* There seems to be a misconception that thinking Arsene Wenger should leave – before now, immediately or at the end of the season – is in some way disrespectful to his past achievements or his legacy. That’s simply not true.
There will be some idiots (they helpfully have their own Youtube channel to make it easy for you) who might pour scorn on a manager whatever the weather, but the rest of Arsenal’s support can separate their immense gratitude for what Wenger has achieved from their assessment of his current and recent performance. Those past achievements should not provide carte blanche for a manager to choose when or if he has had enough; that’s simply not how elite sports work. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
It is OK to say that Wenger’s current malaise is not going to go away before he leaves, and therefore nor too is Arsenal’s. This is a show that has had more sequels than the Fast and the Furious; this is a Groundhog Day of Groundhog Days. Arsenal failed to turn up in a big away game? You’re joking. Wenger sat on the bench with his head in his hands? Well I never.
* Yet actually, Wenger managed to scrape deeper into the bottom of his barrel. Had he picked his strongest team and lost, he would have come in for serious flak. Having failed to pick his best player and continued to pick Francis Coquelin and Alex Iwobi despite evidence that one is not good enough yet and the other never will be, the scrutiny will only increase further.
Again, it’s not going away. Wenger might have spoken of his “masochism” in staying at Arsenal all these years, but it’s the supporters who currently feel as if they’re being kicked in the balls and are paying handsomely for the privilege.
* If Arsenal are infuriating because they are consistent, Liverpool are the opposite: No team in the top half has a bigger gap between their worst and best. When Jurgen Klopp’s team are good they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are rotten.
From the dirge at Leicester, another new dawn. Adam Lallana was at his pressing best, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino buzzed around the area annoying Arsenal’s defenders like wasps at a picnic and Emre Can had one of his better games.
With Manchester United dropping points against Bournemouth, Klopp could not have envisaged a better Saturday. Shame his suggestion for a six-team mini-league keeps falling on deaf ears.
* The absence of one of Arsenal’s key attacking players was bound to cause a reaction, but there were few discussing Mesut Ozil’s illness in the build-up to the game at Anfield. Not only was Alexis Sanchez left out of Arsenal’s team by Wenger, all reports indicated that he had been dropped from the team.
With Ozil absent and Arsenal facing a rival for a top-four place, do not underestimate how big a call it was for Wenger to leave out his best player on a point of principle. Sanchez had scored 33% of Arsenal’s league goals, assisted a further 23% and created 22% of their chances. It offers a serious hint that Sanchez’s relationship with Wenger and Arsenal is deteriorating.
So what now for Wenger, who has claimed all along that he would not sell Sanchez. It may not be his problem should he leave, but there is the very real possibility that his parting gift to the club will be a Europa League place and the club’s two best attacking players being sold on the cheap or leaving the following summer on a free transfer. Ouch.
* More immediately, Wenger’s team selection provoked a mixture of disbelief and curiosity. Of all the potential alternatives for this trip, no supporter thought that Sanchez would be excluded for a front two of Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud.
“We’re going with Giroud and Welbeck up front because we will need to be a bit more direct and strong in the air,” said Wenger before the game, while the rest of us pointed at the midfield and said “Yeah, but what about that?”
Wenger is regularly criticised for not trying something different, but his explanation fails to account for Sanchez’s absence. The Chilean is far better than Iwobi in the position he was picked in, and arguably the most direct player in the Premier League. He’s also bloody good.
You don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh, but look at the five players behind the striker for Arsenal (Granit Xhaka, Coquelin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi and Welbeck) in comparison with the one that Manchester United had (Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial) and Tottenham likely will have (Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen) this weekend. It just doesn’t match up.
* As Opta tweeted, Liverpool have now scored 19 goals in the opening 30 minutes of Premier League games this season, five more than any other club.
Yet dig a little deeper and you can identify a problem for Klopp – the early goals have dried up. Between January 8 and Saturday, Liverpool scored two goals in the first quarter of their league matches, and both of those came in the win over Tottenham.
Against Manchester United, Swansea, Hull, Chelsea, Leicester and the two League Cup ties against Southampton, their earliest goal from open play was in the 55th minute.
It is as if Liverpool have a fragile belief in their system, so early success breeds confidence, but failure to score early and their opponents believe they can be rattled. If that is the case, the least Arsenal should have done is put up a stern defence for the opening 15 minutes. They didn’t even get close.
* “Liverpool have been half a yard quicker all half,” said the commentator on BT Sport as the game approached the break, the biggest miscalculation since Abraham Lincoln said “Oh come on, I’ve not been to the theatre in ages. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Liverpool were five or six yards quicker than Arsenal in that first period. They trampled over Arsenal’s midfield and easily thwarted Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain in wide areas. Arsenal failed to have a single touch of the ball in the opposition penalty area while Liverpool had 13.
If Wenger truly had worked on this tactic for two weeks, Arsenal should have been organised and well-drilled. If Wenger considered it the best tactical plan, Liverpool should at least have been unnerved. Neither of those things happened.
* If you were looking for a sure sign of poor defending, look at Liverpool’s two goals in the first half. It is not just that both players were able to receive the ball unmarked less than ten yards from goal, but that both had time to take a touch, set themselves and finish their chances. At any level, that is unforgivable.
* I’m afraid I’m going to talk about Xhaka again. While Coquelin is the budget option that should never have been given this many chances to fluff his lines, Xhaka was supposed to be the answer to at least one of Arsenal’s issues. The midfielder has ended up being more problem than solution.
