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Arsenal 08/20/11: Efficiency

You don’t go from a top side to an average one overnight.

Much has been said about Arsenal’s depleted squad, but just think for a moment about RVP’s capability to produce random moments of genius, Arshavin’s 4-goal haul, Walcott’s terrifying run to set up Adebayor. Thomas Vermaelen had a cracking game matching up to the underwhelming Andy Carroll and Wojciech Szczesny will clearly be a top-class goalkeeper (and there will come a time when I won’t need to look him up on Wikipedia every time I write about him). The Emirates is not an easy stadium to go to by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, and I almost forgot about Samir Nasri (no, I’m not a closet Gunner).

This was no swashbuckling performance in the class of our 4-0 demolition of Madrid, 4-1 of United and many other breathtakingly ruthless dispatches towards the tail-end of the 08-09 season (yes, here I am again, reliving my Rafa memories). Nor was it a depressing show a la our 0-3 reverse against City last year (we all have our fair share of Woy’s woes). This was somewhere in between. Yet, the result was as ruthless as United’s dismantling of Arsenal’s Invincibles at Old Trafford and as rock-solid and impenetrable as Mourinho’s Chelsea: you also have to add in the Fat Lady’s blessings to complete the whole picture.

Of course, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. I would be singing a different tune had Suarez and Meireles not had enough time to freshen things up from the bench, had Frimpong not been walking a fine line all match, had Miquel’s clearance not ricocheted off Aaron Ramsey. But besides our luck lining up nicely, this was a believably efficient performance.

Without Suarez, there wasn’t much of the pass-and-move football on show in the first half against Sunderland last week, but rather plenty of long balls hauled up to our man mountain (who should start learning how to be less of a mountain and more of a mobile striker). But with Dirk Kuyt running his rainboots off (his immense run to take the ball off…Nasri, was it? was phenomenal) and Lucas destroying plays as destroyers are wont to do, and with Martin Kelly fully justifying Fabio Cappello’s post-match praise, JC and Dagger gobbling up most Arsenal attacks (and the latter making some fine runs of his own), and new-kid-on-the-block Enrique dominating Theo Walcott – we controlled the midfield and were beyond comfortable at the back. Make no mistake: Arsenal didn’t get played off the park at all, but we were good enough, efficient enough.

Even after we managed to get an Emirates-sized monkey off our back, we’re still taking flak from all sides and quarters on how we didn’t tear apart a depleted Arsenal as full-strength United and Chelsea sides oh-so-definitely would. Well, we’re formulating a new side and integrating new signings into our lineups. And without our captain and our erstwhile first-choice right back, we’re not at our full strength yet, either. We won’t go from an average side (over the last couple of seasons, we Liverpool fans have to admit we’ve been average) to a top one overnight. But we’re adding a certain efficiency to our game.

I experienced a new and strange feeling when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle on Saturday. A strange, anti-climactic feeling at a frankly average attacking display, but a new, refreshing feeling that only comes from winning on the back of a not-so-good performance. At last, it seems we’ve gotten that winning mentality in our systems. Took us long enough.

Sunderland 08/13/11: The Proverbial Game of Two Halves

So. This marks my first official foray into football journalism, if I am qualified to call it that. The alternative name would just be rambling about the team that I follow like a madman week in, week out. Either way, it’s the start of my new project, one that I’ll be keeping up with every week this football season. Very ambitious.

Just like the project that’s going on at the magnificently-sponsored Etihad Stadium, whose bloated coffers are bringing in a terrifyingly effective Sergio Aguero. Or our own Kenny Dalglish’s project here at Anfield. Oh, didn’t you see that coming.

Speaking of which, you know what Luis Suarez didn’t see coming? Kieran Richardson’s tug from behind on 5 minutes. And what Kieran Richardson didn’t see coming? A yellow card instead of a red for a professional foul. And what I didn’t see coming? All the above, plus El Sua’s talent for emulating Steven Gerrard at shooting down clay pigeons from the pitch. Pssst, Luis, that ad was not entirely real.

Let me go off on a tangent here and posit this thoughtful question: why was Charlie Adam not in charge of that penalty kick? I presume he was brought here for his dead ball skills, and a penalty kick is a dead ball situation. The (variable) pecking order for PKs should be Gerrard, Kuyt, Adam. I still hold fond memories of the tail-end of the 08-09 season, where we seemed to score within the opening 10 minutes in every single match. When we got that PK in the 5th minute, I had a brief, pleasant sense of déjà vu. Alas.

Well, I suppose notching the first goal on 11” kind of makes up for that. Mr. Deadball doing what he does best, being in charge of dead balls, and Mr. Suarez picking up those great little pockets of space. A great combination. Of course, we would go on to see plenty of good combination plays and confident, flowing football in the first half, which was a pleasant surprise, given the minimal amount of time that these players have had together. We saw Stewart Downing slalom his way from the halfway line and hit the bar. A couple of decent long-range hits from Charlie Adam. Good link-up play between Downing and Jose Enrique. Quick, assured passing from the midfield.

And then half-time happened. Somewhere in that dressing room, some memories, collective and individual, were lost. We forgot that we were playing at Anfield, not the Stadium of Light. John Flanagan forgot that he has a far more accomplished predecessor (Martin Kelly) and an England international (Glen Johnson) in front of him at right-back. Jordan Henderson forgot that he is a ways away from being the big-game, consistent workhorse that is Dirk Kuyt. Stewart Downing forgot that his main job as a winger, be it left or right, is not to disappear from the match entirely. Andy Carroll forgot that he was capable of producing such great finishes as the one that got chalked off in the first half. Or, God forbid, Kenny Dalglish forgot all of the above.

Now, I recognize that Kenny is widely regarded as our best ever player, and that our last league title came under him. I think it’s an appropriate time to announce that I only truly started following us when Rafa Benitez came in. I am a huge Rafa fan. To me, just like Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish will need to prove himself as manager. He’s had us produce some scintillating stuff at times, but if we are ever going to get back in the top four, we need to reproduce that on a weekly basis. There will come a time when I comment on his transfer policy, not in the least because the new guys have only had so much time together.

But our season opener, while offering plenty of good moments in the first half, showed our Mr. Hyde in the second. Without European football this season, there will be no escaping the spotlight. We will need, and we are looking forward to, more of the same, Kenny. Just please make it the pass-and-move from the first half, not the non-existent second.