There are a few words or phrases to describe just how hapless Arsenal was at Anfield on Sunday. Calamitous is certainly one. Listless and clueless are two others. “Wenger Out” might be the most prevalent. None of them quite do the performance justice.
Liverpool, to be clear, was superb. It smashed the Gunners 4-0 with a performance that deserves every bit as much praise as Arsenal’s deserves criticism. The Reds were overbearing, intelligent and entertaining. But it was difficult to ignore just how miserable the visitors were.
The misery has become part of the Arsene Wenger cycle. Stage one is underachievement. Stage two is the absolute disaster – for example, Sunday. Stage three is the calls for Wenger’s ousting. Stage four is the miraculous turnaround that saves his job.
Stage four occurred last spring. Wenger switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation that saved Arsenal’s season. But despite underlying metrics that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the 3-4-2-1, despite the small sample size, and despite the three-month offseason that gave opponents endless opportunity to dissect Wenger’s new system, the under-fire boss stuck to it. He did little to improve the squad. And guess what? We’re back to stage one.
And now stage two. Sunday was pitiful. Mesut Ozil was lifeless. Alexis Sanchez was understandably off the pace in his first start since the Confederations Cup. Both are on the last years of their contracts, and the 4-0 defeat surely gave them, and Arsenal, food for thought. The transfer window closes in five days.
But those two were far from the bulk of the grand problem. Liverpool ran circles around an out-of-place Aaron Ramsey and an overwhelmed Granit Xhaka. There was no togetherness in Arsenal’s 11. There was no clear plan. Liverpool was rampant, and the Gunners offered little resistance.
Blame for the first goal fell primarily on the shoulders of Xhaka. He picked up the ball from Petr Cech in his own half, and played a chipped pass out to Hector Bellerin near the touchline. It was weak. It was high-risk, low-reward. It was flat-out stupid.
It was picked off by Joe Gomez, whose eventual in-swinging cross found Roberto Firmino gliding in between Arsenal defenders:
As the NBC broadcast pointed out at halftime, the detached nature of the Arsenal team was laughable. Aaron Ramsey, the other “central midfielder,” was having a discussion with somebody on the bench while Xhaka tried to play the ball forward. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had his back turned too. Nobody was on the same page.
Wenger had clearly instructed Ozil to drop deep into Ramsey’s place at times to initiate attacking moves. That could be why Ramsey was pushed up so high on the right. It wasn’t the only time he found himself in that position during the first half. But a fluid attacking structure demands some control over the game. At the very least, it requires a central midfielder to not attempt a foolish pass in his own defensive third when half of his teammates aren’t even ready to build from the back. Or maybe Cech was at fault for the quick re-start. Either way, the complete lack of understanding within the team led to disaster.
Ramsey was pulled off at halftime – Wenger’s attempt to reshuffle a midfield that could hardly have been worse – but not before his lack of presence in the middle cost Arsenal a second goal. Gomez cut out an Ozil pass on the left side of the penalty area. He played inside to Georginio Winjaldum, who easily spun away from Xhaka’s poor effort to close him down.
But the bigger problem was that Xhaka was isolated against two Liverpool players in midfield. There was an utter lack of protection on the counter. The lack of conviction in Oxlade-Chamberlain’s recovery run didn’t help either. Liverpool broke, and Sadio Mane finished expertly, around Cech and into the far corner.
Things got worse for Arsenal after halftime. The Gunners came out with a new alignment and some new life, but couldn’t get the goal to bring themselves back into the game. One poor Bellerin touch sent them careening to an embarrassing defeat:
Daniel Sturridge added a knife-twisting fourth for Liverpool with 13 minutes remaining. Anfield was in full voice as the hosts toyed with their opponents. The victory was as convincing as victories over fellow top-six sides get.
It was also as telling as they get. It is OK to be wary of overreactions three weeks into a season. But we have seen this before from Wenger’s Arsenal. This kind of underperformance is not ever-present in North London. But it’s nothing new.
There is no point in calling for Wenger’s firing, because the French manager signed a two-year contract extension after last season. And one defeat – even two, considering last week’s loss at Stoke – is not, in a vacuum, grounds for a firing. But it’s just another iteration of the Wenger cycle, a cycle that will likely keep flowing as long as he is in charge.
Analytics told us that Arsenal had fallen well off the pace of the top six last year, so much so that “big five” might have been a more apt description for the Premier League’s top tier than “big six.” And through three games of the 2017-18 campaign, the modified conception of the league hierarchy remains pertinent. At worst, Arsenal has sunk to new depths. At best, it appears not much has changed.
After all, over the past decade, not much ever does at Arsenal.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.