Only Arsenal could dream of dedicating a page of their match programme to league tables based on what would happen if the division was determined by either first or second halves. Surprisingly enough, Arsène Wenger's chameleons do not fare well in the "first half" table. Even prior to another frightful opening 45 minutes at home against Liverpool, they stuttered in 12th position. As for the "second half" table that was a radical improvement. They lay in second spot, just a couple of points behind Manchester City.
Talk about making a virtue out of a vice. Doubtless the intentions were good, designed to show how spirited the team are at forcing comebacks. But it was that first-half table that seemed pertinent as a catalogue of calamities invited Luis Suárez to grab an early lead for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers' team were entitled to wonder how they did not go in at the break with a more handsome advantage, given the combination of their own energy and verve with Arsenal's neurotic tendency to self-destruct.
"The goals we conceded show we were nervous at the back," said Wenger. "We didn't give a big security." That's one way of putting it, although some of the supporters had rather fruitier expressions on the tip of their tongues. Both goals conceded here – and Jordan Henderson was able to bulldoze his way through a cluster of players before flicking in Liverpool's second – would have been perfect material for a demonstration to children about how not to defend. In keeping with Wenger's socialist model, the errors were shared amid an air of collective cock-up.
This nervousness is a terrible affliction, and the manager does not really give a convincing answer about how to cure it. This was the fifth successive time that Arsenal have gone behind in the Premier League. Wenger feels the disadvantages they could not claw back against Chelsea and Manchester City have had a lasting psychological effect. "The recent history has an impact on the way we started the game. We have to get that out of our minds," Wenger mused.
Liverpool were only too delighted to capitalise and for an hour they excelled, demonstrating a menacing blend of strength and guile. Suárez was positioned wide left, with Henderson giving the visitors an extra man in central midfield. The balance encouraged Rodgers. But he could empathise with the nature of Arsenal's struggles, as he name-checked his own recent experiences when Liverpool started stodgily against Manchester United, Tottenham and Oldham and found it too difficult to claw themselves back.
Rodgers felt this match represented a barometer of how his team are improving. "My overriding emotion is of real pride," he said. "We played Arsenal earlier on in the season and we were outplayed. I always thought this would be a benchmark." The Liverpool manager is optimistic about the young players he is incorporating into his squad. He was lavish in his praise of Henderson and Daniel Sturridge and enthused about the qualities he expects of Philippe Coutinho, the new arrival from Internazionale.
"I love players that can make the difference at the top end of the field," he said. "Coutinho is a young player with experience, so he can play straight away. It's a real coup for us." Tom Ince remains on the radar but is unlikely to arrive in this window.
Unless Wenger pulls a wholly unexpected rabbit or two out of the hat, it looks as though Arsenal will continue to be a baffling blend of defensive nervousness and attacking vibrancy. Their second-half response demonstrated yet another example of how exciting they can be with the wind in their sails. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott were both influential and together they have scored eight goals in the last three games. The scale of Walcott's development is a real plus point for Arsenal and another excellent all-round display was watched by Roy Hodgson. "He is a man now when he plays football," said Wenger of Walcott.
Only the manager and his staff are privy to this but it must be an eye-opener to see attack versus defence when Arsenal are training. The contrast between the two aspects of their game remains startling.