Arsenal's draw at Liverpool raises more questions over club's mental fragility
LIVERPOOL, England -- This should have been the first of a two-part statement of intent from Arsenal. This should have been the morale-boosting fight that sent the Gunners to Stoke on Sunday, quite possibly in inclement conditions, for what we're led to believe is still the ultimate barometer of mental strength. Instead, Arsene Wenger left Anfield ruing what might have been.
"I am frustrated by the result, but not disappointed by the performance," he said afterward. "The frustration comes from the fact that at 3-2, we had three situations where we should have made it 4-2 and made bad decisions. The frustration then comes from conceding a goal in the last minute."
But Wenger had a message for his players, whose disappointment was palpable. "They have to transform the frustration in the dressing room into even more motivation," he said. "There are a lot of positives. What happened tonight should strengthen our belief." That would be the ideal outcome for Arsenal, but will it happen like that?
The manager's desire to focus on those positives is understandable and, to an extent, justified. Even with Liverpool as a diminished force, tentatively working their way through the early stages of what they hope will be a transformation, a point at Anfield is never a bad result. And it's definitely not a bad result when you've been behind on two occasions. Arsenal were obliterated here in an early onslaught two seasons ago. This time, they rode out the storm and recovered. That's progress.
Olivier Giroud, doubted as a truly top-class striker by so many, scored twice -- the second a magnificent finish that evoked memories of Dennis Bergkamp. Wenger's praise was measured there. "He had more chances, but overall he had a positive performance," he said. "It was not easy. He was exposed many times to a very physical battle. He was precious for us tonight."
Joel Campbell was a revelation, providing convincing evidence that he has developed swiftly this season. He covered Hector Bellerin's shift so well that he won huge applause from the travelling supporters when he departed, exhausted, in the second half.
If you were being generous, you could even say that there was perhaps little Arsenal could do about the equaliser. Jurgen Klopp deployed new centre-back signing Steven Caulker as an emergency striker in the final moments and began a late aerial bombardment. The only way for the Arsenal defence to match Christian Benteke's critical late leap would have been to equip their defenders with jet packs. Benteke hasn't brought a lot to Anfield, but he has certainly brought altitude. Wenger told reporters later that he was heading every ball in the closing stages from the touchline, but even his 6-foot-3 frame wouldn't have jumped higher than the Belgian.
And yet there was a feeling that Arsenal were playing with fire in those final moments. There is a fine line between cautiously closing out a game and inviting pressure by sitting deep, but the Gunners ignored that and instead focused on the fine line between chasing another goal and chasing another two goals. Although you could sense that the players knew they should drop back and close gaps, it clearly felt unnatural, like taking a bath with your socks on.
Giroud, Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were frequently in front of the ball as the game entered the final 10 minutes, and on several occasions, there were as many as five Arsenal players chasing back to pursue Liverpool counter-attacks. Wenger saw it, too, and removed Ozil for Mikel Arteta in the 86th minute, but to no avail. Liverpool still found a way through at the last, and they always looked as if they knew a way was there to be found. Arsenal have, of late, rarely exuded that aura of impregnability, like the old Italian sides, in which a one-goal lead is seen as an insurmountable obstacle.
Their form of late has been extraordinary. They have won seven of their past eight games, the aberration being that 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day. This was an aberration of such intensity that the aftershocks are still felt in the stomachs of every supporter before every winnable game. And now, thanks to Joe Allen, although admittedly to a lesser extent, there is another mental time bomb to be defused: Can Arsenal be trusted to close out games? Can Arsenal be relied upon to take scrappy wins? For every result like this, those doubts occur again.
More can be done to stiffen up this team, certainly. The pending signing of Mohamed Elneny will give Wenger some much-needed cover in central midfield in the absence of Francis Coquelin, where Mathieu Flamini is currently the only natural option.
"Elneny has joined us," Wenger said, "and we will see if he can qualify for Sunday." Perhaps his energy and a desire to take advantage of the chance to cement a first-team place will bring more solidity to what remains a fluid midfield.
A draw at Anfield is a good result, and it was secured at a good time. Although Leicester kept up their wonderfully implausible title challenge, Manchester City dropped points at home and Tottenham lost. But it could have been a great result and Wenger knows it. Last-minute goals can galvanise the teams that score them, but for the teams that concede them, they bring only doubt and anxiety. The next four months will test the nerves of even the bravest Arsenal fan.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.