Anything Tuesday could do, Wednesday could do better. Manchester United and Newcastle United might have treated us to an absorbing 3-3 draw, but 24 hours later Liverpool and Arsenal stepped up the quality. The first half was as good as anything in the Premier League this season. In the second, Steven Caulker played up front!
Actually, anything Tuesday could do, Wednesday did exactly the same. A Welsh international, scoring for the home team. In the last minute. To make it 3-3. For Newcastle’s Paul Dummett, read Liverpool’s Joe Allen. Cue a million ‘Welsh Xavi’ memes.
Just as at St James’ Park, fans of competent defending should look away now. “You don’t mind bad defending when it makes the game this enjoyable,” said Steve McManaman at half-time, but one would think Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger might feel slightly differently. For Liverpool’s opener, Arsenal were twice guilty, Theo Walcott was tackled while attempting to dribble out of his own box and Petr Cech failed to parry the resultant shot far enough from goal to thwart the danger. For their second, Arsenal squandered possession three times in ten seconds in their own half. Klopp’s pressing strategy in action.
Klopp will consider the opposition scoring direct from a corner once in a week to be galling, but twice is enough to give him a hernia. Simon Mignolet’s agent might be leaking news of a possible new five-year deal for his client, but he should give Liverpool’s hierarchy a couple of days to cool down. The Belgian was also beaten at his near post for Arsenal’s first equaliser. Klopp might be advised to be a little more accommodating of those Marc-Andre Ter Stegen rumours that he keeps batting away.
Yet focusing on defending feels miserable when the attacking was so sumptuous, like looking out over the Grand Canyon and moaning about the clouds. The Premier League may not have individual players good enough to win Ballon d’Or trophies, but the two days following Monday’s ceremony have provided explanation enough for our head-over-heels addiction to this product. The first 20 minutes was played at a pace that could not be sustained, and it wasn’t; it just got faster.
For Arsenal, Olivier Giroud continued his reputation as a striker never at home in the middle ground. His touch, turn and finish for his second goal was magnificent, yet he still contrived to miss from 12 inches. There may never be an answer as to his real level, and even less likely to be an agreement.
If Giroud’s goal record (11 in his last 11 away games) has been consistent, the rise of Joel Campbell has been startling. Wenger made the point of praising the Costa Rican in the build-up to Wednesday’s game, and Campbell did not disappoint. His reverse pass to set up Giroud’s spurned chance was majestic, but it is Campbell’s composure that has improved most. He may not yet get into Arsenal’s first-choice XI when all are fit, but a) that has almost never been a reality, and b) Campbell is now ahead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the queue by almost every measure.
If neither Giroud or Campbell deserved to be on the losing side, Roberto Firmino had a similarly watertight case. Such is the lack of patience with new signings that some Liverpool supporters had already begun to write off the Brazilian as a waste of money at £28m. This was proof that, at his maximum, no Liverpool attacking player can rival him.
It was not simply the splendour of Firmino’s second goal – although I could watch it on loop from now until Sunday – but the way his effervescence rubbed off on those around him. As the diagram (courtesy of Opta) shows, with Lallana as the nominal false nine, Firmino was able to drift all over the pitch. Often isolated in his forward role, Klopp may have found a solution.
No player on the pitch had more shots or shots on target, but it was the unmeasurables on which the Brazilian shone. Dropping into space to receive the ball, backheeling it to a team-mate in order to relieve the pressure, using his first touch not just to control the ball but also create valuable time to pick the best pass. These are the traits that made Firmino such hot property at Hoffenheim.
This season, Liverpool have performed at their peak against the Premier League’s best – 3-1 against Chelsea, 4-1 against Manchester City, 3-3 against Arsenal. If Liverpool under Klopp are to be a big-game club, Firmino is their big-game player. His league goals have come against Manchester City and Arsenal, his assists against Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester. Consistency is the key to long-term success, but magnificence in the moment is the secret to entertainment. Firmino promises to be box office.
“The frustration comes from at 3-2 we had three situations when we could have made it 4-2 but made bad decisions,” said Wenger after the match, but – with Manchester City also dropping points – this was not a night for disappointment to rule. When the tempo is this high and the atmosphere this electric, we can all be happy.