Arsenal blow Liverpool away and climb to second in the Premier League table
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Arsenal's 4-1 win over Liverpool at the Emirates in Saturday's marquee Premier League clash.
1. Arsenal blow Liverpool away
Arsenal's blind-side run for the title is still alive. Probability dictates they have scant hope of surpassing Chelsea, but at least they are part of the conversation. Liverpool's own pipe dream of returning to the Champions League looks considerably less credible. This was a game they could not afford to lose, and they were punishingly beaten.
Arsene Wenger's team won at a canter, no matter what Brendan Rodgers tried. This is the point of the season at which Arsenal habitually come alive, and their intentions were clear right from a thrilling, forceful start.
However, had Lazar Markovic shot at goal rather than passed to Raheem Sterling in the 20th minute, then Liverpool might have taken the lead. Instead, Sterling could only waft his foot at the Serb's poor pass and bang the floor in frustration. Markovic blew Liverpool's golden chance.
Hector Bellerin's finish for Arsenal's first showed Markovic how it might have been done. His cut inside and finish with his less-reliable left foot was an example of a young player seizing his moment rather than ceding responsibility.
Liverpool were beaten at their own game, just as painfully as their loss to Manchester United a fortnight ago.
Rodgers' team pulled itself back into contention through a pressing game, but opponents are now working them out. Like Blackburn, Swansea and United, Arsenal did not allow Liverpool a minute's peace in possession and had far greater quality in attack. Who said Wenger does not do tactics? As against Manchester City in January, Arsenal picked off their opponent by catching them off-guard, and by refusing to give up the midfield battle.
Mesut Ozil's goal came from a free kick desperately conceded by Mamadou Sakho. Alexis Sanchez's strike took the game beyond reach with a drive that goalkeeper Simon Mignolet might have stopped. All over bar the shouting by half-time, Emre Can's dismissal and Olivier Giroud's injury-time goal were mere garnish.
Arsenal are now the Premier League's form team, collecting 30 points from 11 matches. Where might that take them?
2. Liverpool found out again
Rodgers, despite much speculation, did not tear up the formula that kept Liverpool unbeaten in the Premier League for more than three months until defeat to Manchester United on March 22.
Their surge up the table from the doldrums of December now looks likely to fall short. They must rely on others slipping up. Sterling may now have to see out the next year of his contract out of the Champions League.
This was another big test for Rodgers' Liverpool, and another failure in a key match. Perhaps these are Sterling's footballing reasons for looking elsewhere.
For brief moments, vindication seemed possible, but then came a collapse in a span of just eight minutes and the desperate necessity to rip up his blueprint in the hope of a highly unlikely recovery. Sterling, whose midweek TV interview suggested his discomfort in playing wing-back, was restored to the central striking role he may well see as his future, at whichever club that may be.
Daniel Sturridge began on the bench. It looked a strategic gesture from Rodgers, killing two birds with one piece of hardball. First, to make Sterling prove his worth; second, to reveal that Sturridge must regain his form, as well as his fitness, to start. Sturridge had scored just four times since returning at the end of January, but Rodgers was forced to call on him at half-time, by which time it was too late.
Sterling needed to be in possession, something that Liverpool's rotten start did not allow. Once Liverpool realised that trying to pass the ball out of defence was not working, the aim switched to getting Sterling on the run against a high Arsenal defensive line, and one-on-one with Per Mertesacker's lack of speed. He swiftly rose to prominence.
First came Markovic's errant final pass, and then a chance Sterling fizzed wide when he might have taken an extra touch. At the time, these looked like early warning signs, but by the time Sterling had another chance to shoot, all was lost -- just as Liverpool's chances of making the top four look. By then, as he ballooned a shot over the crossbar, he was playing as a left-winger, as Rodgers went 4-1-4-1.
His run past Bellerin won the penalty that Henderson converted late on, but Sterling's performance was not enough to suggest he is yet worth the fuss.
3. Gunners best on the break
Danny Welbeck's England-sustained knock made Wenger's selection less of a headache. He left the forward on the bench. Placing Ozil on the left meant less chance for Arsenal to be overrun in midfield when not in possession, though even with the German placed out of harm's way, it looked in the first half like Arsenal could do with someone beyond Francis Coquelin who can tackle.
Ozil, though, showed here why Wenger will always try to accommodate him. His free kick will take headlines, but his playmaking genius tore Liverpool apart. Meanwhile, the return of Aaron Ramsey's athleticism has helped lift Arsenal's levels higher, such that they have now surpassed Liverpool as the Premier League form team of 2015.
Arsenal began with swaggering confidence, pinning back what looked an unusually defensive Liverpool lineup, but one that left huge gaps. Mignolet had to make smart saves from Santi Cazorla and then Ramsey within the first five minutes.
Liverpool could not afford to relax in those opening moments. Their hope was that, as has often been the case, Arsenal might punch themselves out and grow frustrated by the passing of opportunities. Their overelaboration can be costly and in any case, Arsenal's early domination seemed only a passing storm.
Liverpool then had their own period when the ball was chiefly in their possession, but amid that came Bellerin's opener, followed quickly by Ozil's strike and Sanchez's stunner. The first and third reminded that Arsenal, with Ozil and Sanchez in full flow, are often more dangerous on the break than when pinning their opponents back.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.