It was one of those moments when the fine lines of sport suddenly crack open into a chasm. Sadio Mané’s lashed strike to put Liverpool 4-1 up sent an electric charge of excitement through his team, his manager, his supporters.
Liverpool’s players clambered onto Jürgen Klopp, a euphoric, bundled piggyback of childlike joy. Just a few yards along the touchline, across the chasm, Arsène Wenger sat quietly in his dugout. Punctured. Behind him he must have felt the heat of angry fingers pointing.
Wenger is an eternal optimist when it comes to seeing the best in his players, hoping they will seize their opportunities and raise themselves to their highest bars instead of planning to cover worst-case scenarios. That, coupled with his reluctance to overload a squad he hopes will soon welcome back the experience of Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, formed his thinking this summer. Yet here he was, day one, confronted by complications that did not exactly appear out of thin air.
Although Arsenal recovered a sheen of respectability as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers grabbed the goals that made this appear a narrow loss rather than a hiding, the damage caused by the sight of Liverpool parading their peacock feathers, showing a strong and exciting (if not yet anywhere near defensively sound) Premier League hand, shone a light on the pressure already on Wenger. To add injury to insult his squad options frayed during the match as Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi hobbled off with hamstring and thigh strains respectively.
Arsenal have been here before with roosting chickens very much at home at the Emirates on day one of a new campaign. This time last year West Ham rocked up supposedly fragile with a 16-year-old Reece Oxford in their ranks only for Slaven Bilic’s enthusiastic band to run the show. A couple of seasons before Aston Villa, with no particular pretensions for a great time, picked off Arsenal to win 3-1. Rewinding a little further to 2011, the first home game was gifted to Liverpool in the Luis Suárez days.
Wenger might not be in any mood to panic on the back of a wild, swinging, seven goal, opening day fandango. He might argue that it does not necessarily set the tone for the campaign. After all they finished second last season after a bad start which was better than most. But the bigger picture tells the tale of an unfinished squad, a sense of perpetual juggling to try to cover vulnerabilities as best they can.
This is his team, his planning, his preparation, and the evidence on the pitch confirmed all the concerns that were obvious for most of the summer. Danny Welbeck was injured last May leaving them short up front. Per Mertesacker was operated on a few weeks ago requiring attention to a department which was exacerbated when Gabriel damaged ligaments.
After taking the lead through Theo Walcott during a comfortable enough opening, Arsenal were blitzed in a 13-minute period where Klopp’s team zipped and passed and shot and left them spellbound. All of the Liverpool goals were sensational in execution. Philippe Coutinho’s free-kick and slick flick were both superb. Adam Lallana and Mané finished with aplomb. Georginio Wijnaldum impressed linking the midfield core to a more creative zone. Klopp could be glad with the mixture of talent that eked out some startling moments involving the old and the new, even though he noted there was still considerable improvement to be found in terms of tactical compactness. Liverpool, still a work in progress, managed stunning moments.
Observing that had the effect of salt in Arsenal wounds. It was always likely to be a challenging afternoon with the youth of debutant Rob Holding and Chambers paired together for the first time at this level at centre-half. Wenger absolved them of too much blame. But the other end of the pitch was also under the microscope with Arsenal winging it with Alexis Sánchez scampering at centre-forward. He did not have the most productive game. A cursory glance at the transfer market speaks volumes for how difficult it is to buy a striker ready to wreak havoc on the Premier League but to be shuffling the pack and hoping for a good hand is an obvious gamble on day one of the season. Dissent has been aired and protests have bubbled periodically in the past few seasons, and the air of disappointment just seemed tiresomely familiar. One fan unfolded a piece of home printed A4, the standard these days for messages of discontent, which simply read: “Where’s our money?”
It is a fair enough question. While Wenger is entitled to point out that there is more to sporting attainment than spending power, as Leicester so beautifully proved last season, the accusation that Arsenal have not used all their resources to give themselves the best possible chance is a difficult one to defend. Again.
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