The class and composure shown in the dominant display against West Brom at Anfield was nowhere to be found on Saturday night at the Emirates, with Liverpool left badly exposed as Arsenal eased to a 2-0 victory. Problems that have lingered were once again highlighted, and there's a point at which something has to give for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool. This isn't the apocalypse, but there are changes that need to be made, and soon if Liverpool are going to sustain a challenge of any sort this season.
Arsenal 2: Cazorla 19', Ramsey 59'
A late scratch for Glen Johnson due to illness meant that Liverpool's eleven had to change from last weekend, but rather than slide Jordan Henderson back or bring Martin Kelly in, Brendan Rodgers opted to go with Jon Flanagan, who last appeared in the starting lineup 18 months ago. The rest ostensibly remained the same, with Philippe Coutinho on a deep-seeming bench that also included Victor Moses, Joe Allen, Daniel Agger, and Raheem Sterling.
Only things weren't really the same at all. This wasn't West Brom at Anfield, and this wasn't the same type of energetic performance we got last weekend. Henderson's early chance, which he created with smart pressing and immediately pushing forward, proved the exception rather than the rule, and the scuffed left-footed effort that rolled harmlessly into Wojciech Szczesny's arms was as good as it got for Liverpool in the first half.
Not so for the hosts, who went ahead just before the twenty-minute mark on a Santi Cazorla strike. With Liverpool caught forward, Bacary Sagna got down the right flank, and his cross met an unmarked Cazorla, who headed off the post. The rebound fell perfectly for the diminutive Spaniard, leaving him plenty of time and space to ease it past a helpless Simon Mignolet. No less than four Liverpool players were at fault, with Aly Cissokho beaten badly, neither of Lucas nor Steven Gerrard tracking Cazorla, and Mamadou Sakho a spectator some twenty yards out of position.
It could have been level shortly after, however, as a quick free-kick taken by Luis Suarez found a streaking Daniel Sturridge, who rolled across the face of goal for Henderson to slide in. Martin Atkinson's incompetence made it worthless, unfortunately, as play was called back so he could make a spectacle of booking Sagna for his bear hug on Suarez. Like so much of what Atkinson does, it was wrong, plain and simple, and while it wouldn't have likely changed the outcome, it certainly hurt any semblance of momentum Liverpool could have mustered.
Rodgers' decision to bring on Coutinho at the half inspired the visitors briefly, with the Brazilian largely operating from the left, but when their spell of pressure ended, Arsenal struck again, this time through Aaron Ramsey. The amazing form of the Welsh midfielder continued as he slid through a hapless Liverpool midfield to the edge of the opposition penalty area, gathered possession and composed himself before unleashing an unstoppable half-volley to polish off the win.
Sturridge later made a hash of a cross from Henderson, who'd shifted to right wingback with the introduction of Victor Moses, and Suarez came closest when he came on to a heavy Sturridge touch to blast a deflected effort low off the post. For all the talk of their impressive partnership, the most notable interaction between the two strikers came in the dying moments, when a clearly frustrated Sturridge flailed in disappointment as Suarez missed one of the final chances of the match.
There was no other outcome than an Arsenal win today--they were the better side in all facets of the game, impressing both with and without the ball. They executed flawlessly at times, and any time Liverpool looked to get a foothold, they managed to turn their guests away and reassert their position on top. There's a reason they're league leaders at this point, and on today's evidence their standing is well deserved.
What's so disappointing is that we had thought Liverpool's was as well. This was the first true test for Brendan Rodgers' squad this season, and they failed to impress with their effort or application. It was a limp display at times, one you'd expect from a side that apparently knew they were facing opposition that was simply better than they were. We had wondered how Liverpool could compete with very good opposition, and now we have our answer.
That answer's applicable so long as things remain the same, leaving Rodgers with some difficult and, once again, potentially season-defining choices to make. Liverpool were static and overrun in the midfield, lacking any energy or or observable effort throughout, and they had no forward-thinking presence until the introduction of Philippe Coutinho, who still has a ways to go before he's at full fitness.
Against Fulham next weekend would seem a good opportunity for the manager to implement necessary changes, but against sides of lesser quality the concerns aren't nearly as noticeable, which lends itself to maintaining the status quo. With four teams in the top seven left for Liverpool before the end of the calendar year, that can't happen, especially if they want to enter 2014 with a chance at challenging for the top four.