That was a simply wonderful game of football. But apparently 16 Conclusions needs more than that. So here’s more than that.
1. The Barclays is undefeated. Our League cannot be matched. What an advert. What a game. Etc. Just a brilliantly batshit game of absurdly enjoyable football. And like all the very best games of football it wasn’t about to let half-time harsh the buzz. After a hot-tempered conclusion to the pulsating first half, how to keep things going through half-time? How about a linesman built like a cruiserweight elbowing Andy Robertson in the mush, Robertson getting booked for his trouble, and Roy Keane calling him a “big baby” live on Sky Sports? Can Your League do this? No, it cannot. Also, and we will get to the football eventually, but when did linos start looking like that? If I were a big baby, I would not be starting a disagreement with him.
2. But what does it all mean? That’s the big question, isn’t it. Because Arsenal are in a title race and Liverpool are… well Liverpool are up to something or other. What does this result mean? Is it a point gained or two points dropped? And is that the case for Arsenal or for Liverpool? Why are we asking so many questions? Why are we still completely baffled by what we’ve just witnessed? Why? WHY?
It felt significant that in the immediate aftermath neither Aaron Ramsdale nor Trent Alexander-Arnold – two of the key figures throughout today’s magnificent entertainment – could convincingly answer the point gained/two dropped question.
The boring truth is that none of us know. And we probably won’t know for another six weeks or so. Right now we’re in the heady, giddy afterglow of a glorious 90 minutes’ entertainment. What it all means won’t become clear for several weeks at which point it will be aftertimed to buggery and sucked of all its joy.
3. We’re not keen on getting splinters in our arse, though, so we’re going to have a go. Our initial gut reaction is that come the cold light of day this will look more like two points dropped than one gained for Arsenal. They were 2-0 up and absolutely controlling the game; the wild nature of what followed should not detract entirely from the fact good teams tend to win from 2-0 up. For what it’s worth, the bookies agree. They are cold, emotionless and soulless creatures. They care not for barnstormers and thrillers and dizzying, baffling entertainment, no matter how many Directors of Mischief they might employ. They specialise in a flint-eyed appraisal of what they’ve seen, and they’ve decided that Manchester City are now once again favourites for the Premier League title.
4. That said, this was not really a game for such cold, hard logic. We’ve spent a good couple of hours trying to find a way to put our thoughts on this into words and struggled with it – a problem, because that is quite literally the job – but we came out of this game with a view of Arsenal that is entirely at odds with the bald facts of “drew 2-2 from 2-0 up”. We left this game with greater respect for Arsenal’s resilience, not less. We’re more convinced they can go the distance in this title race, not less. They bent in that second half but were never broken.
5. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the first half-hour. Arsenal were sensational. A feature of their away games against the biggest opponents at the biggest grounds this season has been the nature of their authoritative, crowd-silencing starts. They led inside 10 minutes here but had already made their supremacy clear. They had to wait slightly longer to open the scoring at Spurs but again did so with similar command. Even in defeat at Old Trafford, Arsenal started with serenity and authority.
It’s become a feature of the season and obviously has a huge significance for what’s to come; today’s result has only made that looming trip to the Etihad more pivotal still. This was a result that didn’t quite put matters into City’s hands, but if they win every game between now and the end of the season Arsenal can only better them on goal difference, which isn’t really something the Gunners want to rely upon given they already trail by five. But today was a day that should give Arsenal greater belief they can go to the Etihad and get something.
6. The fixture list has done Arsenal a favour, too. It’s just a question of whether that matters all that much. With the way the games now fall, all Arsenal have to do is beat West Ham and Southampton – which they really ought to do without much fuss on this evidence – and they will go to the Etihad with a nine-point advantage (assuming as we must that City have also beaten Leicester).
It puts huge pressure on City to go perfect through the run-in, pressure that might well prove too much for normal teams. Arsenal’s problem is every Manchester City title run-in of recent years shows they just don’t feel that pressure like normal teams.
7. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Arsenal’s opening goal was expertly done, a quickfire, liquid move to capitalise on a Liverpool player slipping in potentially title-deciding style. Andy Robertson’s is unlikely to live in infamy quite like Steven Gerrard’s but it still created the sort of opportunity Bukayo Saka on current form will always ruthlessly exploit. Gabriel Martinelli’s feather-touch finish was as good as any power-drive and Arsenal had a lead that even with barely eight minutes on the clock they fully deserved.
8. Liverpool were at this point an incoherent mess of a thing. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Trent Alexander-Arnold was playing right-back or central midfield. He appeared to be attempting both concurrently and succeeding as neither. He was part of a defence-wide calamity for the second goal, squared up and left a spectator by one decent pass and an obvious run from Martinelli. Ibrahima Konate was forced to go out towards Martinelli by Alexander-Arnold’s absence, but did so only half-heartedly. Robertson was forced to tuck in alongside Virgil van Dijk in the middle but did so unconvincingly. Gabriel Jesus rose (and please notice and appreciate our enormous pun-resisting restraint here on Easter Sunday) between the two of them to head past Alisson and send Arsenal on their way to apparent victory.
9. The mythology around Anfield is strikingly overblown and obviously over-egged by pundits who love such intangibles because it’s easier than doing your job, but there’s no doubt the game pivoted on the clash between Granit Xhaka and Alexander-Arnold. The Liverpool fans were deathly quiet at this point, subdued into silence by the intensity and professionalism of Arsenal’s performance and paucity of their own.
Xhaka’s long-standing and hard-won reputation for foolishness has been largely rehabilitated this season, but it also needed little encouragement for commentators and pundits to fall straight back into it. But it was so, so stupid of him. And so, so unnecessary. Arsenal’s control was absolute. Liverpool were in disarray. Alexander-Arnold himself was at this point having a horrible afternoon. There was absolutely nothing to be gained from poking the bear in that situation.
It would be pointlessly reductive to draw too straight a line from Xhaka’s moment of mindlessness to the result, but it would be equally remiss to pretend the link isn’t there. Before that moment Arsenal had Liverpool and Anfield becalmed. From that moment on the game was possessed of a wild and chaotic fury that could only possibly benefit one team.
10. The frustration for Arsenal will be heightened by the fact that before Xhaka went so wildly off-script, there did appear to be a very clear and very clever tactical plan to try and stymie Liverpool. They are a team no longer capable of defending in any meaningful or coherent way, Virgil van Dijk barely now even a shadow of his former self. But they remain capable of lethal attacking threat and remain very much a team you do not want to see building up a head of steam. Arsenal couldn’t stop it in the second half, but in the first they had their ways.
After Robertson screwed a decent chance wide, Ramsdale stayed down to prompt a delay. After a Salah miss – the first of many – Gabriel required attention. It could have been coincidence, but whether it was intentional or not it had the desired effect for most of the first 45 minutes in which Liverpool could never find any rhythm as Arsenal exerted quiet control.
11. Liverpool really were great in that second half, though. On another day they win the game handily. And that’s why the reductive nature of the “This is Anfield” spiel grates. Jamie Carragher was adamant that it was the only reason Liverpool could get back in the game, because there was no they could compete on pure football. But in that second half Liverpool absolutely battered Arsenal. At football. They created chance after chance, Mohamed Salah missed a penalty after passing it tamely wide of the post, never giving it a chance, and it wasn’t even his worst miss of the half. Roberto Firmino came on and played superbly. Konate, a ponderous presence in the first half, was magnificent in the second, patrolling Anfield remorselessly, snapping into tackles and providing the platform for the glorious chaos playing out in front of him. All of that was football, and Liverpool were by now doing it far better than Arsenal, who were living on their wits and their nerves.
