Sunday 14 August 2016
Arsenal 3 Liverpool 4
My first trip to the Emirates this season didn't end the way I wanted it to. But the way I look at it, things could have been much, much worse.
First of all, the eagle-eyed among you will notice that photo above is from the away corner of the Clock End, the Liverpool end. What on earth was I doing in there you ask? My brother managed to get himself, my nephew and I three tickets courtesy of his New Balance connections. Amazing, right? Yes but the price we had to pay was to be surrounded by the opposition. I spent the entire match hemmed in by scousers who are about as fanatical as football fans get. It was actually quite enjoyable to begin with, and they were a lively bunch in good spirits, enjoying the magnificent British weather. But then the goals started going in, and the fun soon turned into horror...
Before we get to that, let's start at the beginning. I got into London around midday and naturally migrated to the shop to look at this season's new gear. I told myself repeatedly, "I don't need this season's home shirt, in fact I won't buy anything." That didn't last long.
My willpower was non-existent. Realistically I knew I would buy it but seeing them all lined up in the shop, I couldn't resist. They didn't have any pre-made with the new Cup numbering so I had this one made up. I'd never had a shirt printed with the European Cup badges before but had always wanted one. It looks pretty darn good in my opinion, especially that iconic Champions League badge. Why did I opt for Cazorla? Santi has been one of my favourite players for a long time, he's unbelievably skilled in possession and who doesn't love the guy, constantly smiling as he humiliates would-be defenders.
Even though I'd already spent way more than I intended, I continued to browse the store and spotted a potential birthday/Christmas present:
These new Puma rain jackets are lovely and much better quality than the similarly-priced stadium jackets. I have my eyes on this navy blue one in the near future. I'm keeping my fingers crossed some kind soul will gift me one before 2016 is over.
After meeting with my brother and nephew, we headed towards our turnstile. After entering the stadium, Arsenal shirt well and truly hidden beneath a jacket, we found our way into enemy territory. It was pretty warm by this point but the stewards recommended (demanded) I hide my shirt for the entire game, lest I incur the wrath of the travelling support. It was a definitely a good idea after what occurred next.
Arsenal started brightly and, I felt, controlled the half. The home side looked dangerous in attack and the makeshift centre-back duo of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding were holding their own (pun intended) in defence. Aerially they dominated against Liverpool's forward line and Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny did a very good job of screening the back four, cutting out attacks before they got too dangerous. Petr Cech was never seriously tested in goal.
Thirty minutes into the match, Theo Walcott was brought down in the penalty area after a stupid challenge by Liverpool left-back and owner of terrible hair Alberto Moreno. I was surprised to see Theo grab the ball and take ownership of the penalty. I thought for sure Alexis Sanchez, the most experienced forward on the pitch, would surely take command. Instead Theo tamely put the ball to Simon Mignolet's right and it was a simple save for the goalkeeper in the end, at an easy height. The Liverpool fans burst into celebration around us and all I could do was bite my lip in frustration.
Thankfully Theo was quick to make amends. Coquelin made a brilliant tackle to feed the ball into Alex Iwobi and the Nigerian youngster picked out Theo with a delightful pass. Walcott took a touch before firing home from a tricky angle and it was 1-0 to the Arsenal. I had to do everything in my power not to jump up and down and reveal myself. But typically Arsenal couldn't hold on. As the end of the first half neared, Liverpool earned a cheap free kick and the always dangerous Philippe Coutinho stepped up to take it. The Brazilian scored one of the most impressive free kicks in recent memory, perfectly curling the ball into the top corner and Cech had no chance. I'll admit, it's right up there with the best goals I've seen in person. 1-1 at half time and it was a gut punch to Arsenal. It's often said the worst time to concede is just before half time. Sadly for the Gunners, this proved to be true.
