The Three Things I Learned From Sunday

I have to admit that I was not entirely confident going into yesterday’s match. Bad things have happened recently in our big 4 matches; that is, if Liverpool can still be considered a “big 4” side. Liverpool had Gerrard and Torres available and our injury situation had not improved. The results on Saturday only made many of us even more worrisome.

With the place we were in, we just could not afford to drop any points on a weekend which saw Chelsea and United drop a combined five points. Had that been the case, the title could very well have been out of our grasp. It might not have, but it could have been. The point being that it is getting to that time of season where every opportunity must be taken; there can be no more “early-season blips.”

But, after watching Arsenal’s gritty determination enable them to turn around a 1-nil deficit and hold on to a 2-1 lead for over half an hour at Anfield, it seemed to me that three things became crystal clear over the course of the 90 minutes. Now, some of these may already have been obvious to some of my readers, so I only speak for myself. Here they are:

1. Andrei Arshavin is Robin van Persie’s “replacement.”

Arsenal have only seemed even remotely close to their early-season attacking threat after van Persie’s injury since Wenger has deployed Arshavin in the central role. The man is such an overall talented footballer that he made his reputation in Russia and international football playing behind the striker, then came to Arsenal where he has proved to be one of, if not the, best purchase in the last two years in the Premier League playing out wide on the left.

He has now shown that he not only can he play in the central striker’s role, but he is just as effective there as anywhere else. And he looks perfectly natural doing it. The timing of his runs against Stoke and against Liverpool, his movement between the center-backs… he looks more a natural central forward than either Eduardo or Carlos Vela, at the moment.

Both have failed to take their chances in the wake of van Persie’s injury. Yet moving Arshavin to the middle can actually end up benefiting both of them. It clears a spot on the left for Wenger to further utilize the rest of his attacking talent including getting the recently-returned Theo Walcott more minutes. But, with Arshavin in the middle and Theo on the right, it also opens up the left side for either Eduardo or Vela to get minutes out there. In the immediate wake of van Persie’s injury, Arsenal suddenly looked bereft of attacking ideas and while our early-season explosiveness is yet to return, Arshavin’s move to the middle provides the hope that all is not yet lost.

2. Almunia is not good enough.

I have always tried to give Manuel Almunia the benefit of the doubt. In 2007-08, most people were calling for us to sign a quality keeper, but I thought he did a great job that season. He wasn’t spectacular but he was very solid and inspired more confidence than the quickly-declining Jens Lehmann. When he struggled a bit last year, I was willing to put it down to the effect of the entire team having a rough season. But, Almunia has never recovered.

Rather than not improving, as a keeper in his early 30s should, Almunia has gone backwards. He was never dominant in the air but this season it has become damn near comic. He looks like a Keystone Kop going up for balls delivered into the box. Central defenders need a solid keeper behind them that inspires at least the bare minimum of confidence and Almunia is nowhere close to doing even that for Gallas and Vermaelen.

Obviously, the club has two options in this situation. Either Arsene can hand the #1 spot over to Fabianski to stake a claim to it, or he can buy in January or the summer.

3. We are back!

The most important thing we learned on Sunday afternoon was that we are back in the title race. If Arsenal win their game-in-hand, home to Bolton on January 6, they would be level on points with United and only three behind Chelsea. All of a sudden, a team that looked in crisis a few weeks ago, is a game-in-hand away from being level with United.

Arsenal showed a grit and determination in coming back from 1-nil down to take the lead at Anfield. But, even more impressive, they then went on to hold on to that lead for over half an hour. They kept pushing forward and, while Liverpool had some odd chances, they controlled the entire second half. It was the first time we had won there since 2003, which was also the last time any team had come from behind to win at Anfield.

Gerrard’s penalty-shout in the first half was the classic English way to draw a penalty. Just like Rooney did against us, Gerrard got a heavy touch on the ball putting it out of his reach and then made a meal of the contact. Howard Webb, to his credit, saw through the ruse. Yes, there was contact on Gallas’s part, but Gerrard had no chance to get the ball following his last touch. It’s a distinction in the penalty rules that is often ignored, especially when it comes to England’s golden boys. Torres, also, was more than willing to go to ground with the breeze, which is highly disappointing for a player of his caliber.

Overall

The way the match went showed the difference in the sides this season. Liverpool took the lead after looking fairly confident throughout the first half. However, once Glen Johnson scored the own goal, they looked like a defeated side. Arshavin’s goal only sealed their fate, it didn’t make it. Liverpool did not have the strength of character to deal with losing the lead despite controlling the match up until that point. Arsenal, despite their ineffective start on the back of a run of a disappointing results, always believed that they could get three points from the match.

Even more so after Wenger’s supposed fit in the changing room at half-time. Cesc said that Arsene told them they weren’t fit to wear the Arsenal shirt. That must have stunned them because their second half performance was quite a contrast with the first half. They didn’t look a “different” team, but they did look a more determined and more motivated team after that. Arsenal have won their Champions League group and now sit within striking distance of the two sides above them in the table. And it feels good.