably
Alexis and Danny Welbeck combined on the break and the latter got us back in the contest with a superb chipped finish from a tight angle. The Arsenal were a completely different side from the one that had stunk out the place in the opening half.
Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal
Mustafi did well to deal with Coutinho’s ball into the box when Mane put the Liverpool midfielder through. We reacted with a dangerous Hector Bellerin cross that Clyne managed to deflect out of the path of the late arriving Alexis. Can’s pointless trip of Alexis was far worse than the one that earned Granit Xhaka a red card against Swansea. The yellow was probably the correct decision but again demonstrated the inconsistency between officials at the highest level.
The sight of Mustafi galloping clear down Arsenal’s right flank to cross in the direction of Giroud was uplifting to those around him and the travelling faithful. In the 74th Minute Wenger sent on Theo Walcott and the underused Lucas for Giroud and goalscorer Welbeck. That drew audible boos from the away end who launched into a chorus of the Danny Welbeck song.
Cech had to be alert to the danger when Matip got his head on a free-kick. The goalkeeper had to go full stretch to save to his right. When Can, already booked, scythed down Walcott the referee bottled the obvious second yellow, and added insult to injury by booking Xhaka, a marked man it would appear, for protesting his lack of action. Bobby Madley was not the only referee today to bottle the clear red card award.
With little more than eight minutes left Origi’s glancing header struck Cech’s far post and was scrambled to safety. Could we make the most of the let off? Lallana got back to put Lucas off as the substitute got into a dangerous position at the near post.
We have a habit of conceding late goals at Anfield in recent years and it happened again when Matip blocked a goal bound Alexis strike and Lallans and Origi combined to set up a simple tap-in for Wijnaldum. It was cruel on the Arsenal for their second-half performance but we cannot ignore that Liverpool were more clinical throughout.
Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal
There will be much discussion of the decision to start Alexis on the bench, but if we are totally honest this team has had dreadful first-half performances a lot of late, even with Alexis starting. Arsene Wenger will face growing calls for his head in the coming days, and now has to try and put out a team against Bayern Munich that will play for the badge on the shirt, if not him. He was defiant during the week but looked more than just disappointed after the match.
“We had problems to get in the rhythm of the first-half… We conceded some cheap goals… There’s possibility to be in it (the top four) as well so let’s focus on that”
Can he yet go out under better circumstances than this. Let’s hope so.