12. And also on Aaron Ramsdale. He made three late saves, from Darwin Nunez, Salah and Konate. The one from Darwin was the least extraordinary, a simple case of a keeper doing everything he can to make a one-on-one missable and against Darwin that’s often enough. He’s a chaos merchant – frankly, this was not a game that required more chaos at the moment of his introduction – but not someone who you ever see bearing down on goal and then, after he’s slotted it past the keeper, thought “Ah, you just knew he was going to score there”.
But Ramsdale’s two later interventions, both in injury time to preserve what could yet be the most important of points, were exceptional. Salah’s curling effort was already going to require significant attention even before a deflection sent it even further into the top corner. Ramsdale turned it behind with a fingertip.
Moments later Konate appeared certain to score despite not knowing whether to go for the chance with his head or his foot and deciding in the end, rather unorthodoxly, to use his belly to try and manoeuvre the ball over the line from close range. It very nearly worked, too, but for Ramsdale flying across his goalmouth to get in the way.
13. There was nothing Ramsdale could do about Liverpool’s richly deserved equaliser. A game that began with Alexander-Arnold’s defensive and positional shortcomings ruthlessly exposed ended with his obvious attacking talents to the fore, making it all in all a perfect performance for the ongoing and never-to-be-resolved TAA culture war, one from which both sides can take what they wish to harden and solidify their own position. Because as with all culture wars by far the most important thing is to stick utterly and totally to your original view; to reconsider is a sign of weakness. And quite possibly wokeness. The second goal was attacking TAA at his very, very best. There wasn’t really much on when he picked up the ball moving away from goal. But he nutmegged Oleksandr Zinchenko before, with calmness and clarity amid the fury, standing up the perfect cross from Roberto Firmino to do what was necessary with a controlled header.
14. The force was already with Liverpool before Firmino’s introduction, but he provided a focus and cohesion to Liverpool’s attacking play that was lacking before and has in truth been missing for much of the season. His departure at the end of the season, after Sadio Mane’s, really does have an end to an era feel for it. Liverpool have acquired some very decent attacking players to fill the void but there remains something special about that Salah, Mane, Firmino combination that hasn’t quite been replicated by any other combination. Salah’s relative struggles this season are also surely tied up in all this. Liverpool are going to miss Firmino at least as much as they miss Mane and possibly more than many of us outside the club have really considered.
15. For all that Liverpool dominated that second half. For all that they deserved at least a point. For all that it was probably the single best and most interesting result for the title race. For all that… Imagine if Arsenal had scored on that late breakaway during which Jamie Carragher, by this point struggling to commentate in complete sentences given the absurd nature of what was unfolding in front of him, blurted out “MICHAEL THOMAS!” and “IT’S UP FOR GRABS NOW!” Arsenal have had some truly ludicrous late winners recently, but that would have topped the lot and we’re honestly not sure we could have coped with it.
16. Finally, a plea. A desperate one. An almost certainly forlorn one. Can we please, please, please just try and enjoy what was a wonderful game of football without trying to fit it into any of the assorted bullshit officiating conspiracies.
It goes without saying that we have not heard the last of the Robertson incident. It was unacceptable from the linesman and he has some serious questions to answer. But for the millionth time: there is no refereeing conspiracy against your team. There are mistakes. There are contentious calls. There is your inherent bias. There is no conspiracy. We’ve already seen some absurd nonsense from both sides about the refereeing in this game. Yet there was not one overtly poor decision.
Liverpool’s penalty was soft, but it was a penalty. Liverpool’s late appeals for a penalty for a ‘foul’ on Salah were nonsense and rightly ignored. The decision to book both Alexander-Arnold and Xhaka for their altercation was correct. The officials were wise to Arsenal’s timewasting and gamesmanship at 2-1 (not to be read as criticism of Arsenal – every team does it, every team will always do it) without succumbing to the howls from the home fans. This was not, in short, a day when we should be talking about the referee. It was a brilliant game of football and not one major decision was wrong. But that’s not going to be the narrative for the week ahead, is it?