16 Conclusions: Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool

Date published: Sunday 4th November 2018 9:35

1) On Monday, Manchester City faced a difficult away game against one of their Premier League title rivals. They were not at their best, but still managed to deservedly beat Tottenham.

Five days later, Liverpool were about to repeat the feat. It would have been a huge win, proof that anything the reigning champions can do, they could do even better. But while proudly attempting what would have been a statement victory, they stumbled over their words.

This is not a bad result by any means. Arsenal are a fine side, and their relatively poor standard of opposition over this unbeaten run has masked just how good they are. But in light of City’s success earlier in the week, it cannot possibly be viewed as a good result.

The two favourites to win the Premier League title both travelled to north London this week; only one returned with three points. Liverpool showed why they are not quite on City’s level just yet, despite being awfully close.

 

2) Which is not to denigrate Arsenal, who calmly listened to the critics scoffing at victories over Cardiff, Brentford, Blackpool and Qarabag being painted as signs of great progress under Unai Emery. The 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace was supposed to be the Gunners reverting to the mean; this proved it was anything but.

Arsenal were fully deserving of their point and, for once, did not have to rely on a second-half renaissance. They held their own in the first half when many expected them to crumble, overcoming the press and exerting a control on the game that has been sorely lacking at times this season.

If beating the Premier League’s weaker kids in between thrashing League One sides and European minnows was a sign that little had actually changed since the days of Arsene Wenger, this was proof that Emery’s revolution is in full swing. After defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea in their opening two games, here was proof that Arsenal have taken back their seat at the top table by force.

 

3) This was perhaps unfairly expected to be a showcase of forward-thinking flair, considering the sheer weight of attacking brilliance on both teams. Arsenal and Liverpool know how to get the absolute best out of their absolute best players, and both insist on forcing their own style of play on an opponent instead of trying to exploit any particular weaknesses.

So it was curious to see that while the game started at a frantic pace, little actually happened. Both teams seemed to fall over each other scrambling for a foothold without ever actually threatening. They had one shot apiece in the opening 12 minutes, with defences dominating.

In the following 13 minutes there were four shots each, and the first half ended with Arsenal having nine shots to Liverpool’s four as the forwards took hold. But it was nice to see both approaching the game more tactically at first, as opposed to simply diving into the pool headfirst with their usual lack of caution.

 

4) Arsenal had the first real chances. Alexandre Lacazette forced an early save from Alisson, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might have tested the Brazilian soon after. Joe Gomez’s late interception spared the goalkeeper from getting his gloves any dirtier.

It was the first sign of a potential Liverpool weakness, as the attack had developed down their right-hand side. Gomez had to come across to cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had completely lost his bearings. He retained his place at right-back, but is still showing the sort of form that saw him dropped against Manchester City last month.

The 20-year-old never looked comfortable, and Arsenal might regret not exploiting him more. The equaliser came down his flank, and Jurgen Klopp clearly noted his struggles: Milner was moved out to the right-hand side to support him in the second half.

Indeed, Klopp’s initial plan might never have included Alexander-Arnold starting. Dejan Lovren was ruled out through injury before the game, meaning Gomez had to stay at centre-half instead of being pushed out to the right. Alexander-Arnold is still young and has boundless potential, but his place in the starting XI is a precarious one.

 

5) In the 16th minute, Mkhitaryan almost opened the scoring. He was unmarked, found by Hector Bellerin’s cross, but his header crept wide of the post.

In the 45th minute, Van Dijk almost opened the scoring. He was unmarked, found by James Milner’s cross, but his header stumbled into the post and away to safety.

On both occasions, the attacking player was flattened by the opposition goalkeeper within seconds of their shot being taken. Just as Alisson had raced off his line to thwart the danger, Bernd Leno offered his best impression of the Brazilian on the stroke of half-time. Andre Marriner dismissed neither penalty claim; no appeal was made.

Goalkeepers benefit from a curious amount of protection, and when surrounded by opponents at a corner, that is understandable. But it hardly seems fair that they can charge so carelessly into a situation to defuse it so dangerously. Just because the attacking player manages to take a shot, that does not make them fair game for any defensive player.

