Liverpool's strikers outshone as Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey show what Arsenal's midfield can do
Who needs strikers anyway? This match was billed both as a test of Arsenal's worthiness as Premier League frontrunners and also as a rather pointed public examination of Arsène Wenger's enduring tactical puritanism: a team with a glut, a debauchery even, of soft-shoed midfield creators up against the most fluent attacking duo currently operating in the Premier League. If this was the case then by the end there was only one winner.
Arsenal's midfield scored twice in the opening hour through Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey to set up a 2-0 win, both goals beautifully executed and created by a decisive movement from the right flank. For all their endeavour, the first real effort at goal by a Liverpool striker came in the 69th minute, by which stage the match had been decided by Arsenal's fluency and – yes, that too – tenacity in the middle.
Before kick-off there was a crackle of unusually boisterous excitement around the Emirates on an evening given an extra sheen of event glamour by those brilliant white floodlights, and by the fact Chelsea's defeat at Newcastle had transformed this into a meeting of the Premier League's top two. If Liverpool's fate here was always likely to be in the hands of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, scorers of 14 of their 17 league goals, then it is in orthodox, striker-shaped attack that Arsenal are presumed to be at their weakest. Wenger has tried to buy both Sturridge and Suárez on at least one occasion. Here his backup to Olivier Giroud amounted to: a) Nicklas Bendtner, and b) we'll think of something.
Of course, this is in part born out of tactical preference. Arsenal's resources have been deployed not to plug holes or diversify into their weaknesses but instead to feed their strengths, above all that revolving fluency in midfield. With this in mind Cazorla's opening goal might almost have been designed in a Saturday Wenger-ism workshop. It came via Bacary Sagna's run and cross, finished with a moment of supreme technique.
First the shortest man on the pitch headed against the left-hand post; then he reacted quickest to spank the bouncing ball – with both feet off the ground – back across goal and into the corner. Message from the management: no strikers were involved in the making of this goal.
Cazorla continued to roam between the lines from left to right as Arsenal's attacking midfield trio pressed up against a Liverpool back-line that often looked uncomfortable trying to play the Brendan Rodgers way. At times with the ball at his feet Martin Skrtel, in particular, resembles a nightclub bouncer trying to tap dance.
Behind Arsenal's attacking umbrella Mikel Arteta was superbly disciplined, getting close to Suárez when he dropped deep and doing a good job reading the movements of a player who is in effect a one-man footballing improv act, his effectiveness based around being able to think, spin, twist and generally react quicker in moments where the game is there to be played off the cuff.
It was the threat of Sturridge-Suárez that created the first real chance of the game as Arsenal's defence parted like a pair of theatrical curtains in response to both strikers roaming wide, allowing Jordan Henderson a clear run on goal. Never mind running from his knees. Being able to run with the ball at all – backwards, on his hands – would have been enough. Instead Henderson stumbled and scuffed a shot wide, an obvious blemish on an always willing performance.
After which in the first half Liverpool resembled what they are – a work in progress – and even at times what they are in their worst moments: two high-class strikers, a venerable captain and some other people. After the break Rodgers drew a little more from his team by bringing on Philippe Coutinho, his own highly gifted deep-lying attacker, but just before the hour it was midfield two, strikers nil as Ramsey scored the second.
It was another dreamily executed all-midfield affair, Ramsey taking Mesut Özil's pass and allowing the ball to bounce twice before half-volleying past Simon Mignolet. Poor defending perhaps, but the product too of a threat that comes on days like this from so many angles that the idea of a striking partnership starts to look a little reductively old hat.
Özil, Ramsey and Olivier Giroud are now joint-top of the Premier League assists table (with four), while Ramsey has 11 goals for the season, the same as his combined tally for the previous three.
Arsenal may have a torrid-looking run of fixtures ahead but it is clear where their strengths lie; and also hard too not to feel a little seduced by the boldness of this renascent Wengerball machine, a team that, by accident or design, will continue to play to their fluid central strengths.