Sunday, September 2, 2012

From Two Games Without Scoring... Three Clean Sheets in a Row

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal and suddenly it's easy to put a positive spin on our start to the season.

But first, we should cast our minds back to the drudgery of the opening two games, in which another new-look Arsenal laboured to create genuine opportunities.

The game against Sunderland at the Emirates always looked, to me, a difficult way to kick off. Their team is hardly packed with superstars, but with Martin O'Neill at the helm they can always be relied upon to be well-organised and hard to break down. Arsenal were not helped by a relative dearth of pre-season games, the Emirates Cup having been cancelled due to the Olympics (thus ending Arsenal's hopes of silverware for the season). It was clear that a lot of the players were unaccustomed to each other, but Santi Cazorla immediately looked a class above, carrying a threat throughout and ultimately providing the pass late on that should have led to the winner. His fellow new boy Olivier Giroud did a passable Bendtner impression, shanking his effort wide, and Arsenal were left with a frustrating home draw.

The departure of Alex Song to Barcelona was announced in the game's aftermath, and many fretted over Arsenal's trip to Stoke, as the team had lost one of its few overtly physical players. But physically, Arsenal dealt much better with this trip to the Britannia. Mertesacker and Vermaelen were largely untroubled until Jon Walters stabbed a late chance wide. Going forward, however, was a different story. As against Sunderland, chances were at a premium. A stalemate always looked on the cards and so it proved.

And so to Liverpool, the transfer window having closed. On the monetary front, the initial optimism provided by the early signings of Podolski and Giroud, and the more recent capture of Cazorla, had been deflated somewhat by the recent departures of RVP- though that was expected- and Song. With no further new additions, it seemed another symbol of Arsenal's ambition, or lack thereof. What had threatened to be, by Wenger's standards, a splurge, had become another summer where more money came in than went out, and the squad was only marginally improved, if at all.

The match at Anfield restored the feelgood factor of early summer. Liverpool are, after all, to be viewed as serious rivals for a top four position. Last week, they had the beating of champions Man City, but were forced by silly errors to settle for a draw. This week, they were outplayed and comfortably beaten by Arsenal.

They have their own reasons to be disgruntled at the close of the transfer window. Brendan Rodgers' commitment to his own footballing philosophy is something that Arsene Wenger would no doubt admire, but he has allowed Andy Carroll to depart and no replacement has arrived, leaving an apparent burden on the shoulders of Luis Suarez, a very good player but not a very good finisher.

They did bring in Nuri Sahin- who Wenger spent much of the summer trying to sign- but Arsenal grew to dominate the game in midfield. Arteta was again outstanding, showing the benefit of his many years in the Premiership with some robust defensive play, and almost always choosing the right option while on the ball. Diaby had quite possibly his best game in an Arsenal shirt. With Song gone, Wenger may well be taking a sizeable gamble on Diaby's fitness holding up, but today was one of the days when you can see why Wenger has had so much patience with him.

The greatest plus point of all might be the unexpected hat trick of clean sheets. That said, there were some iffy moments early on. Liverpool never looked like creating much, but Jenkinson and Mertesacker did their best to help them with some sloppy passing from the back.

When Gerrard gave the ball away near the Arsenal box, however, the away side sprung into decisive action. Podolski found Cazorla, dropping into a pocket of space in front of Skrtel and Agger, and the Spaniard waited for the right moment to release the ball back to the German, sprinting ahead of Glen Johnson. The finish was dispatched low and hard past Reina and Arsenal had scored the kind of breakaway goal that has become far too rare since the days of Henry and Vieira.

Second half, the Gunners stood strong under some pressure, then made the game safe as the same two players exchanged passes again, and this time Cazorla applied the finish, his low shot squirming under Reina.

If new number 2 Steve Bould is having an effect on the back four, it's a great sign. Arsenal have been too easy to score against for far too long. It's an obvious thing to say, but keeping more clean sheets takes the pressure off your forward players, and Giroud for one looks like he needs help in that regard.

He had an unfortunate reprise of his poor effort against Sunderland, and it was worrying to see his head in his hands after. He showed the same reaction at the final whistle of the opening game, which suggests that he's expecting too much of himself, too early. So far, he hasn't looked like that much of an upgrade on Bendtner or Chamakh, let alone an adequate replacement for Van Persie. But we only need think of Thierry Henry to recall how patience can pay off with a striker who initially has trouble finding his finishing boots.

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