Pre-game nerves, lingering doubts over top four credentials, residual post transfer deadline blues, concerns over squad strength, fears of being overrun in midfield, pessimistic predictions of an “inevitable” slide down the league, were all cleansed from the minds of Liverpool supporters within 54 seconds of kick-off at Anfield on Saturday, along with Arsenal’s hopes of remaining atop the Premier League for another weekend.
The moment that Luis Suarez stole in behind Per Mertesacker to nick possession after Aly Cissokho’s long throw, the omens appeared to be good – Suarez’s nimble mind and matching feet too quick for the giant German, who could do nothing but concede an early free-kick. LFC fans rubbed their hands with glee, this was Gerrard territory, and held a long breath in anticipation. The Captain did not disappoint, his unerring delivery just begging to be turned home, and so it was by Marin Skrtel. 1-0 Liverpool, 54 seconds gone.
(Gerrard has long been hailed for his set piece delivery, but this season his quality from dead balls has risen almost immeasurably, and in particular his delivery from slightly deeper, wide free-kicks is a bonafide weapon which Liverpool are exploiting to great effect.)
What followed Skrtel’s opener was, quite simply, the finest first half of football ever witnessed; one that will go down in the annals of Premier League history as just that.
Arsenal, the league leaders, and in possession of the best midfield in the Premier League (on paper certainly), were completely thrown out of their stride by the speed and agression of Liverpool’s pressing game. Coutinho, Henderson and Sterling led the way, but every man in red was sharper, hungrier and quicker to the ball than his opposite number.
Martin Skrtel powered home a header from another Gerrard delivery (this time a corner), arching his thumping effort majestically into the top corner, beyond the despairing leap of Oxlade Chamberlain on the line. The corner, a result of Jon Flanagan’s effort having been saved by Szczesny, at the end of a free flowing move which originated from a thumping tackle by Liverpool’s other fullback, Aly Cissokho. Cissokho’s honesty and hard work is beginning to win over the Anfield crowd after a frosty initial period, and the former French international is improving with every game he plays.
Liverpool’s third came after just sixteen minutes, however it’s no exaggeration to say that by the time it did arrive, it could’ve been the Reds’ fifth. Phillipe Coutinho, tenacious, aggressive but yet fantastically skilful and in possession of velvet boots, combined deliciously with Suarez to put Daniel Sturridge through on Szczesny, a chance which the striker skewed wide. Almost immediately afterwards, another Gerrard corner found Suarez on the edge of the box. He took one touch, and unleashed a 25yard volley that rattled the post with such ferocity and velocity, that Szczesny was left waiting for a postcard. The rebound fell to Kolo Toure who steered it wide, with the goal gaping.
Raheem Sterling it was who supplied the third goal for Liverpool, another move born out of the home side’s agressive pressing. Jordan Henderson hustled the hugely disappointing Mesut Özil off the ball, and carried the it forwards before releasing Suarez, whose low cross was perfectly angled and weighted for Sterling (who’d sprinted flat out to get to the far post) to tap home ahead of Sturridge.
Two minutes later it was four, and again Coutinho was involved. This time, the Brazilian pilfered the ball thirty yards from his own goal, before releasing a perfect throughball for Daniel Sturridge (already on his way), to race onto and calmly slot past Szczesny, low into the bottom corner.
Liverpool 4 – 0 Arsenal, inside twenty minutes! Anfield in raptures, and the expressions on Arsenal faces said it all. Bemusement, shock, surprise, disbelief, even despair. The Gunners simply blown away! That Arsenal arrived as league leaders, having won eight and drawn two of their last ten, had been rendered an irrelevance, along with Wenger’s men’s impressive defensive record (just four goals conceded in their previous ten games in all competitions), as the Reds swashbuckled and rampaged their way to the fastest 4-0 lead in Premier League history.
The rest of the first half settled into a pattern of deep Arsenal defending, brought about by sheer, unadulterated terror, until the the whistle finally sounded brief respite for the eviscerated Gunners.
Raheem Sterling added a fifth for Liverpool early in the second half, as he sprung the North Londoners faulty offside trap yet again, to race clear and slide past the a beleaguered Szczesny at the second attempt. Suarez, who’d revelled in his more creative role, came oh so close to getting on the scoresheet; first from a 30yard free-kick which Szczesny did brilliantly to claw out from underneath the angle of post and bar, and then after combining with Sterling, before slotting home- only for Sterling to be correctly flagged offside.
(At this stage, Raheem Sterling will be singled out for praise. Unlucky not to complete his hat-trick in the second half, the nineteen year old was the stand-out player on a pitch resplendent with international talent. Since his return to the starting line up, he has been a revelation. His pace, trickery, work rate, strength and movement, make him a real worry for any defender. His performances are improving with every game, and as his confidence has grown, so has his level of consistency, now seeing him regularly weigh in with assists and goals.)
Arteta grabbed a morsel of consolation, coolly chipping home from the spot, after Steven Gerrard’s botched tackle on Oxlade Chamberlain had seen Michael Oliver point to the spot. That the Arsenal fans cheered the goal like it was a match winner, went a long way to illustrating the utter dominance which Liverpool had displayed on the day; Jack Wilshere’s petulance and indiscipline in defeat, crystallising that sense still further.
A watershed moment then: for Liverpool Football Club, whose fans can say with certainty that their team is back amongst the Premier League elite. For Brendan Rodgers, whose detractors, and there have been a vocal few, no longer have sticks with which to beat him. Resounding victories in big games against rivals such as Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal have seen to that. And for Arsenal? Who knows? It’s historically true, that this is the month when recent seasons have fallen apart, and with a daunting fixture list ahead, they’ve gotten off to the worst possible start. Their fate is in their own hands however, they are still in the argument, albeit slightly quieter now.
Signing off with stats.
Liverpool remain unbeaten I.A.C. this calendar year.
Liverpool have the top two goal scorers in the Premier League: Suarez 24, Sturridge 15.
Coutinho has the most completed through-balls in the Premier League: 12. Suarez 11.
Liverpool have scored the most goals from set pieces in the Premier League: 23
Liverpool have scored ten more 1st half goals than any other Premier League team: 40
Liverpool have hit the woodwork five more times than any other PL team: 19