16 Conclusions: Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal

Date published: Wednesday 30th September 2020 7:55

Liverpool were and are excellent. Arsenal really need a midfielder but have nothing to be ashamed of.

1) The comparison is not entirely perfect but it is worth making: Arsenal had three shots to 24, 31.1% possession, 64% passing accuracy, created two chances and came from behind to beat Liverpool 2-1 at home in July. Two months later at Anfield and against a far fresher, more focused champion, they had four shots to 21, 33.1% possession, 76% passing accuracy, created three chances and squandered an early lead to lose 3-1.

Those suggesting Mikel Arteta erred in his approach on Monday evening should not be blinded by the result. He mimicked tactics that proved successful against the same opponent so recently – his players largely carried them out more efficiently if anything – but the fine margins they benefited from before just did not weigh in their favour this time.

 

2) That does not quite sate the quenchless thirst for winners to be declared and losers to be denounced after each game. And yes, that is a particularly modern trend we all indulge in. But sometimes it simply does not apply. Liverpool were sublime for the most part; Arsenal were just good. More often than not that will not suffice against one of the best teams in the world on one of the most imposing runs of home form in Premier League history.

This was not an Arteta masterclass, as those desperate to pounce on any sign of weakness from a supposed media favourite will no doubt mockingly describe it. He made mistakes: Dani Ceballos should have started and they invited crosses with the sort of alarming regularity of Unai Emery’s side at this stadium last August. But this match confirmed nothing we did not already know. Liverpool have better starters than Arsenal. Liverpool have better substitutes than Arsenal. Liverpool have a better manager than Arsenal. Liverpool, funnily enough, were better than Arsenal.

 

3) Jurgen Klopp, in truth, has created a monster. Liverpool have so many different ways of hurting an opponent that it often becomes an exercise in plugging bullet holes in a canoe bound for a waterfall in a tsunami. Shut down Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right and Andy Robertson will have space and time to thrive on the left. Track Roberto Firmino when he drops deep and give Mo Salah or Sadio Mane licence to attack through the centre. Try and press the midfield and Naby Keita will run straight through. Keep the score as close as possible while holding out for that one chance and risk the most expensive forward in the club’s history being brought on from the bench to double the gap as you’re trying to close it.

Liverpool had developed myriad different ways to win a game, numerous fail-safes and Plans A through to Z to fall back on in case of unlikely emergency, even before Diogo Jota and Thiago refined their options further. That gap to the rest feels more daunting than ever.

 

4) On that note: every single outfielder that started for Liverpool either had a shot or created a chance. Playing them has become two games in itself: stopping them and beating them. Perhaps it isn’t that easy to formulate and implement a plan that achieves both.

 

5) There is a wider point worth making about Keita, who might still be chasing the Arsenal defence on the team bus back to north London. He was tireless and ravenous in his quest to pressure the visitors, but married that with wonderful technique in possession. He misplaced only one of his 40 passes, which is quite something when just three came in the defensive third. That sort of accuracy in the build-up to or during attacks is frightening.

The 25-year-old has made five consecutive Premier League starts – his longest such run since joining Liverpool two summers ago. It speaks volumes that he has not completed 90 minutes in any of them but Keita seems unique in that his effectiveness can usually be judged by how early he is taken off. Klopp is conserving the energy of perhaps his most important midfielder for a reason.

 

6) He faces competition for that crown. Fabinho was impeccable and transitioned seamlessly from his role as auxiliary centre-half last week to midfield shield this. To his left, Georginio Wijnaldum showed once more why any late interest from Barcelona will be scoffed at. Quite what anyone is smoking if they think Liverpool will entertain any offer for the Dutchman is a mystery. He might leave as a free agent next summer but it is almost impossible to put a value on his current importance. It is similarly difficult to properly translate the majesty of his performance through statistics: one shot, one chance created, one dribble, no tackles and no interceptions tell nothing of his work rate and ability to retain possession in a bloody hurricane.

Those three starting midfielders misplaced seven of an attempted 169 passes between them. It is little wonder Arsenal struggled to cope at times. And that was without Jordan Henderson or Thiago.

 

7) Mane should have been sent off. It beggars belief why players still lead with their forearm into duels like his against Kieran Tierney in the third minute when the spectre of VAR looms ever larger. Craig Pawson felt a yellow card was sufficient but it looked like excessive force or violent conduct rather than standard jostling or an attempted shoulder barge. Had that incident taken place later in the game it likely would have resulted in a sending-off.

It was inevitable that he would play a leading role in Liverpool’s victory thereafter but the fact he should probably not have been on the pitch ought not mask or obscure the sheer gulf between these two teams. Some managers would use such incidents in isolation to create more favourable alternate timelines and deflect from the truth but hopefully Arteta realises the futility of fantasy: any version of this game would have ended in a home victory.