It would not remove physicality from the game to punish players in such situations, nor would it make goalkeepers more vulnerable. And saying that it would be a foul if it was anywhere else on the pitch misses the point; it would be a foul if it had been Shkodran Mustafi clattering into Van Dijk, or Gomez crushing Mkhitaryan. The player’s position should not impact on the referee’s decision.

The positive is that Marriner was at least consistent, seeing neither situation as worthy of a penalty. It is just a shame that both were.

 

6) It was a busy first half for the officials, who also ruled out Sadio Mane’s goal. The Senegalese tapped into an empty net after Roberto Firmino’s effort clipped the bar. He was adjudged to be offside, but was clearly behind Firmino when he took his shot.

There was inevitable confusion, considering the current offside rule is more obsessed about ‘phases’ than a hormonal teenager. But it seemed a pretty straightforward call on reflection, one that an official might struggle to make in real-time. If only there was some sort of technology to help them.

 

7) When Mohamed Salah started the season in a quite horrific run of form – a measly three goals in a huge eight Premier League games – a genuinely worrying aspect of his supposed decline was lost amidst the hyperbole. After making 18 chances in his first six appearances, he provided just one key pass in his subsequent six. His lack of goals compared to last season could be excused, but such a sharp drop in creativity could not be ignored so easily.

Since then, he has put the team ahead of the individual once more. Salah created three chances against Cardiff, and managed as many in the first half at the Emirates, ending the game with four. Klopp might have had some difficult decisions to make if his goalscoring touch continued to desert the Egpytian, but not now he has remembered the importance of giving as much as taking.

 

8) One of the chances Salah created was for Van Dijk, the Egyptian picking out his teammate with a sumptuous cross. Arsenal had tried and failed to clear their lines from a corner, meaning the centre-half, who had stayed forward, stuck out like a huge, purple thumb in the penalty area.

Van Dijk, a striker in his youth, chested the ball down and side-volleyed at Leno, who saved well. But it was a warning Arsenal decided to ignore throughout. Lacazette (4) was the only player to have more shots than the Dutchman (3), who combined a typically brilliant defensive performance with attacking threat.

Liverpool could actually use him better going forward. Van Dijk’s height and physicality makes him a unique weapon that is difficult to counter, yet his only goal for the club came on his debut in January. For a player with such attributes to go almost a year without scoring seems curious.

 

9) The visitors did finally find the breakthrough when Leno parried a cross straight out to Milner. It was a mistake from the German, but neither a huge one, nor one that would ordinarily be punished so severely. The finish looked easy; it was anything but.

It also represented the only shot on target their three midfielders had. Milner bore the creative burden in the middle, creating three chances; Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho managed one between them. And while the latter was the more reserved of the trio, that is no excuse. Arsenal were better in midfield despite the one-man disadvantage.

Fabinho’s performance was a particular sore point for Klopp, who ranted at the Brazilian from the touchline a couple of times. There had been an understandable clamour for the Brazilian to feature sooner following his summer arrival. This was a reminder why the manager has waited so long to unwrap the present, for he is still far off the pace.

 

10) It was also a reminder why Klopp rates Jordan Henderson so highly. The England midfielder is not everyone’s favourite hot beverage, and his limitations are painfully clear. Yet he is built for this Liverpool team and it for him, and removing him from this machine reduces its functionality.

Fabinho was too sloppy in possession at the Emirates. A pass-completion rate of 80.8% is far from disastrous, but Henderson’s has dipped below 86.8% twice all season in all competitions. Klopp demands quick, crisp releases of the ball; Fabinho is throwing everything in the same bin instead of recycling it sensibly. It will hopefully come with time.

 

11) That Granit Xhaka was so good perhaps highlighted the deficiencies in any other midfielders. The Swiss international was confident on the ball, aware of his surroundings and diligent in his duties. The influence of Lucas Torreira has been invaluable.

One particular moment saw Xhaka race back and make a brilliant recovery to stop Salah, who was a constant nuisance down Arsenal’s left-hand side, as he bore down on goal. For a player who was told “not to tackle” by his former manager, it was as pleasant a surprise as his overall display.

