Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi
Well, the game plan “worked” for 70 minutes – keep it tight, hope for the break – but Liverpool’s appalling attack play let Arsenal hang around, and they finally made the breakthrough in front of their baying fans. One defensive error – from Degen, on for Carra because of a groin strain – and it cost them. Haven’t heard that in, oh, six games. Nice while it lasted. And despite constant Liverpool pressure for the last 15 minutes – including a last minute Gerrard free kick, from a position reminiscent of the win over Villa two seasons ago, which Fabregas seemingly handled – it’s another debilitating loss.
Other than a five-minute spell a quarter of the way through the match and an early Gallas free header when Agger lost him on a corner, Arsenal posed few questions in the first half. The home side sparked to life in the 24th when Skrtel did well to cut out Nasri’s center after Insua was caught upfield. Two chances for Bendtner and a smart block on Nasri’s shot by Insua followed before we reverted to prudence for the rest of the half. Meanwhile, Liverpool had absolutely nothing to write about for chances at the other end as Maxi, Kuyt, and Ngog took every possible opportunity to lose possession in the final third.
But it was far more open in the second half. Liverpool had two excellent chances within ten minutes, but Lucas shot just over after surging into the box and Ngog lingered on a breakaway from Gerrard’s throughball, allowing Gallas to get back for a wonderful tackle. But it wasn’t one-way traffic, as Arsenal marched right down the field following Ngog’s chance, with Rosicky allowing Reina to smother after overrunning Arshavin’s delicious throughball.
We’re not going to be blaming one person for that loss, but I’ll firmly maintain the turning point came when Carragher limped off in the 54th. Arsenal soon began to up the pressure, with Bendtner nearly scoring after his pass was deflected back to him, only to see Reina do just enough before the ball was cleared. And the home side grew in confidence, playing keep ball before Diaby broke the deadlock.
Arsenal must have had something like 75% possession from the hour mark until the goal. And while chances were at a premium – Bendtner seeing yellow for a dive in the box when he could have been through and a Rosicky blast just deflected over – an Arsenal goal felt imminent with the home side’s increasing dominance. And with Liverpool caught forward, Rosicky’s cross found an on-rushing Diaby, left open as Degen didn’t follow his run. Just despicable.
The goal at least prompted a response from Liverpool, with Babel replacing Lucas as Liverpool went 4-4-2 for the final 15 minutes. And it’s gonna be hard to argue against Babel after his cameo off the bench, creating about as much as the rest of the team in 75 fewer minutes. Only Almunia's fingertips prevented him an equalizer, cutting in and blasting an immense shot in the 86th, with the keeper barely tipping it onto the bar. In my defense, I think Babel’s a good option off the bench, and that’s where he did his damage from. From there, Babel headed at Almunia from the subsequent corner, Rodriguez shot straight at the keeper two minutes later, and Gerrard’s aforementioned free kick hit the wall. And now, we’re back in crisis mode. Feast or famine.
I do not understand why Maxi’s started ahead of Riera in the last two matches, and Rodriguez did absolutely nothing today meriting the 90 minutes. None of the front four worked well together, in contrast to the pre-match hopes, and Kuyt was also especially poor on the opposite flank. But Liverpool had improved with Riera back in the side, and Maxi’s inability to mesh with his teammates clearly weighed the team down. Insua was also inconsistent, but surprisingly in attack instead of defense, where he wasn't bad up against Nasri, Eboue, and Rosicky (who came on for an injured Nasri in the 37th).
I do understand – and lobbied for – the game plan. And other than that solitary goal, the defense did well; Arsenal is a tough team to face at the Emirates, even given current form, and were stifled for long stretches. But the attack was absolutely dreadful and it took Benitez 78 minutes to change things up. Even I’m infuriated. That change – some change – needed to be made 10-15 minutes sooner.
We’re not back to square one, but Liverpool’s seeing Sisyphus’ rock rolling back down the hill after a seven-game struggle to push it up. The gap between Arsenal and Liverpool is a basically-impossible-to-overhaul eight points, while City’s level with two games in hand. And City’s the next opponent.
For better or worse, there’s still a long road to hoe.