Arsenal never recovered from that Coutinho free kick. Liverpool emerged early for the second half and never took their foot off the gas. Within minutes it was 2-1 to the visitors, Adam Lallana slotting home from the right. Liverpool didn't let up, with Coutinho notching his second of the day to make it 3-1. And not long after that Sadio Mane, the Reds' £35 million new signing, made it 4-1 with an impressive solo goal. Now just imagine what being 4-1 down felt like in the Liverpool end for a trio of stunned Arsenal fans. It was incredibly hard to hide my disappointment and anger as jubilant, and really drunk Merseysiders roared in celebration around me. The only silver lining? I have Coutinho in my fantasy team. Dude is some player, and Liverpool will be lucky to hold onto him.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, just on as a substitute, quickly started the comeback. At 4-1 down you have to think the game is over but the Ox gave Arsenal a lifeline with a superb goal, weaving through the Liverpool defence before beating Mignolet at his near post to make it 4-2. Arsenal continued to press for another goal and were rewarded 10 minutes later when Chambers glanced in a header to bring the home side within a goal of snatching an unlikely draw. But it wasn't to be and Arsenal just could not find that extra something to seriously threaten the visitors again. Liverpool saw the game out and delivered Arsenal their first loss of the season, in their very first game.
I could not believe how much better Liverpool were in the second half. Equally, I couldn't understand how Arsenal could be so off the pace. Arsenal just couldn't deal with Liverpool's pressing, their tenacity, their level of effort. The Reds put in a total team effort and blitzed the home team. Coquelin and Elneny were totally bypassed in midfield and the inexperienced partnership of Chambers and Holding stood no chance. Alexis cut a forlorn figure up front, starved of service and unable to challenge for any ball above his head. He was wasted as a striker, unable to influence the game much at all.
To rub salt in the wound, the Gunners lost both Aaron Ramsey and Iwobi to injuries. Ramsey's hamstring reared it's ugly head yet again, an injury that repeatedly scuppers his Arsenal career. Reports are that he will miss a month, and Iwobi's thigh injury is still to be determined in terms of his absence. I thought Ramsey had an impressive first half playing in the number 10 role he would love to claim as his own, so it's such a shame to lose him again and not witness what he could bring to that position.
I was amazed that Arsene Wenger didn't opt to start Oxlade-Chamberlain. After a hugely successful pre-season, the English winger looked a certainty to start but the boss opted for Walcott instead. All credit to Theo, he put the penalty miss behind him and took his goal well, but he contributed very little otherwise. The impact the Ox made immediately upon entering the game just made me think what could have been if he'd started.
I was also surprised to see new acquisition Granit Xhaka not get the start. I can fully understand why Wenger opted for Elneny and Coquelin instead. With such a young and inexperienced centre-back duo, it made sense to give them as much defensive midfield protection as possible. But I felt Xhaka could have done that job also, as well as providing that extra bit of technique in attack. I thought the Swiss midfielder impressed in his 20+ minutes and you could see immediately his physicality and leadership qualities, even in such a short amount of gametime. As the match was in it's dying minutes, right in front of us, Xhaka shunted Jordan Henderson in the chest and you just wanted to fist-pump right there and then and shout, "get in there lad!" He's definitely going to pick up a red card or two this year, but I love his grit and moxie already.
All in all I enjoyed the day (for someone of modest means, every visit to the Emirates is a day out to be savored) but the result was pretty terrible. It could have been much worse at 4-1 and at least the boys showed character to attempt the comeback and avoid total humiliation. However the squad is so obviously lacking in depth and talent in defence and attack, with midfield being the only area of strength. Signings must be made or it'll be another squandered season.
We left the Emirates and headed into the city, turning up at Bodean's in Soho for some barbecue. This cheered us up and was exactly what was needed after a difficult afternoon of football. I had the Boss Hot Dog and a strawberry shake and both were incredible. Check out the size of this dog:
Yep, that's pulled pork, bacon, and cheese. Mega.
Arsenal now travel to the home of the champions Leicester City, who also suffered an opening day defeat, away to relegation-favourites Hull City. Both teams will be looking to prove a point and put their first game behind them, and I can see it being a difficult game for the Gunners. I still like our chances, especially against a Leicester side who look like they haven't solved replacing midfield cornerstone N'Golo Kanté quite yet. The Foxes look vulnerable and Arsenal must capitalize on this and take their chances. We did the double against Leicester last season so let's hope we can continue our winning ways, even if they are the defending champions.
Thanks for reading.