* In December 2014, Gary Neville previewed Manchester United’s game against Liverpool as the “Dog & Duck vs The Red Lion”, such was the perceived lack of quality on either team. On Friday evening, probably the busiest night of the year so far for licensed premises, we got a proper pub match. It was fantastic.
Beautiful football is a wonderful thing to watch, and Manchester City’s masterpieces this season have been a joy. Yet football does not need to seek perfection to entertain. There is just as much fun to be found in error-ridden farce as fine-tuned excellence. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nothing is as entertaining as very good footballers playing very badly.
The farce element of the match reached a crescendo five minutes before half-time, when Laurent Koscielny slipped over and allowed Mohamed Salah to run through on goal. He spurned his chance and hit the shot straight at Petr Cech, but the ball ballooned to Sadio Mane. Rather than bringing it down and placing a measured shot into the corner, he went for an acrobatic scissor kick which went over the bar. It was piping hot mess and glorious madness combined.
That said, a lot of the readers of these conclusions will be supporters of either team, and I can completely understand if you didn’t think anything about that game was fun. Incompetence and self-inflicted farce is a lot more enjoyable as a neutral, and Arsenal and Liverpool fans would be forgiven for screaming long into the night. Both of these teams are capable of wonderful intricacy and yet are let down by the basics of their games. It’s a very odd dichotomy.
* Still, what else did we expect of these two bonkers clubs, who are as prone to falling into chaos as they are rising to the occasion? What would you expect with two of the most unpredictable defences and potentially fabulous attacks? What would you expect of two clubs whose flaws mean they could never be title challengers but whose qualities mean they will likely take the fight for a top-four place down to the wire?
Just look at the teamsheets, for goodness sake. Salah, Mane, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil vs Cech, Simon Mignolet, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan, Koscielny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Top-heavy doesn’t even come close.
And yet it goes beyond the individuals, and into the systems and mindsets. Both Liverpool and Arsenal are so excellent to watch because they are the antidote to what we have come to fear from the Premier League’s biggest matches. Their flaws make defensive pragmatism a foolhardy scenario, and so both play a form of basketball football where each team takes it in turn to attack.
The one constant theme of Friday’s match, a ludicrous 90 minutes, was that both teams constantly played as if they were 2-0 down with 12 minutes to go. And yet the score was only 2-0 for 48 seconds.
* Even considering such madcap standards, this was extreme. For Liverpool to have been so utterly dominant until the point they scored their second goal and yet conceded three times in 388 seconds after Salah’s finish was unthinkable. For Arsenal to then continue to leave such open spaces in midfield despite having the lead and having witnessed what Liverpool would do if they did was laughable.
If you’re wondering what happened to game management, Klopp spent the second half screaming and then laughing maniacally as if captivated with both how spectacular and spectacularly infuriating his side are. Wenger rocked back and forth with his hands together as if praying to avoid another humbling.
To repeat, again: this was rip-roaring fun.
* For a club that has had their transfer policy roundly mocked in recent years, Arsenal were congratulated for their capture of Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer in the summer. He was considered an upgrade on Nacho Monreal in that position, and came from the Bundesliga with a glowing reputation.
Most importantly, Kolasinac looked ready for the Premier League. His was a style that appeared perfect for purpose, physically intimidating and possessing speed and stamina. Wenger described him in August as Arsenal’s strongest player, while Theo Walcott referred to him as an absolute animal. He became a cult hero almost instantly.
Four months later, and Kolasinac is no longer in Arsenal’s first team. The Bosnian was interviewed in the build-up to Friday’s game on how he intended to stop Salah, but at no point did he discuss sitting on the bench as a strategy of avoiding the battle.
Instead, Wenger chose to start 20-year-old Maitland-Niles at left-back. The change in formation from three central defenders to two appears to have taken Kolasinac as collateral damage.
Reading out the team – Monreal centre-back, Maitland-Niles left-back, Kolasinac on the bench – it did jar. The young left-back was exposed on multiple occasions, and all three Liverpool goals started with moves down his side. But it’s not his fault, and hopefully he will be better for the experience.
The odd element to this is that Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player and yet it is Hector Bellerin on the right who has been Arsenal’s worst-performing full-back or wing-back this season. Kolasinac would be forgiven for being royally p*ssed off.
