Liverpool vs Arsenal today was, as they say, a game of two halves. Arsenal were the best team in the first half as Liverpool struggled to keep possession and use it intelligently when they had it. They set up in a 4-4-1-1 formation with debutant Joe Cole playing in the withdrawn striker role, behind David N’gog. In practice they were too hurried when they had the ball and returned to the bad habits of last season. Long diagonal balls to N’gog bypassed Cole and left him a virtual bystander. A willingness to do well on his Anfield debut saw Cole tracking back and making tackles in order to get on the ball. This attitude carried him recklessly into the standing leg of fellow debutant Laurent Koscielny, when he was already off the pitch. A red card followed, Roy Hodgson stated an appeal may follow that but it is unlikely to be successful. The tackle was dangerous and the omens looked bad for Liverpool.
It is too early to make any generalisations about the esprit de corps at Liverpool this year but the second half began in the best possible way for the Reds with N’gog running onto Mascherano’s through ball and blasting past Manuel Almunia. N’gog has had his critics but has started this season like a house on fire, 4 goals in 3 games and the best of the lot against Arsenal. In a reversal of the first half fortunes, 10 man Liverpool appeared capable of protecting their lead against Arsenal’s 11 men. Cole’s absence had little effect on the way they played and probably inspired them to greater effort. The 4-4-1-1 became 4-4-1. The error that let them back into the game from the normally excellent Pepe Reina meant Liverpool had to share the points but a draw was a fair reflection of the game.
There were four players making their league debuts today Cole and Milan Jovanovic for Liverpool and Koscielny and Marouane Chamakh for Arsenal. Two finished up with red cards (Cole and Koscielny), and one looked lightweight and ineffective (Chamakh). Jovanovic though showed some good touches, in particular a barnstorming run through the centre, barging Diaby off the ball in the process. Whether he is of sufficient quality to keep Ryan Babel out of the team remains to be seen.
As for what this game means for either team, Arsenal still look lightweight, which is to be expected with their long list of absences. They controlled the first half but couldn’t find a way through to the goal. They will be better with Fabregas and Van Persie. Chamakh will have better games when he doesn’t have to face Skrtel and Carragher. Laurent Koscielny has potential but on this showing didn’t look the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems. Manuel Almunia will be lucky if he plays many more games for Arsenal, they sorely need a new keeper. Liverpool should try to keep Mascherano if possible as they are better with him. The fighting spirit shown in the second half is a marked contrast to last year but their inability to cause Arsenal any problems in the first half is a big worry. Liverpool didn’t really show anything to suggest they have improved greatly from last year but a point against Arsenal is a good start. Hopefully there is more to come.
Most strikingly this game showed the value of Javier Mascherano to Liverpool. There are few better sights than el jefecito tearing around Liverpool’s midfield. His distribution was also good today as shown by his pass for N’gog’s goal. If he stays and is able to keep the level of motivation and commitment he showed against Arsenal, he is vital for Liverpool. However he has said he wants to leave, and will go if a sufficient bid comes in for him. Christian Poulsen was apparently not signed to replace Mascherano but he might end up trying to do just that. However on this performance there are not many players who would be able to.