Following a tepid opening day performance against Sunderland, Liverpool was hopeful that an improved showing against an Arsenal side in disarray would provide an early season boost to its goal of Champions League qualification.
The biggest news before the match was the interesting selection decisions made by both Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish and his Arsenal counterpart, Arsene Wenger.
Dalglish made a straightforward swap at right back with last week’s starter Jon Flanagan moved to the bench in favor of Martin Kelly. However, while Dirk Kuyt was rumored to be in line for a return to the starting lineup, it was at the expense of Luis Suarez, not Jordan Henderson as some expected. The decision to bench Suarez, worn down by a busy summer playing for Uruguay in the Copa America, was one that should have been made before the Sunderland opener in which Suarez visibly burned out midway through the match.
On the other bench, Wenger had several key decisions to make with his Arsenal side ravaged by injuries, suspensions, and want-away players. Wenger shifted veteran right back Barcary Sagna to the left, allowing youngster Carl Jenkinson to fill in at his natural right back position.
The real surprise came in the form of Wenger’s decision to include star playmaker Samir Nasri in the starting lineup. Nasri, whose contract expires at the end of the season, has spent the summer trying to push through a move to rival Manchester City and had yet to feature for Arsenal until today, where a dearth of available bodies may have forced Wenger to include the French midfielder.
The match started with Liverpool playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with striker Andy Carroll playing in front of the extremely fluid attacking trio of Stewart Downing, Henderson, and Kuyt. Charlie Adam and Lucas remained at the heart of midfield, providing cover for a back four consisting of last week’s starters in Daniel Agger, Jaime Carragher, and Jose Enrique joining the aforementioned Kelly. As always, Pepe Reina was the final line of defense between the posts.
While the entire first half was played at a high energy level, with both the home and away sides feeling capable of earning a victory, neither team developed a solid plan of attack.
Liverpool did little to quell fears that they have turned into a one-man act built around Suarez, as without the electric attacker the Reds quickly fell into a pattern of smashing the ball at towering striker Carroll at the expense of the fluid football they displayed last season. Neither Henderson nor Downing provided much threat in the final third. Downing sent in a great deal of crosses directed at Carroll but, aside from a low cross in the fifth minute which Kuyt could have flicked towards goal, none provided a real opportunity. Henderson continued to look lost as his move from right wing to the center of the park led to an equally anonymous performance.
Meanwhile, Arsenal seemed content to counterattack at pace after forcing a Liverpool turnover. Playing a 4-3-3 formation, the Gunners spent most of the match attacking down the flanks and hoping to put balls into the box. This failed to provide much of a threat as lone striker and captain, Robin van Persie was eaten up by the able Carragher-Agger defensive duo and left winger Andrei Arshavin continued to extract a chorus of groans from the Arsenal faithful. With their only attacking outlet being right winger Theo Walcott, Arsenal became very predictable and Liverpool’s Enrique was content to allow the speedster space down the touchline before closing Walcott down whenever he ventured into a dangerous position.
The two biggest moments in the first half centered around Arsenal’s young midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong and center back Laurent Koscielny. In the eighth minute Frimpong was finally granted his wish of a yellow card. After several rash tackles in the opening minutes, Frimpong held Henderson from taking a quick throw and forced match official Martin Atkinson into action. Seven minutes later, Carroll gave Koscielny a very slight nudge in the back when contesting a ball in the air. Although he immediately carried on, Koscielny soon suffered from back spasms and had to be substituted for 19-year-old Ignasi Miquel. While both Frimpong and Miquel had largely positive performances, they would both play key roles in handing Liverpool its first win of the year.
Arsenal started off brighter in the second half as it dominated possession in the opening 15 minutes, but both sides continued their futile attack plans with Carroll and Walcott overworked for Liverpool and Arsenal, respectively.
However, the major catalyst of Arsenal’s demise came in the 70th minute, when Frimpong succeeded in getting ejected from the match, earning a second yellow card for a late, studs up lunge into Lucas. At the same time, Suarez and Raul Meireles entered the game for Kuyt and Carroll, immediately altering proceedings. Carroll played a strong game with what he was asked to do, but the inclusion of Suarez meant that Liverpool actually attempted to get back to its pass-and-move roots, which served it so well last season.
The breakthrough came in the 78th, when Suarez knocked the ball to the feet of Meireles just outside the box and continued his own run past Miquel and into the area. Despite Meireles dwelling on the ball for too long, his return pass to an offside Suarez caused Miquel’s clearance attempt to strike teammate Aaron Ramsey and float over Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny into the net.
The ice being broken, Liverpool played keep away from the Gunners for much of the remainder of the match. The Reds were not done quite yet, as in the 90th minute Lucas, who had a superb game constantly pinning Arsenal in its own half, played Meireles into space on the right corner of the box with a beautifully weighted ball. With Szczesny caught in no man’s land between goal and ball, Meireles slotted the ball across the face of goal to an open Suarez, who deftly tapped the ball into the net.
Two goals created by the energy and smart passing of Suarez and Meireles, last year’s key man, brought back a reminder of how Liverpool is capable of playing the flowing, attacking football not yet seen this season.
Although the performance was disappointing against an Arsenal side fielding what amounted to a mixture of starters and reserves, Liverpool supporters will be ecstatic at the Reds’ first ever win at the Emirates Stadium and will be hoping to see improvement next Saturday when Bolton travels to Anfield.