* The game started with both teams sharing the ineptitude. Over the first 20 minutes, Koscielny’s – what has happened to him? – pass completion was 53.8% while Emre Can managed 66.7%. They were not the only guilty parties, but both statistics sum up proceedings. Passes went astray or were sent down the channels in search of wide forwards, as if both team realised the danger of over-committing, but it was scrappy.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, it was Liverpool who clicked out of the malaise first while their hosts slumped further into disarray. The first signs of trouble came with Andrew Robertson surging forward from left-back and attempting crosses without any Arsenal player bothering to stop him. Robertson’s first two deliveries were overhit and easily claimed by Cech, but his third found Firmino at the back post and his header was turned behind for a corner.
As is customary, Arsenal failed to learn their lesson and a Coutinho cross soon again found Firmino. This time his header went just wide.
* Liverpool did not have to wait long for the opening goal. There is a narrative that Klopp’s team are the Premier League fast starters, but the reality is actually a little more nuanced.
Liverpool have only scored one goal in the first 15 minutes of league matches (as a comparison, Leicester have scored six). Opposition teams are aware of their threat, and so play with caution in the first period of the game.
Then, after 15 minutes have been survived without conceding, that opponent starts to grow in confidence and commit men forward. That is when Liverpool strike. They have scored 32% of their goals within the 15-minute period between the 16th and 30th minute, far more than any other team in the division.
* Arsenal fell into exactly the same trap, and this was primarily a goal borne out of defensive error. Monreal strode out of defence but then lost the ball, which left Maitland-Niles in an advanced position and exposed. Salah anticipated the run far quicker than the left-back, and James Milner played an excellent pass through to the Egyptian.
That wasn’t the last error. The television replay showed Coutinho’s run from the centre circle and into the penalty area, and he was tracked by Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka. Yet both seemed to be affected by an invisible forcefield that made them slow down and allow Coutinho to stand in five yards of space in the penalty area.
The deflection on Salah’s cross was obviously slightly unfortunate, but you make your own luck. Arsenal barely deserved anything other than Coutinho nodding the ball over Cech. It was a deft header, and Coutinho’s first in the Premier League not scored with his feet.
* From then until the 388 seconds of madness, Arsenal looked beaten. The home crowd booed them off at half-time and groaned in unison when Salah danced his way through their defence to score the second. We were near mutiny again.
These are the moments when you lose faith in every promise made by Wenger and the club about continuity and challenging for trophies, when their capable footballers struggle to kick the ball in a straight line and lose all of their shape as if beset by The Fear.
Wenger’s tactics do not help. The best thing about getting rid of the three-man central defence is that it allowed for extra central midfield protection for the defence. Wenger instead took away a defender and added an attacker. To leave the struggling Xhaka with Wilshere – who likes to roam forward – and a merry band of attackers in front of them is asking your team to be counter-attacked. Liverpool were happy to oblige.
If the retort to that conundrum is that Wenger does not trust Francis Coquelin or Mohamed Elneny enough to do the job and so has no other options, they should not be at Arsenal and Wenger should have bought adequate replacements. If Xhaka in this form is your best option as a holding midfielder, your options are not fit for purpose. Sorry.
* Yet Arsenal did respond, which either proves that they haven’t yet completely lost faith or that Liverpool make things so embarrassingly easy for an opposition attack that it would be impossible not to accept such gifts.
The cliche is that you are most vulnerable immediately after scoring, but both of these teams are able to allow chances on their own goal at any moment of any game. Bellerin’s cross was curled into the box, and Sanchez was the only player on either side who bothered to attack the ball. 1-2.
The immediate response clearly spurred Arsenal on, but again it’s impossible not to shift the focus onto the defending. Ever since collapsing against Bournemouth in December 2016, there has been a suspicion that Liverpool have periods of near-total incompetence in them. The first 15 minutes against Tottenham and the last 40 minutes against Sevilla are more recent examples, and this was another.
It is what the Guardian’s Barney Ronay coined as anti-defending, as if the pitch is suddenly being played on a slant. Liverpool cannot keep the ball from rolling towards their own goal, and their defenders have been spun around 40 times until they are dizzy.
It points at either a lack of psychological strength or a shared lack of technical quality. The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
* Oh Simon, what are we to do? Klopp is a manager who is less ruthless than most when it comes to keeping faith in out-of-form players, but Mignolet is not out of form. He just isn’t a good enough goalkeeper.
There is no aspect of his game – perhaps bar penalty-saving – that is good enough for what Liverpool need. Klopp signed Loris Karius to be Mignolet’s replacement, and the Belgian is fortunate that Karius is also of insufficient quality. He was given a second (or is it third?) chance, but crucially did not earn it.
