* “Fighting football, not serenity football, that is what I like.”
The words uttered by Jurgen Klopp in November 2013 have never felt more apt. Ahead of a Champions League meeting with Arsenal, the then-Borussia Dortmund manager was asked to compare his management style to that of one of his coaching idols.
“He likes having the ball, playing football, passes… it’s like an orchestra,” he said. “But it is a silent song. I like heavy metal more. I always want it loud.”
On Sunday, Klopp was bellowing while Wenger whispered meekly. Arsenal had the passes, 30 more of them than Liverpool, but their silent song was no match for the hosts’ heavy metal. Liverpool swept aside their visitors in a display of power, pace, skill and complete and utter mastery. These two sides were separated by a mere point in May; the Champions League club ruthlessly exposed the gulf in class over the Europa League side just three months later.
* “In this moment it is Simon one, Loris two and Wardy three. That is not a decision for the next 20 years.”
Nor for the next two weeks. Jurgen Klopp, speaking on the eve of this Premier League season, had placed his faith firmly in the hands of Simon Mignolet. Perhaps the shock that the Belgian had not subsequently dropped that faith caused a panic in the manager’s mind.
Klopp would explain the decision to omit Mignolet, who had performed well in the club’s first four games of the season, from the matchday squad completely as a simple “rest”. Ahead of an international break in which the Belgian will be consigned to the bench behind Thibaut Courtois, he was surely thankful.
That his replacement, Loris Karius, was Liverpool’s worst player despite keeping a clean sheet is testament to an incredible team display. Karius had a number of uncertain moments throughout, and would perhaps rather have been forced to make an actual save, but was proactive from corners and punched the danger clear, which will have done Gary Neville’s mood no favours.
But to negatively critique any Liverpool player’s performance is to actively look for faults in an almost perfect meal. Klopp handed Karius the gloves as a confidence boost, and a first Premier League clean sheet since November should encourage the 24-year-old.
* Not content with another manager potentially carving out their own reputation for confusing team selections, Wenger excelled himself minutes later. The Liverpool reaction to Klopp dropping Mignolet was one of bafflement; the Arsenal reaction when Wenger revealed his hand was one of resignation.
With Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac both losing their places, Arsenal’s starting line-up had a distinctly familiar feel. This exact same group of players had underachieved to such a substantial degree last season, yet were unfathomably being rewarded with a start at Anfield.
Wenger explained Lacazette’s omission as part of “an adaptation period”, but dropping Kolasinac was perplexing. Rob Holding was reinstated to the starting line-up despite the manager himself admitting that the centre-half lost his place against Stoke because he “had lost a little bit of confidence” in the 4-3 defeat to Leicester.
Wenger spared him a tough time at the hands of Jese Rodriguez last week, but threw him to the wolves of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino at Anfield. If his confidence took a hit against Leicester, being tormented for 90 minutes here ought to have sapped it completely.
* The decision to bring in Holding, who has admittedly made strides in his development since debuting in this same fixture – a 4-3 defeat – last season, was not immediately exposed as mindless. Liverpool commanded possession in the opening stages, but provided little in terms of attacking intent.
It was actually Arsenal who would create the game’s first opportunity. Jordan Henderson was robbed in possession, and Alexis Sanchez played Danny Welbeck in on goal. With all the balance and poise of a drunk reindeer on ice, the forward skied his effort over the bar. If only they had a £46million striker in reserve.
Welbeck had the fewest touches of any starter (32), including both keepers. He did not manage another shot. He not only completed fewer passes than Karius (24), but the Liverpool goalkeeper attempted more passes into the opposition half. He was abysmal.
Had Welbeck or Holding performed well with Arsenal’s two summer signings on the bench, Wenger would have been lauded. But they were two of the worst performers of a wretched lot. There is a fine line between genius and insanity; Wenger decided to cross it while murmuring unintelligibly with his pants on his head.
* Liverpool started to find their groove after ten minutes, and their first opportunity was created by the afternoon’s two best players. Emre Can and Roberto Firmino combined well down the left-hand side, but Mohamed Salah inexplicably failed to convert from six yards. Petr Cech, to his credit, saved well.
For three years on Merseyside, Can has been a riddle of a midfielder. His goalscoring record is average at best, he is a not a wonderful tackler, and his strength is not in the pass. But at Anfield, the German was excellent. He dominated the Arsenal midfield like a father who had grown tired of his infant son dawdling in possession. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey were left on the ground in a heap, throwing a tantrum as Can continually enacted the equivalent of rolling the ball towards the net before kneeling down and heading it over the line. He made them look stupid.
Can was involved in three of Liverpool’s goals, gained possession on more occasions than any other player in red (9), and received a huge standing ovation upon his removal with six minutes remaining. The early signs suggest this could be the standout season of his career so far. There is a reason Juventus want him after all.
