Amazing Arshavin scores four times in thrilling draw at Anfield
It wasn’t a night for defense but Andrei Arshavin won’t care one bit. In a game that Arsenal certainly could have approached with indifference, Arshavin emphatically announced his arrival to the English Premier League. For Arsenal supporters the game was simultaneously breathtaking and excruciating as the Gunners garnered, and squandered, the lead three separate times.
So much happened during the 90 minutes that it’s daunting just thinking about dissecting the action. But the appropriate place to start is with the lousy starting lineup we put forth. Just to torment me specifically, Arsene Wenger decided to line up in that miserable excuse for a formation, the 4-2-3-1. Bendtner played the lone striker, with Nasri, Cesc, and Arshavin in midfield. Behind them, Denilson and Song played the “holding” midfield role. I put “holding” in quotes because they could have been holding beers in the stands and they would have been as effective protecting the back four. Considering the manager’s strong words before the match that we would see the team’s attacking ambition, this was not the formation anyone would have expected. Once again, Cesc looked out of place at times, Arshavin was missing in action for long stretches, we failed to keep possession and we didn’t look even remotely well organized at the back. Sounds like a good approach to me!
There’s no denying that Liverpool were on top of the game from the start and there were moments when we looked in danger of losing the game in embarassing fashion. There wasn’t an instant during the early stages of the match, or any other point for that matter, when our defense didn’t look completely disgraceful. It’s really amazing that a formation that deploys two midfielder in support of the defense can looks so vulnerable to the most basic attacks. Long balls were our undoing all match long. So it was a wonderful relief, and completely against the run of play, when Nasri and Cesc combined to win the ball on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, worked a nice one-two that lead to a Cesc cross, which Arshavin blasted into the net off the underside of the crossbar. 1-0 to Arsenal and a big sigh of relief. If nothing else, the goal eased the tension that our back four was working hard to create. To be fair, it never looked like it would hold up.
Amazingly we made it to the dressing room at half-time clinging to our narrow lead. The period between when we scored and when the half-time whistle blew was dominated by Liverpool and they created a bevy of scoring chances. We were fortunate to make it to the break unscathed and owed our narrow lead to the impressive efforts of Lukas Fabianski. But soon after the break the game was level. Bacary Sagna, who had by far his worst game of the season, served up an atrocious clearance right to Dirk Kuyt whose first attempt to cross was kicked right back to him for a second cross which Torres expertly headed home. It’s worth noting that Silvestre was caught woefully our of position on left side of the field as the goal was scored.
The second Liverpool goal came from equally insufferable defending. Let’s see if we can adequately cover all the mistakes made during this sequence. Silvestre played a miserable back pass to Fabianski that put him under pressure. Fabianski’s clearance to Gibbs forced him to play the ball quickly and his clearance was intercepted. The ball was then swung into the area towards the back post where Sagna, Toure and Fabianski all conspired to let the diminutive Benayoun head the ball into the net. And to make matters worse, the ball was probably helped into the net by Sagna’s ill-advised attempt at an intervention. But that goal changed the game because it forced Wenger to make the decision that he should have made from the start. In fact, it’s the decision that he should have made from the start on Saturday as well. He switched to the 4-4-2 by bringing Theo on and taking off the woeful Denilson.
I can not adequately describe just how poor Denilson played today. At one point I decided to start a twitter counter for Denilson’s give-aways. Before I could finish typing the “tweet,” he was on number two. Throughout the game his failure to hold the ball, make a tackle or distribute accurately put our defense under further pressure. I genuinely believe we would have been better with ten men. I know it seems like I’m picking on a young player, but if he’s not good enough at the moment, then don’t put him in a position to fail spectacularly.
With Theo on the pitch and Denilson thankfully off it, the game changed in an instant. Arshavin netted twice in quick succession, but it was the first of the two that stood out. He showed great awareness and speed to intercept the ball on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area and then lashed a spectacular strike across the goal, into the side-netting from 20 yards out. In no time, thanks to a change in strategy and personnel, we had stood the game on its head and taken a 3-2 lead. Arshavin had his hattrick, and more importantly, we were keeping possession and looking dangerous.