 

12) The biggest complaint any Arsenal fan had with Emery’s starting line-up was with the identity of the right-sided forward. Alex Iwobi has enjoyed a fine season, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan was given the nod.

Mkhitaryan has struggled since his impressive first few months for the Gunners. Before Saturday, he had scored and assisted just one goal each (both in the 3-2 defeat to Chelsea) in 752 Premier League minutes.

But this was not a decision made based on attacking output. Iwobi offers more going forward, while lacking the defensive reliability. Mkhitaryan had made more tackles than the Nigerian in the same number of games, while Iwobi had been dispossessed more times (17) than any Arsenal player in the league this season.

Against a side who press as ferociously as Liverpool, Emery knew Arsenal had to be as close to perfect as possible both on and off the ball. He simply trusted Mkhitaryan more than he would Iwobi. For 68 minutes, it was the right decision.

 

13) By that point, Arsenal had been behind for seven minutes. They could no longer simply hope to contain Liverpool’s forwards before launching counter-attacks; the onus was on them to chase the game.

Introducing Iwobi was a masterstroke. It meant the more passive Mkhitaryan could be replaced at a time when Arsenal needed to be aggressive, and the Nigerian’s first contribution was notable: he drove forward, dribbled past two players and flashed the ball across goal. That was the injection of initiative, the change in emphasis Arsenal needed.

When Lacazette wheeled away in celebration at scoring the equaliser – and what a bloody finish it was – the plan had paid off perfectly. It was Iwobi’s assist, having pushed forward from left-back, that made it all happen. Emery’s Midas touch with substitutions continues.

 

14) When Liverpool were 1-0 up, Arsenal could not afford another mistake. No player could put a foot wrong, as this opposition is at its most powerful when it smells blood. A second goal is rarely far behind when Liverpool score the opener.

So when Salah sensed an opportunity after Liverpool cleared from a corner Arsenal had flooded forward to attack, Mustafi was caught in two minds. In a similar situation against Crystal Palace, he opted to back off from Wilfried Zaha instead of tackling him on the halfway line, and the Gunners would concede a penalty from the same attack. The German had learned his lesson however, and timed his tackle on Salah perfectly to allow his teammates to assume position.

Credit where it’s due: Mustafi was excellent alongside the similarly impressive Rob Holding. The 26-year-old is not famed for his concentration or decision-making, but put in four tackles, four interceptions and nine clearances to hold a fearsome attack at arm’s length. His distribution was also wonderful. It was all a bit weird, really.

 

15) Perhaps Arsenal will be taken a little more seriously now. A 13-game unbeaten run that was seen as hollow and misleading has its scalp, a name that cannot be simply dismissed. Liverpool have enjoyed one of the best starts to a Premier League season ever, and are expected to mount a serious title challenge. For 90 minutes at least, Arsenal were on their level.

That they came from behind only adds to the sense that this side is different to what came immediately before it –  that there is a fight and a togetherness instilled throughout this squad. Aubameyang’s frustration at being taken off was born out of wanting to play, to make the difference. Before, it would have been seen as a show of disrespect. As tangible as 23 points from 11 games is, that is a different sort of progress.

 

16) It is important not to be too harsh on Liverpool. They have dropped six points in 11 games, are still unbeaten, and have now played the teams in 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th. This is a better start than anyone imagined.

But having led with nine minutes remaining, it still feels like two points lost instead of one earned. The margin for error at the top is so minuscule, and the dominance enjoyed by bigger sides against smaller ones so stark.

Again, this makes for an unfortunate juxtaposition with City’s win over Tottenham. Pep Guardiola’s side went ahead, did not play to the best of their abilities, but still held on for the win. Liverpool could not match them.

After beating City in January, Liverpool have faced the Big Six seven times. They have drawn with and beaten Tottenham, lost to Manchester United, drawn with and lost to Chelsea, drawn with City and now drawn with Arsenal. These games used to be Klopp’s playground, but he needs to remember how to pick on people his own size if Liverpool are to succeed this season.

Matt Stead

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