Arsene Wenger’s dressing room presence is usually one of almost zen-like calm. Adversity is met with the placid reiteration of a distinct philosophy. Whatever circumstance Arsenal find themselves in, the mantra remains the same: if we play our own game, we will triumph. Yesterday afternoon, that ideology was placed under threat by an insipid first-half performance which ignored and undermined all the values Arsene has taught his team.
It is when irked that the manager reaps the advantage of having so often kept his powder dry: when his temper is disturbed, it is all the more explosive. Whilst Arsene was coy about the contents of his team-talk, skipper Cesc Fabregas was very honest about the events that took place inside the away dressing room at half-time:
“The boss screamed at us. I’ve never seen him like that before. He was really disappointed in the first half and said we didn’t deserve to wear the Arsenal shirt if we played like that. And I think he was right.”
The effect that Wenger’s outburst had on his team speaks volumes about both the players’ respect for the manager, and his ability to pick the appropriate moment to unleash what I believe is technically called a ‘bollocking’.
Arsenal were lucky to go in at half-time just 1-0 down. Fernando Torres had spurned a very presentable chance from a lightening counter-attack, and Steven Gerrard had been denied a clear penalty when blocked off by William Gallas. Karma, perhaps.
When Liverpool did take the lead it was due to another error from Manuel Almunia, who is having a torrid season. Fabio Aurelio’s free-kick was too high for Lucas, but the Brazilian’s presence obviously threw the ‘keeper, who instead of simply catching the ball palmed it gently to the feet of Dirt Kuyt, who prodded in an opener. I’ve long been a fan and defender of Almunia but his increasing unreliability, particularly on crosses, is making that difficult.
Liverpool had been first to every 50-50, with Javier Mascherano leading the fight. An injury to the holding midfielder, as well as Arsene’s fury, seemed to turn the tide: when Arsenal came out for the second half, they looked a different team.
Alex Song and Denilson, sloppy and one-paced in the first half, were the defensive pillars of a vastly improved midfield display. Thomas Vermaelen held things together at the back and would ultimately be named man of the match, but it was our improved efforts in the final third that made the difference. In the first half, we simply hadn’t looked like scoring. In the second, the front three of Walcott, Nasri and Arshavin buzzed into life, with Cesc Fabregas supplying the ammunition.
All four players combined for our equaliser. Arshavin collected the ball with his back to goal before turning it into Cesc’s path. The Catalan creator played an instantaneous pass out to Nasri on the right, whilst Walcott burst in to the middle. Nasri’s cross was aimed towards the number 14, but took two deflections on the way, finally trickling in to the net off a wrong-footed Glen Johnson.
If Johnson looked a little confused by our first goal, our second had him seeing stars. The England-right back failed to control another Nasri cross from the right, and up popped Andrey Arshavin, taking one touch inside Johnson before launching an unstoppable effort than cannoned in off the post. Arsene revealed after the game that Arshavin has barely trained this week due to an injury to that foot – if it’d been healthy, he probably would have broken the frame of the goal.
It was a goal fit to win the game, and the Russian’s eighth in sixteen starts this season. Whilst his performances can often contain elements of both the sublime and the ridiculous, there is no-one else in our squad capable of producing such exhilarating (and, crucially, match-winning) contributions. Anfield must be sick of the sight of him.
Just a fortnight after we were being written out of the title race, the hacks are furiously revising their scripts. What the turnaround in our fortunes shows is that it is too early to write any of the big sides off – with, of course, the exception of a flailing Liverpool. The side we beat yesterday are not a patch on the Liverpool of last season, and will struggle to qualify for the Champions League.
We, on the other hand, ought to be revitalised by this victory. We’ve shown we can come from behind and win on one of England’s greatest stages, which makes a nice change from our usual habit of taking the lead and then chucking it away. In midweek we face Burnley. Win there and hopes will rise yet further.
There is a long, long way to go. Yesterday ensures that, at least for a while, it’s going to remain interesting.