* For every hero there is a villain. As commanding as Can’s performance was, Xhaka’s was laughable.
The 24-year-old was signed to add steel to an otherwise flimsy Arsenal midfield, but provided nothing but a meek white flag in the face of a Liverpool whirlwind. No visiting player can emerge from this thrashing with credit, but then only one was held as the solution to a long-standing problem.
Xhaka did not make a single tackle throughout, was bypassed on more occasions than a malfunctioning heart, and offered absolutely nothing in defence, nor going forward. In one instance just before half-time, he played a 10-yard pass out of play under absolutely no pressure, before being booked for an earlier incident. His career in north London had been replayed in microcosm.
Perhaps this is a harsh assessment of Xhaka. He has already provided five assists in just three games this season; it is just an unfortunate coincidence that three of those assists have been for the opposition. Liverpool’s opening goal came as a result of Xhaka’s carelessness, and Firmino converted within seconds as a result.
* It is not often that icing is applied to the cake well before it is finished, but that is the only appropriate way to describe Firmino’s opener. The forward put in a sumptuous performance, capped off with his 17th-minute header.
The conversation surrounding Anfield currently is of the importance of their Brazilian playmaker, but Philippe Coutinho is nowhere near as influential to Liverpool’s play as his compatriot. Firmino is at the centre of every Liverpool attack, the artist weaving the paintbrush across his canvas, the orchestrator arranging a flowing piece of music.
Klopp has something of a reputation for making bizarre, offbeat comments during his press conferences, but he summed up his most important player with unerring accuracy in midweek. Firmino, the foil to more obvious threats in Mane, Salah and Coutinho, really might be “the most underestimated player in world football”.
* Firmino is the artist, but Mane is the palette. Liverpool’s top goalscorer of last season has started this campaign in the same vein, with goals in each of the club’s first three league games.
Since Mane joined last summer, Liverpool have scored 82 goals in the 33 games he has started, compared to 25 goals in the 18 games he has not started. They have lost just three times with him in the starting line-up, failing to score on just two occasions. As Daniel Storey states: ‘No Liverpool fan was thinking of Philippe Coutinho on Sunday.’
* Of all the words available, “ideal” would have been at the bottom of most people’s lists. Wenger had been asked about the situation Arsenal faced, with the contracts of a number of their first-team players expiring next summer.
“I think it’s an ideal situation. Everybody has to perform,” he said. Sunday provided proof to the contrary. Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were uninspiring – although it has to be said that the latter cannot possibly be scapegoated on this occasion. The German was desperately poor, but his second-half booking for a crunching late challenge displayed the sort of “fight” that his critics are adamant is lacking.
As for Sanchez, Wenger’s gamble looks in imminent danger. The Chilean was bright for the opening ten minutes, but largely disinterested thereafter. His manager has often spoken of the difficulty in substituting Sanchez. He was not taken off in his first seven games of last season; he hardly batted an eyelid when he was removed after an hour at Anfield.
“When you’re a football player you want to go out and play and do as well as you can. What does that have to do with the length of your contract?” Wenger said in the summer. With four days of the transfer window remaining, and Arsenal taking rapid backwards steps, Wenger really might have misjudged this situation. This may not be the only game in which Sanchez’s desire to leave outweighs his professional nature.
* Of course, playing Sanchez from the start was an easy decision. A player of his calibre can only rarely be consigned to the bench, even having only just recovered from injury. Wenger’s blind faith led him to believe that a typically explosive performance was in the offing.
But the call to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continues the manager’s transparent attempts to get a player who is halfway through the exit door to stay. Nick Miller noted on Twitter that ‘shoe-horning Oxlade-Chamberlain into the team/trying to get him to stay is like a man buying his wife flowers after ignoring her for years’. A more fitting analogy you will not find.
Wenger stated his intention to “build around” Oxlade-Chamberlain earlier in the week, adding that he wants the player to sign a new contract because he has a “responsibility for the future of this club”. It is never nice to see a performance as detached as the 24-year-old’s on Sunday, but this is a result of the mixed messages sent out by his manager. Zero tackles and zero chances created for a wing-back are not the kind of statistics that will encourage more interest from Antonio Conte, but for Wenger to believe that Oxlade-Chamberlain owes the Gunners anything is foolish.
With three men in the starting line-up whose futures are under considerable doubt, Wenger cannot possibly feign surprise at a collectively apathetic display. The players do not want to be there; the manager shouldn’t be.
* Klopp will have been frustrated by the furore of his changing of goalkeepers causing an unnecessary sideshow. He could easily have started without one, and given Daniel Sturridge the game time instead.
To his credit, Sturridge maximised the chance he was given. A 74th-minute substitute, the striker rounded off the scoring from a delightful Salah cross to open his account for the season. It took until December for the striker to score his first Premier League goal last campaign.
