Argentina skipper shielded the defence superbly to allow Gerrard to roam
By Wayne Veysey | Chief correspondent
There was great respect and genuine warmth from the Liverpool fans when Javier Mascherano left the field 12 minutes before the end of a dramatic curtain-raiser to the new season.
Exhausted after missing most of pre-season, the Argentina skipper had nonetheless put in another of those magnificently spiky, over-my-dead-body displays that he tends to save for the big occasions.
He had not allowed his leaving of Liverpool to affect his commitment or hunger to defend the back five as if his life depended on it.
Mascherano’s hounding of Arsenal’s nimble ball players who, Samir Nasri apart, were forced into submission, allowed Steven Gerrard to play central midfield like he wants to play central midfield.
The Liverpool skipper was magnificent, spraying 60-yard passes and expertly linking defence and attack when his team had 11 men, and then retreating 20 yards and allowing Arsenal no room for manoeuvre when Joe Cole was correctly sent off for a reckless tackle.
That is the good news for Roy Hodgson. The flip side of the coin is that a performance which deserved victory but only yielded a single point will lead him to ponder: ‘How on earth do I replicate this when Mascherano rides off into the sunset?’
Liverpool were fortunate that they were effectively lining up against Arsenal’s second-choice midfield trio. If fit, Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song would certainly have been involved and probably Denilson too.
That should take nothing away from the vibrancy and zest of a Liverpool midfield that seemed to spend most of last season in mourning for Xabi Alonso.
Credit to Hodgson for deploying five attack-minded players against a genuine title challenger. His predecessor Rafael Benitez always plumped for two screening midfielders and Gerrard in the second striker position against the big guns.
Joe Cole’s arrival has given the former Fulham boss greater tactical options in the centre even if, in spite of an encouraging debut from Milan Jovanovic and standard relentless Dirk Kuyt outing, his team appear short of quality in the wide midfield positions.
If Barcelona (who admittedly all but ruled themselves out over the weekend) or Inter come up with the money required to entice Mascherano – and it is believed that Liverpool will not settle for anything less than £25m for a player regarded as one of the best in the world in his position – where does that leave Hodgson’s firefighting permutations?
Christian Poulsen’s arrival from Juventus suggests that Liverpool do not anticipate the Argentine will be staying beyond the August transfer window. Given the state of the finances at Anfield – and who knows how long the process of selling the club could take – spending £4.5m on a 30-year-old holding midfielder when the club already have two battle-hardened regulars in the position would seem a luxury too far.
So, if Poulsen is a quasi like-for-like replacement for Mascherano, that would perhaps leave him battling it out for Lucas to partner Gerrard at home as part of the 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 formation that looks likely to be even more de rigeur at Anfield following the World Cup.
Regular Hodgson watchers will know that, like Benitez before him, he comes up with different ways of skinning a cat on his travels.
It will be no surprise if Poulsen and Lucas are used to screen the back four, with Gerrard pushed further forward in the hole between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines.
That might leave Cole pushed out wide or warming the bench, especially if he throws himself into more of the kind of ill-judged interventions that he attempted on his Premier League debut for the Merseysiders.
Where Alberto Aquilani is left in this tactical conundrum is hard to say. If Cole is an enigma, then the Italian is a riddle. It was one that Benitez was unable to solve as question marks over the player’s fitness and capability of adjusting to the demands of the Premier League blighted a forgettable campaign in which he showed only glimpses of his undoubted ability in the Europa League or against weaker domestic opponents.
Hodgson might view Aquilani as a flourish too far, like a pair of designer shoes that are just not practicial enough to wear for all occasions. The graveyard of the Europa League group stages could be his best hope of regular action. Or, perhaps, Hodgson sees the Italian as a bona fide alternative to Cole.
It appears that his chances of playing in a deeper role are no higher under the new Liverpool manager than the old.
The problem for Hodgson is that he knows Mascherano, despite having no problems with Liverpool Football Club, wants to leave England. The former Fulham boss has already deduced after two weeks working with “a top quality player – one of the best in the world at his job” that he is irreplaceable, but no official offer has been forthcoming.
He is in no-man’s land and cannot effectively plan until he knows where the pugnacious Argentine’s future lies. Although two individual errors that are unlikely to be repeated were the only genuine sour points, the vastly experienced Hodgson could be just one sale away from another messy situation.
One thing is for sure, he can't afford to let his Masch slip.