 

8) After 24 minutes, Arsenal’s two closest touches to Liverpool’s goal were players being caught offside: Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the edge of the area and Alexandre Lacazette around 30 yards out. So they obviously took the lead by the 25th.

An overlooked aspect of Lacazette’s opening goal is that it came after some quick passes out from the back under immense pressure on the left, with Liverpool having forced a chance in a similar situation through a counter-press mere moments earlier. Wijnaldum should maybe have done more to test Bernd Leno after David Luiz’s misplaced pass was swallowed by the Liverpool swarm. But Arsenal would immediately show precisely why it is a method Arteta will persist with, despite those who will continue to question it.

 

9) Within a few touches the visitors went from Tierney being penned into his own half on the left to Lacazette celebrating his goal in as confused and muted a fashion as the Sky Sports commentary team. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dropped deep on the touchline and laid the ball off to Granit Xhaka, whose first-time pass into Lacazette was as excellent as the Frenchman’s instant touch out wide to Maitland-Niles. What transpired from there – a poor, deflected cross followed by a mis-hit finish – betrayed the beauty of the build-up.

The curious thing is that Arsenal set up in a way that made it so that every touch and each decision in attack had to be absolutely perfect, yet the goal came from the wrong choice of cross being poorly executed and a shot being entirely mistimed and misplaced. Football, as ever, is fucking stupid.

 

10) But that Xhaka pass was genuinely brilliant. Keita’s positioning and Joe Gomez over-committing – his only mistake of an exemplary game – created the opportunity but the application still had to be flawless. Lacazette’s ability to almost control it into the path of Maitland-Niles forged a chance he didn’t really deserve to convert.

Arsenal had a couple more of those moments. David Luiz nearly picked out a fine Maitland-Niles run in the closing stages of the first half but his touch had to be faultless. Willian and Ceballos played Lacazette through twice in a matter of second-half minutes, the first adjudged to be offside after the event but both resulting in efforts straight at Alisson. Even in stoppage-time Aubameyang wasted a breakaway with a poor pass into Nicolas Pepe.

Their game was predicated on defending for large periods before attacking at pace and exploiting the openings. They can take encouragement from the fact they managed that three or four times but, even with their goal, that last touch was so often lacking.

 

11) Liverpool were ahead nine minutes later, Mane adhering to the narrative by tapping in after Leno parried Salah’s shot, before Robertson capitalised on a deflected Alexander-Arnold cross to establish a lead that remained until the final whistle.

Some of Alexander-Arnold’s deliveries were ludicrous; that sort of no-look cross that started with his back to goal in the first half found Virgil van Dijk and only failed to result in a goal because of the intervention of David Luiz. Mane also fired straight at Leno after the right-back’s cut back with the scores level. He really is something special.

 

12) It might be too simplistic but Liverpool’s response to a setback is just so jarringly different to Manchester City’s. Pep Guardiola had to convince his side they were “playing good” at half-time against Leicester, ruing the fact they were “not strong enough to be stable and patient”. Even without a managerial rally a belief that conceding was a mere speed bump on a country road was transmitted throughout the squad. The comeback felt predestined.

 

13) Pawson had a poor game marred by inconsistencies but did well to play advantage for Liverpool’s first goal after Keita was fouled by Luiz. Not sure what the Hector Bellerin booking was about when Fabinho managed not to even concede a free-kick for the exact same foul on Aubameyang seconds earlier, mind.

 

14) That Lacazette chance will be replayed intermittently in the minds of Arsenal fans over the next week. It was simultaneously a great save from Alisson and a bad miss from a player that never really gives off that air of inevitability when played in on goal.

The game turned on that moment: Arsenal did not have another shot as Liverpool slammed the door shut with seven efforts from the 64th minute onwards. Arteta and his players went from a potential foothold to a slip from which they would never recover. But it is worth remembering how close they came to climbing this mountain.

 

15) If there is one lesson worth heeding for the visitors it is that midfield reinforcement is sorely needed. Xhaka and Mo Elneny were essentially placeholders for long periods, unable to truly affect the course of play outside of the former’s excellent first-half pass.

They managed a single dribble between them, highlighting just why Houssem Aouar must be a priority signing in the final week of the window. Thomas Partey would also be a welcome addition but he would not completely transform this midfield in the same way Aouar would. A ball-carrier, or at least a player capable of moving play far quicker, is the next piece in this puzzle.

 

16) Salah ended with no goals or assists but was the game’s most effective attacking player. It was his bursting run and shot that led to the first goal and his passes back to Alexander-Arnold that contributed to the second and third. His best opportunity was in the 87th minute but in miscontrolling a Wijnaldum pass meant for Jota he invited the typical criticism of a ‘greedy’ and ‘selfish’ player.

His absolutely glorious pass into the Portuguese a couple of minutes earlier received a fraction of the reaction. Maybe he is just an incredibly and inexplicably underrated player who more than earns his moments of supposed gluttony.

Matt Stead

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