Unfortunately, our back four were in a generous mood. The only player on the Anfield pitch that played worse than Denilson was Silvestre. He was undoubtedly culpable in every Liverpool goal and their third put him front and center. A simple early cross fell to Torres in the middle of the penalty area with his back to goal. Silvestre gave him entirely too much room and time to receive the ball and then allowed him to turn and fire into the lower right corner. It was a truly miserable display of defending. It left the game tied, and brought the Kop back to life.
What happened next looked very unlikely to be sure. Liverpool committed practically their entire team to attack a corner kick and the ball fell to Theo with an empty pitch in front of him. As he raced up the field, Andrei Arshavin ran hard to give him an option on the left. Just as it looked as though Theo had gotten his feet wrong, he managed to pass the ball to Arshavin with only Reina to beat. But Arshavin still had work to do with Reina off his line and only the near side to aim for. No problem for the Russian as he nearly burst the back of the net for his fourth goal of the game. Four shots, four goals, un-four-gettable. (Terrible I know, but what the heck.)
Now we were back in the lead 4-3 with only injury time to play. And I am certain that every Arsenal supporter watching the game believed that it was too much to ask for our defense to protect that slender advantage. But if our defending had been terrible up to that point in the game, we were about to plumb new depths in allowing Liverpool’s last minute equaliser.
The ball was crossed to the right side of the penalty box. Gibbs was overplaying to the center of the area and allowed the ball to be headed back across the middle. Then Silvestre, Toure and Fabianski somehow failed to deal with the headed ball and it was nodded down to the center of the six-yard box. That’s where it really gets bad. Standing at the six-yard box were two unmarked Liverpool players. Diaby was standing motionless at the top of the 18-yard box. Song wasn’t even in the picture. Sagna was watching from the left goal-post. Not a single Arsenal player made the slightest effort to win that last ball. Somehow we conceded a goal to Yossi Benayoun from six yards out, unmarked in injury time. Without being overly critical, it was an inexcusable lack of effort from a team that claimed to be gutted by losing the lead late-on. 4-4 was the final score, but not without a few scares in the dying seconds. It was really heart-in-mouth defending all night long. There was a very well-taken Nicklas Bendtner goal that was ruled off-side earlier in the game. I admit that I didn’t see a replay but Arsene claims that it wasn’t off-side. Oh well, that’s the way it goes for Nicklas these days.
In final adjudication it was a thrilling game. Managers will tell you that it’s not a good match when there are this many mistakes but for the neutrals it’s a joy to watch. For the supporters of the competing teams it’s nerve wracking but undeniably compelling drama. But the fact remains that Arsenal continued their long unbeated run in the Premier League and have not lost to any of the other members of the “big four” in the league this season.
There are some take-aways from today’s game. First, it has been a sheer delight watching Arshavin play football for Arsenal the past few months. It’s even more exciting to think what he can achieve with a full season at the club. At 28 years old next season, he’s in the best years of his career. His goals today were well taken and everyone was full of praise for him after the game. Arsene complimented the Russian on his tally but was careful to include the team in his praise, saying that the goals came from “good combination play.” That’s obviously not true considering that two of the goals came directly from Liverpool give-aways, but you can understand why Wenger would want to lift the team in his comments. There is a temptation to look at today’s game and wonder if Saturday’s outcome would have been different had Andrei started the match. That’s just pointless conjecture at this point and not really worth revisiting unless you’re a masochist.
Lukas Fabianski was fantastic for the first half today. He lost a little steam in the second half but on the balance he played a good game. It will do his confidence a power of good and that’s good news for everyone because he may be called upon for the Champions League match next Wednesday and will certainly start against ‘Boro on Sunday.