The thing is, and it’s hardly a technical point, Xhaka cannot tackle properly. We have seen his issues with diving into challenges, but too often he is dribbled past without offering resistance. Wenger has been keen to stress that he isn’t a tackler by nature, but Xhaka’s other attributes do not mean that those flaws can be overlooked.
This week I wrote a piece on the rise of the all-action midfielder, the player every elite club wants now high-intensity pressing is the style du jour. For £35m, you presume that is exactly what Wenger saw in Xhaka.
I simply don’t get it, sorry. Xhaka’s heat map for the first half shows a large bright area just ahead of the halfway line, but very little else. Either Wenger instructed him to be immobile, or Xhaka lacks the mobility to do the job effectively. Neither answer is particularly inspiring.
* Having attempted his power play, Wenger then swallowed his pride at half-time and introduced Sanchez. The Chilean had already received the adulation of the away support during the first half and trained alone on the pitch at half-time, and was brought on for the abject Coquelin.
The effect was instant. Sanchez demanded the ball at every opportunity and ran straight at Liverpool’s suddenly uncomfortable defenders. After 12 minutes on the pitch, his threaded pass found Danny Welbeck, who lifted the ball majestically over Simon Mignolet.
It’s almost, and bear with me here, like Arsenal played better with their most talented player on the pitch. A lesson in how to bring on a substitute who changed the course of the match and still earn no credit as a manager.
What an utterly ridiculous occasion to make a statement. A newsflash for Wenger: More fans were on Sanchez’s side than yours.
* That said, question marks over Mignolet again for Liverpool ‘s concession of a goal. On first viewing, it looked like the goalkeeper had rushed out to thwart Welbeck but then ended in no man’s land, in no position to block the shot. The replay confirmed it.
From that distance, goalkeepers have two options: Stay and make a reaction save or go and make themselves big. Mignolet went for the option of going and making himself smaller. It isn’t to be advised.
It’s also nice when a former goalkeeper (and nice man) says a similar thing:
No need for Mignolet to commit himself. Rash decision that made Welbeck's made up. Stand and he doesn't beat Mig from that angle #LIVARS
— David Preece (@davidpreece12) March 4, 2017
* I know having a favourite booking is the domain of the nerd, but any non-Arsenal supporter who didn’t openly laugh at Can’s challenge on Sanchez can have no joy in their heart.
To be beaten so easily that your only option is hanging out a leg so blatantly that you actually apologise for the challenge and accept the booking before you’ve even fouled the man is next level shithousery.
* A quick message to Klopp, and I hope I don’t need to say it again: Don’t you ever pick Lucas Leiva as a central defender over Ragnar Klavan again.
The Estonian is not perfect, and you could reasonably argue that letting Mamadou Sakho leave without signing a replacement was foolish. Yet he dealt well with Giroud and is far better in the air than Lucas. If Wenger’s “direct” plan focused on long balls forward, he will have been disappointed to see the Brazilian on the bench.
I’m at risk of stating the bleeding obvious here but, just as Wenger should pick his best player, Klopp should pick his best defenders. Easy, this manager lark.
* Liverpool merited their win, but were lucky to end the game with 11 men on the pitch. Having earned his comical yellow card for tripping Sanchez, Can then steamed into a challenge on substitute Theo Walcott. A deserved second booking would surely have made their task of holding on far harder.
Two things may have saved Can:
1) Joel Matip’s proximity to the challenge made it difficult for the referee to distinguish whether Can or Matip was the aggressor. Had the incident been clear, Can would surely have received a second booking.
2) Can went for the Paul Gascoigne FA Cup final 1991 trick of being injured to avoid being sent off. The difference with Gascoigne is that he was indeed seriously injured. Can was merely labouring the point for effect, and it worked.
* Like all things involving opinion, the enjoyment of goals is entirely subjective. Some may prefer free-kicks, others get off on thunderbastards from 35 yards, others like diving headers and some prefer overhead kicks. Personally, I’m a git for a team goal.
Liverpool’s third goal may not attract the headlines of a scorpion goal, but it was sensational. The presence of mind and pass from Lallana, the wonderful weighted cross from Divock Origi and sweeping finish from Gini Wijnaldum were all exceptional, but what made it so extraordinary was that it came in the game’s final minutes. Rather than running down the clock, Liverpool took advantage of the counter-attack and scored. And I squealed like a little piggy.
* Mane was given the Man of the Match award, but I had Lallana down as the game’s most important player. He harried and hassled Nacho Monreal on the Liverpool right, made Coquelin’s 45 minutes utterly miserable and then roamed more in the second half to fight fires across the pitch. That is an indication of Lallana’s stamina and desire to help his teammates across the line.
Liverpool’s lack of strength in depth in midfield (Lucas was the only substitute midfielder) only makes Lallana’s energy more important, because he is forced to run deep into the biggest, closest matches. Taken off to a standing ovation after 92 minutes, he again covered more ground than any other player. That statistic is becoming the standard.
Yet we should be careful of mislabelling Lallana as a runner, for that offers a hint of the headless chicken. Klopp’s greatest achievement with Lallana is giving him the intelligence to know when to play it simple on the ball, and when to ease off the press without it. When performing at his best, as against Arsenal, he has become the embodiment of Klopp’s system.