If it sounds harsh to identify a weakness, what else are we expected to do? Nobody tries to make mistakes, but when you are holding up one arm to stop a shot that is moving in the air but basically straight at you, questions must be asked. For all the issues in central defence, Liverpool desperately need a new goalkeeper. This was the final straw; seasons change on such moments.
* And talking of goalkeepers takes us to Cech. If Liverpool showed off their anti-defending, Cech demonstrated the perfect non-save for Liverpool’s equaliser. As many Arsenal fans will tell you he is also unfit for purpose, although slightly less spectacularly than Mignolet.
Again, this is a self-inflicted wound. Petr Cech will turn 36 before the end of the season. Of all the players to start ten or more Premier League games so far this season, he is the fourth oldest, and his form has been questioned for some time.
David Ospina is only 29 but has been abject for both club and country over a period of almost two years. Third-choice goalkeeper Matt Macey has played 19 senior games by the age of 23, has played twice for Arsenal and is out of contract next June.
So at least Arsenal didn’t sell a goalkeeper to Juventus for him to replace Gianluigi Buffon for a cut-price fee of £10m, then.
* Had you been told eight months ago that one of Arsenal’s two star attacking players running down their contracts would be turning in lethargic performances and being dispossessed too easily while the other was carrying the attack in his shoulders, you would surely have guessed incorrectly. Sanchez may have scored against Liverpool, but he was dismal again. The motivation has gone.
Sanchez lost possession 27 times despite only touching the ball on 63 occasions. Too often now, the final pass is astray and followed by an act of frustration. Wenger continues to claim that Sanchez is putting a shift in in training, but the matchday evidence is damning. They really should have sold him in the summer and reinvested the money on players that wanted to be there.
Ozil, meanwhile, is performing above expectation, demanding the ball when his team is under pressure yet with the composure to clip the ball over Mignolet. That is the type of insouciance we have come to expect from Ozil. The worry if that if he doesn’t play well, Arsenal’s attack stumbles.
* For all Liverpool’s attacking brilliance, this was another game in which they should have killed off the opposition and paid the price for their profligacy. The difference between their front four and Manchester City’s is that City generally make the best decisions to maximise the chances of scoring; Liverpool don’t. It is as if they get complacent about taking chances because they know another will be along soon.
Against Arsenal, Mane was again the most wasteful and is going through a pretty rough patch. Yet Salah also missed a one-on-one and several other presentable chances, while Firmino was also guilty.
It isn’t just the chances missed by strikers, but the overloaded counter-attacks that end because of a poor touch or over-hit pass that allows defenders to get back and thwart the opportunity. Fine tune this attack, and Liverpool will be out of sight before their defence has a chance to undermine all progress.
* It’s easy to forget given how early he went off injured and how much happened afterwards, but this was another horrible night for Jordan Henderson, who injured his hamstring and will probably be out for at least another few weeks.
This is becoming a worrying trend for Liverpool’s captain, particularly ahead of the World Cup. Since the start of 2015/16, Henderson has missed 48 Liverpool games through various injuries, and will surely comfortably pass the 50 mark over the Christmas period.
At what point does Klopp lose faith in the fitness when the form isn’t special either? When Naby Keita arrives, perhaps…
* Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been the big story this week, albeit one that involved the adaptation of Wenger’s quotes in order to make headlines. In the end, this supposed main actor was left far away from centre stage.
For all his progress in recent games, as Klopp has rotated his side, it must have stung Oxlade-Chamberlain to be left out against his former team. Wenger did point out to his former employee that he was not guaranteed a start at Liverpool just as he hadn’t been at Arsenal, but sitting on the bench as your current and former teammates run around and make madness with gay abandon is a more cutting reminder.
* After the dust settles, and it will take a while, Klopp will be deeply frustrated that his team were again forced to settle for one point in a game that they should have had three. Add the two points dropped in a similar situation against Everton (albeit a totally different type of game), and Liverpool would sit in the driving seat for a top-four place. They have lost fewer times in the league than every team but Manchester City; the draws will come back to haunt them.
For Arsenal, surely more backward steps than forward. They have won one of their last five league games – a laboured 1-0 victory over Newcastle United – and again look prone to collapse more often than is reasonable for a team with top-four aspirations. It isn’t exactly a leap to envisage no players arriving in January and Wenger left making excuses as they fall short again. Merry Christmas!