The back four were so bad today that it might be best to just leave that topic alone. They will have to be better from here on and that’s all there is to say. You can excuse Sagna who is just coming back from a virus and looked out of sorts. He’s a great player and has been as solid as any defender we’ve had all season. There’s little reason to worry about this aberration of a performance. On the left side, I thought Kieran Gibbs was decent by comparison to the rest of the defense. He made some mistakes to be sure, but they weren’t as flagrant as his counterparts. It’s hard to evaluate Kolo Toure today because his partner in central defense would have helped the team more by sitting behind the goal. Was he as bad as it looked, or was he just caught out by Silvestre’s performance. It’s hard to say.
What’s not hard to say is that Mikael Silvestre should be run out of the Arsenal dressing room and never return. He was laughably bad today and didn’t look like a player that has any desire left in his body. It was like watching a testimonial game where the players’ only concern is finishing the game uninjured. Unfortunately, it seems that was the one goal Silvestre accomplished today. Liverpool scored four goals in this game and Silvestre’s poor play was a factor in each and every one. But here’s the best part; when asked about the Drogba goal on Saturday, he actually had the audacity to take a little shot at Fabianski, saying, “The ball arrived his [Drogba’s] way and the keeper went for it, whereas he could have waited for an intervention, or for us to force Drogba into going to one side.” Of course Fabianski made a poor decision but Silvestre wasn’t exactly handling his business. As the venerable Arseblog pointed out, Silvestre just quit on that play the minute Drogba got the edge on him. As far as I’m concerned, he can leave the team tomorrow. We’ll play with ten men if we have to, thank you very much.
It’s a different story with Denilson. He’s a good young player with the right attitude. He’s been forced to play a lot of games this season and asked to take on a lot of responsibility. Unforunately, it’s starting to look like he’s in over his head at the moment. He was poor today and if he hadn’t started the game I suspect that we might have edged Liverpool. Some of the problems are not his fault. Every attacking Arsenal player looks adversely effected in the 4-2-3-1 formation. But Denilson has the bad habit of giving the ball away cheaply and he never really managed to help the defense today. I don’t think it’s right to evaluate Denilson at this point in time, but Arsene probably needs to leave him out for a while so that he can regain some confidence and get back on the right track.
Finally, it seems like it’s all about Arsene Wenger right now. He has to make the courageous decisions. We’re not going to with the Champions League playing in the 4-2-3-1. We’re not going to beat Manchester United with two holding midfielders. If these last two games have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t get enough possession in that formation and we don’t look threatening enough in attack. Arsene is going to have to show the courage to play a 4-4-2 in the big games and put his trust in this talented group of swashbuckling attackers. That’s the team he built. Those are his “young guns.” So if he wants to prove that he was smarter than everyone else, he better choose to play them when it matters.
I think I enjoyed today’s game, now that I’ve had some time to recover from it. I hope that you did too. There was a lot of absurd speculation that Arsenal would play to lose the game because that would require United to expend more energy in their league games, blah blah blah… Utter media nonsense obviously. (Although Silvestre might not have gotten the memo that we were playing to win.) We probably killed Liverpool’s title dream today which is fine by me. But we also showed a wonderful fighting spirit. We had virtually no defense today and we were under contstant pressure. When we went behind 2-1 we could have easily capitulated. After all, the game was of little real importance. But we fought and we scraped and we almost took all three points. The fact is that we showed character. This Arsenal team has now scored the second most goals in the league behind only United. Not bad for a team that went through a stretch of four scoreless draws.
Next up is ‘Boro and it’s beginning to look like the forgotten game. Manchester United is on the horizon now so we will probably see a very strange group of gunners take the field on Sunday. Whoever does play in that game, and I am certain that Arhsavin will be one of those players, it will take a professional performance to beat a team fighting for their Premier League lives. Only then can we turn our attention to the big match next Wednesday.
Until tommorrow, fill your thoughts with wild expectations for Arshavin’s next season with Arsenal.