A new season and a fresh beginning for Liverpool under experienced manager Roy Hodgson looked like it was going to get off to the perfect start at Anfield on Sunday afternoon. The usually unconvincing young striker David Ngog was at his clinical best to fire his side into the lead against fierce rivals Arsenal, an advantage which Liverpool managed to hold onto until ninety minutes had passed and extra time had arrived. The party was spoiled however when the usually-reliable Spanish shot-stopper Pepe Reina fumbled Marouane Chamakh’s shot, diverted off the post, into his own net.
Just when they looked to be banished, the demons of last season suddenly came flooding back like a dagger through the heart in time added on. Problems evident in the old command were again exposed and uncovered. Liverpool’s chronic lack of width, Ngog’s unreliability- after the youngster missed a gilt edged chance to double his side’s lead from six yards and an inability to grab three valuable points from one of the league’s top sides all spring to mind. Yet despite the late bitter blow in Hodgson’s first Premier League game as Liverpool manager there were lots of signs to suggest that things could be looking up for Kopites this season.
Despite Joe Cole receiving the first red card of his career on his Premier League debut for Liverpool just before half-time, Hodgson’s men fought hard and defended admirably to grab a point from the game. With Arsenal dominating the first-half they were expected to step up a gear in the second and make full use of their numerical advantage. However it was Liverpool who surprised the visitors and Hodgson must be given credit for rallying his troops, despite Cole’s shock sending off, and sending them out for the second-half with a new lease of life. The Gunners would have been expected to punish the home side further after the half-time oranges and Hodgson could have easily got himself on the losing side in his Anfield opener.
Former Chelsea player Cole will be bitterly disappointed for managing to get himself sent-off and could now be banned for up to three games. Despite excelling in pre-season and wasting no time in convincing his new team-mates of his talents on the field, the same old question marks remain over Cole’s inability to follow instructions. Joes Mourinho grew frustrated by the England international’s failure to follow a game plan and former manager Carlo Ancelotti cited similar reasons in refusing to renew the 28-year old’s contract at the end of last season. While the pair did not like Cole’s attacking instincts it’s obvious that Hodgson does, handing his new No.10 the free role behind Frenchman Ngog, a position he relished at West Ham. Yet a failure to make an impact on the game saw Cole chasing lost causes all over the pitch and a lack of control saw him lunge out at Arsenal’s new summer arrival Laurent Koscielny by the corner flag. Cole still has work to do if he is to prove his doubters wrong and become a hit at Anfield.
Hodgson continued to use the 4-2-3-1 system deployed by former manager Rafael Benitez against the North London side, dropping Steven Gerrard into a deep-lying position in midfield alongside the surprise inclusion of want-away star Javier Mascherano, who was occupying the defensive role. Hodgson’s inclusion of the Argentine skipper suggests he is by no means guaranteed a move away from Merseyside this summer and could yet play a major role in Liverpool’s season. Daniel Agger’s inclusion in an unfamiliar left-back role highlights Liverpool’s inability to conclude a deal for a left-sided full-back this summer and this must be a priority over the coming weeks. Meanwhile new signing Milan Jovanovic was industrious on the left, almost a carbon copy of the man occupying the right-wing Dirk Kuyt. The Reds will need more inventiveness on the wings in order to break down more stubborn sides this season but the Serbian served his purpose against the free-flowing Gunners by nullifying the rampaging Bacary Sagna at right-back.
The home side will take positives from going into the lead despite being a player short and for keeping Arsene Wenger’s side at bay for such a long period of time. Yet they will be disappointed by the equaliser and will hope the mistake will not set the tone for the rest of the season. A win with ten men would have been a dream start for Hodgson but a point gives Liverpool a platform to build from this season. There has been a number of changes at the club this summer and work still has to be done before the end of the transfer window. While Liverpool may be some way off challenging at the top this season it is difficult to read too much into the first game of the season that neither side wanted to lose. Cole’s likely ban will disrupt his settling-in period at the club and detract from this side’s efforts to become familiar with a slightly tweaked system from the previous regime. Gerrard may yet find himself back in an advanced forward role behind Spanish striker Fernando Torres who completed the last 15 minutes in another positive piece of news for Hodgson.
Liverpool showed plenty of fight and commitment for their new manager, something which was lost at times during Benitez’s final months at the club. Hodgson will take heart from knowing he has the backing of his players as they move forward together and attempt to improve on last season’s dismal campaign.