By Liam Twomey at Emirates Stadium
Football matches – particularly big football matches – are often sold as clashes of individuals. It makes for a more compelling, personal narrative. In many cases it makes sense, and in some it’s just plain easier.
At the Emirates Stadium on Saturday evening it was not just Arsenal against Liverpool, it was Mesut Ozil against Luis Suarez, a duel between the marquee signing who already enjoys hero status with the Gunners and the man who we have good reason to suspect wishes he did instead.
Ultimately though, the difference between triumph and disaster is almost always the result of collective performance. In flashes both Ozil and Suarez lived up to their billings as talismanic influences on their teams, and little separated the quality of their displays. In the end, the German emerged victorious because of the superiority of his supporting cast.
Ozil has an air of Bergkamp about him. His purpose is not to control matches, but to drift in and out of proceedings, exerting influence with often understated and occasionally spectacular class. His intelligence helped Arsenal win the midfield battle and pull Liverpool’s system all over the place, but it was not the decisive contribution.
He was instead a cog in the increasingly polished and stylish machine which is Arsene Wenger’s remodelled midfield. Liverpool’s three-man defence and two-man central partnership of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson never got a grip on the Gunners’ fluid passing and movement.
Mikel Arteta broke up attacks with a minimum of fuss and set his team on the front foot time and again. Tomas Rosicky was a dynamic, tidy bundle of energy. Santi Cazorla threatened repeatedly with late runs into the penalty area and took his goal beautifully. And when his moment came, Aaron Ramsey provided further evidence to suggest the Premier League will spend another season in the thrall of a brilliant young Welshman.
Up front, Olivier Giroud delivered a masterclass in hold-up play. Though his finishing touch let him down badly in the second half, he did his best work with his back to goal, repeatedly finding his midfielders in positions to do damage. Some of his lay-offs were Ozil-esque. In defence, although the menacing Suarez was a constant threat, in the main Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker shackled the Premier League’s deadliest strike partnership with surprising ease.
Title-winning sides need outstanding individuals, and Ozil has undoubtedly brought some much-needed star quality to Arsenal. But without collective strength it is nowhere near enough. On this form and in this transitional season, Wenger will be confident his strongest XI can best any other in the country. In fact, with every passing week, the real challenge looks increasingly to keep it in condition to produce this kind of football come May.
Arsenal are already stretched beyond belief. There is no need for a plan B when plan A works as well as this, but Saturday’s bench consisted of inexperienced potential and experienced mediocrity. Wenger will of course point to Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Mathieu Flamini, Lukas Podolski and others who are still to come back, and he is right. But the test will be to ensure they are not replaced on the treatment table by more influential casualties as the matches stack up.
For Liverpool, a respectable but comprehensive defeat provides a check on the title talk which Brendan Rodgers, to his credit, always insisted was unrealistic.
His side caused Arsenal problems – particularly when Coutinho’s introduction in place of the hapless Aly Cissokho facilitated a change to a more positive formation – and Suarez has already proved he will perform superbly even if his mind and heart are longing to be elsewhere.
His partnership with Daniel Sturridge is justifiably one of the most feared in the country, but Saturday proved it cannot rescue them every time. Liverpool can harbour genuine hopes of gate-crashing the top four, but more convincing 90-minute performances are required before they can dream higher.
As things stand, Arsenal remain at the top of the league, and Ozil effortlessly continues to make a mockery of the notion that foreigners need time to adapt to the English game. What Wenger will take the greatest pleasure in, however, is that his new superstar is not the only source of pride.
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