By their very nature, debuts tend to be landmark occasions. The novelty factor at Anfield went beyond a sprinkling of new faces, however: none had the chance to ease themselves into their new surroundings on an afternoon of unforeseen events that revolved around the newcomers. Roy Hodgson and Joe Cole, Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny may forget this game, but it is unlikely to be soon.
In the eventual appraisal, Hodgson may have acquitted himself the best, despite the unkind setback Arsenal’s late leveller provided. He has located Liverpool’s spirit, which seemed lost when they surrendered tamely to Chelsea in their last league outing at Anfield, and injected his own tactical nous. Denied victory, Hodgson’s astute deployment of his 10 men in the second half nevertheless suggested he has been able to implement his ideas quickly.
Yet it was his marquee signing who left Liverpool depleted. On his two Anfield appearances, Cole can be described in those twin two clichés, hero and villain. The broader picture is that they are neither triumph nor disaster, but they are wildly different nonetheless. Rapturously received against Rabotnicki, he was man of the match. Otherwise undistinguished in his Premier League bow against Arsenal, he was sent off.
A feature of Cole’s cameo was his willingness to tackle, augmenting Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano’s efforts in the midfield. It was less admirable when his bid to block Koscielny’s clearance left the Frenchman writhing in agony. The Liverpool captain had likened his team-mate to Lionel Messi, but presumably he wasn’t referring to the Barcelona player’s dismissal on his debut for Argentina; this was an unwanted echo.
”He is not the guy who goes in for blood-curdling tackles,” said Hodgson. ”He was a little bit unlucky. He didn’t dive in front of the player, he dived in front of the ball to try and stop it being played down the line.”
The position of the challenge, near the corner flag, explains Arsene Wenger’s habitual inability to witness the incident, but he may form part of the case for the defence. ”Joe Cole is usually a fair player,” he said. ”He is not one who likes to hurt people. He kicked him accidentally but well. Koscielny had a big knock on his shin, we were scared it might be broken.”
It was not, which permitted the central defender to complete a rare double: stretchered off in one half, sent off in the other. A second booking arrived in injury time for handball, resulting in his exit and absence against Blackpool on Saturday.
By then, the other import from French football had made his impact. Chamakh may prove the target man Arsenal have lacked; for 89 minutes it was not evident as the uncompromising Jamie Carragher provided a forceful introduction to English football. Then the Moroccan rose above Jose Reina, forcing the ball against the woodwork, before it went in when the unfortunate goalkeeper failed to hold on to the ball.
In his manager’s mind, Chamakh is off the mark. ”He shows as well by scoring the goal – you don’t agree with me that he scores the goal? – that he is not afraid to put his head and body in,” said Wenger. Sadly for Chamakh, few agreed with his interpretation of events: it is an own goal.
Liverpool had led. Immediately after half-time, Javier Mascherano’s pass set David Ngog clear. The man who, to his detractors, isn’t Fernando Torres, finished like the World Cup winner. It was a curate’s egg of a performance from Ngog – he spent much of the first half straying offside – but one that nevertheless contained evidence of the potential that brought him to Anfield. When Torres belatedly entered the game, the standing ovation, for once, could have been aimed at both men. That said, and while not as culpable as Reina, there was a suspicion that Manuel Almunia could have done better as the Frenchman’s shot flew past him.
A memorable win appeared on the cards. Backs-against-the-wall efforts can seem to suit such characters as Carragher while Mascherano seemed intent on compensating for Liverpool’s one-man deficit on his own. Then came Arsenal’s late riposte. ”To lose it so close to the end was harsh on us,” said Hodgson. ”We got a deserved equaliser,” countered Wenger.
Whichever, it meant both sides sustained patterns from last season. Late goals were the bane of Liverpool’s lives last season and the reason Arsenal remained in the title race for as long as they did. The faces have changed, but the habits remain.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Javier Mascherano – ”One of the best in the world at his job,” said Hodgson. On this evidence, it was hard to disagree. Relentlessly competitive, snapping into challenges and covering plenty of ground, it was hard to reconcile the Argentine’s performance with his stated desire to leave. ”The fact is we want to keep him here,” added his manager. ”We will keep him here unless an offer comes along that is correct, commensurate with his value. At the moment it’s not there, not even on the horizon. If these clubs are so interested, it would be nice if they contacted Liverpool.”
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Until Reina’s late mistake, the spine of the side were excellent: the goalkeeper made several fine saves, Carragher and Martin Skrtel defended with great determination and Mascherano formed a formidable partnership with Gerrard. When Torres is fully fit, that may bode well. Yet it was less auspicious that they spent much of the first half on the back foot when Arsenal’s passing was slicker.
ARSENAL VERDICT: The arrivals of Theo Walcott and Rosicky were reasons for the comeback, with each making his mark. Nonetheless, with Robin van Persie only appearing for the final quarter of an hour and Cesc Fabregas absent altogether, the feeling persisted that their hopes rest with the two talismen. Koscielny’s suspension heightens the need for defensive replacements in the next fortnight.