There will always be doubts as to whether the 27-year-old can acclimatise to a role on the bench more often than not, but Klopp has at least offered a glimpse of hope this season. The German has been open to rotation, and if Sturridge continues to take the opportunities he is given, he will be duly rewarded.
* Can was a delight to watch, but Liverpool’s other two midfielders also had much-needed positive afternoons. Doubts have been expressed over the triumvirate of Can, Henderson and Wijnaldum, but this was a collective performance to defy the detractors.
Each individual had a clear objective. Henderson was the shield, the protector of an impressive back four. Can drove from deep. Wijnaldum combined the two roles to create one of his own, while also being assigned babysitter to Xhaka and Ramsey.
In the season opener against Watford, the trio looked aimless, but in just a matter of games their weaknesses have become their strengths. A once plodding midfield suffering from a lack of creativity provided the backbone for one of the most thrilling victories the Premier League has seen in some time. Can will rightfully demand the plaudits, but his supporting cast deserves plenty of credit.
* Back in May of this year, Wenger provided a frank insight into his thoughts on counter-attacking football.
“Over the last two seasons, teams who have not big possession have won the league,” he said. “I am convinced you still need to have the ball to create goal chances and that you cannot encourage, as well, youth teams to say: ‘We do not want the ball’. You cannot buy big players and say: ‘We do not want the ball’. Big players want the ball.”
He would add that football must “encourage” clubs who “take the initiative” in controlling possession, such as Manchester City or Barcelona. Or Arsenal.
Not for the first time, he scripted his own downfall perfectly. Liverpool’s second goal came from a lightning fast counter-attack, as did their third and fourth. Mane scored within 14 seconds of Liverpool regaining the ball from an Arsenal attack in the first half; the hosts repeated the trick within 12 seconds when Salah raced clear after a Gunners corner to slot past Cech.
The punchline was that Arsenal had 51.2% of the possession. The Gunners claimed the control that Wenger so desperately seeks, but “initiative” can manifest itself in different, far more successful ways. Liverpool had less of the ball, but did considerably more with it.
On one hand, Wenger should be lauded for sticking to his beliefs so staunchly after all these years. On the other, it feels as though the game has moved on without him.
* A defence of Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno hardly screams ‘Champions League’, but each member of the backline deserves due credit. Arsenal provided as much penetration as a drunk, nervous university student, but that was at least in part due to a staunch back four.
Between them, the quartet made 14 tackles, 11 clearances, ten interceptions and two blocks. For comparison, Arsenal’s three-man central defence and wing-backs completed five combined tackles.
It is such performances that lead Klopp to insist he needs no more defensive reinforcements, with Ragnar Klavan, Andrew Robertson, Nathaniel Clyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold in reserve. One cannot shake the belief that another centre-half is required, but with the forward line in such form, there is plenty to distract from pressing issues.
* Klopp would at least have an excuse. If Wenger fails to add at least one more central defender to his ranks, it would be the latest in a long line of inexplicable decisions.
The Frenchman’s move to a three-man defence was one final throw of the dice to try and rescue an ailing campaign last season. The reward was palpable, with an upturn in Premier League performances almost rescuing a Champions League qualification place. The FA Cup final win over Chelsea was a victory for the system, but also for the manager who had the courage to utilise it.
Wenger has taken a formation which provided the platform for success, and warped it into something unrecognisable. Already this season left-backs have been used at centre-half, right-backs at left-back and wingers at right wing-back. Kolasinac, a left-back, was punished for not adapting to a role as a centre-half by being dropped, while a right-back, Hector Bellerin, was moved to the opposite side to accommodate Oxlade-Chamberlain, a winger.
It all sounds so confusing and complicated because it is. And to make matters worse, Shkodran Mustafi seems almost certain to leave just 12 months after arriving in north London. The German has hardly been a stellar performer, but that is a £35million centre-half that Wenger has to replace. An inability to do so would mean the Gunners surrender their already slim chances of success in record time.
* For the final conclusion, it is only right to offer the floor to Gary Neville, and his best bits on co-commentary.
“I’m absolutely fuming watching them.”
“Three or four of these Arsenal players want to leave… Who wants to buy them?”
“Xhaka has just tried to backheel the ball to his goalkeeper in the six yard box. Try to put words to that if you can.”
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing here.”
“It’s a well-told story that I’m not a Liverpool fan, but this Arsenal side deserves a battering. This is the most disappointing Arsenal you could possibly wish to see.”
“The general attitude, and lack of respect towards the shirt by three or four of them. They (the Arsenal fans) must be livid.”
“I’d stick them all up on the transfer list.”
In Wenger’s post-match press conference, he stated that “this is not the time to get emotional”. For the Arsenal manager to utter those words after a former Manchester United player was left “absolutely fuming” by the performance is the final insult.
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