As far as gambles go, the decision to leave Alexis Sanchez on the bench in favour of a more aerial threat up front was an all-or-nothing move.
Had we bombarded Liverpool with crosses, free-kicks, and long balls, it may have turned out to be a stroke of genius from Arsene Wenger, exposing another flaw in Liverpool’s notoriously flimsy defence.
As it transpired, the gamble backfired spectacularly and it was, in fact, Arsenal’s flimsy defence that was exposed time and again to hand Liverpool a suicidal two-goal lead, an advantage which Arsenal were unlikely to recover.
Realising the error, Wenger hauled off Francis Coquelin at the break and introduced Alexis into the fray. The impact was immediate, noticeable, and decisive, and simply underlined the size of the manager’s tactical folly.
Ahead of the game, I said this match would be a real indicator of Wenger’s ability to take the side forward. After all the rest, all the planning, all the training ground drills coming into this game, there were no excuses left for the Frenchman to fall back on. A positive result was absolutely vital.
Of course, Arsene and his team would never have planned for such a soft, error-strewn opening goal to scupper their plans so early but it is hardly as if the goal was fortunate and against the run of play.
In the first half, Liverpool were first to everything. They won second balls, they caught Arsenal in possession, they found space where they shouldn’t have been any, it was, yet again, an abject effort from the Gunners.
Having fallen two goals behind, the tactics and formation was changed and they emerged for the second half a different side. They matched – and bettered – Liverpool for large portions of the half and were pushing for an arguably deserved equaliser when the breakaway third goal arrived. No complaints about that third, incidentally, when you’re throwing the kitchen sink at getting an equaliser, that is a risk that must be taken. In truth, the game was lost well before we were forced to push 10 men beyond the half-way line.
We will never know for sure but would Arsenal have been chasing a two-goal deficit if our best player was on the pitch from the start? The evidence suggests probably not. The decision to leave him on the bench undoubtedly galvanised the home side, you only have to look at the way they dropped five yards in the second half to see how much they feared the Chilean.
Sometimes you have to take risks and try different things to get the result – I understand that. In doing so, though, you must always find a way to accommodate your best player. It’s said there is a fine line between madness and genius and the decision to drop Alexis strayed too far into the realms of the former.
Before the season started, a lot of fans feared this would be the season in which the team finally dropped out of the Champions League. They were roundly dismissed as pessimists and doom mongers. Seven months hence, and I think even those with an unquenchable flame of optimism burning inside them would concede that it is becoming a real possibility.
I don’t wish to dwell too long on excuses but the decision not to send off Emre Can with the game still in the balance and Liverpool on the back foot will live long in the memory for me.
Already on a yellow card for a cynical hack at Alexis, the German then scythed into Theo Walcott as the Englishman surged through the centre of midfield and towards goal. It was a horrible-looking lunge which, together with a similar challenge from Matip, sent Walcott flying.
Sensing he was in real trouble, Can pulled the old ‘I’m hurt so it couldn’t have been me’ trick and it worked an absolute treat. In fact, it was so effective that Granit Xhaka was booked instead.
The correct decision should have seen Can handed a second yellow card and Arsenal would then have faced the final 10-15 minutes against 10 men. If that had happened, who knows what sort of result we would be talking about this morning. It was utterly infuriating and so inexcusably poor from the referee.
Danny Welbeck’s finish for Arsenal’s goal was absolutely superb. I feared the angle would be too tight to even manage a shot on target so to produce such a deft finish was masterful. Danny was strong, quick, and hungry throughout the match and I hope we see more of him in the final months of the season.
Alex Oxlade Chamberlain continues to work hard in midfield – despite starting the match on the right when, clearly, he has show that his best work is done in the centre. His work rate and powerful running is going to be crucial as we go in search of results in the latter part of this campaign.
The second half performance was as good as anything I have seen from this side for a good while. If we produce that sort of tempo, effort level, and desire, we will keep ourselves in contention until the end of the season. I still fear for the big games coming up against Tottenham, Manchester City, and United, however. We just can’t buy a win.