The 10 costly moments Arsenal and Liverpool will rue now their title bids are officially OVER

Dave Tickner
Arsenal and Liverpool managers Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp
Arsenal and Liverpool managers Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp

With Liverpool and Arsenal both succumbing to shock home defeats on Sunday after Manchester City had laid down a marker with a statement win over all-conquering Luton, it is our sad duty to report the greatest title race of the age is now OVER.

Sorry Martin, but it is. There are a handful of games left, and City – even a flawed, not-as-good-as-recent-years City like this one – simply don’t lose the title once they hit the front at this late stage.

You know it, we know it, every Arsenal and Liverpool fan is loudly reverse-jinxingly shouting it and Klopp and Arteta know it too.

At least City winning it as they now inevitably will allows both clubs – and those who weren’t even good enough to muster any kind of challenge at all – to shrug and note how competing with City simply cannot be done.

But that’s not really true, is it? Liverpool have competed with City several times and Arsenal have now done so for two straight seasons. It is certainly difficult to do, and brings all manner of fine margins into play, but it’s not impossible. So where were the games, the moments, the decisions when it all went wonky for City’s two plucky pursuers? Mainly, we reckon, it was in the games Arsenal and Liverpool didn’t win.

It was silly of them not to win all the games. But there have been some non-wins that stand out.


1) Arsenal’s Fulham carelessness
If Arsenal don’t win the league – and as we’ve now established, being two points behind City with some games to go means they absolutely definitely won’t, don’t check the maths, it’s impossible – then the first point of regret may be a pair of very silly games against Fulham.

Arsenal’s recent return to their rightful status under Mikel Arteta has involved doing two things with silly games. One, try to cut them out altogether, and simply overpower and destroy teams. Or two, make sure the silly games end with Arsenal scoring a late winning goal the celebration of which causes Richard Keys to go a worrying colour and do that weird thing where the angrier he gets the posher he sounds. Honestly, listen to his voice the next time Arsenal celebrate a winning goal or Arteta sets one foot outside his technical area or West Ham fans aren’t sufficiently careful what they wish for. By the time his performative rant reaches its ruddy-faced apex, he sounds precisely like he’s about to conclude by saying ‘And actually, the foxes rather enjoy the hunt.’

Anyway, the main point here was supposed to be that Arsenal have, for the last two seasons, sought to either cut out silliness altogether or at least ensure they’ve had the last over-the-top laugh. Not once but twice this season, they have failed this task against Fulham.

At the Emirates back in August, Arsenal had overturned an early deficit and led 2-1 with a few minutes remaining and the Cottagers down to 10 men. On New Year’s Eve, Arsenal went to Craven Cottage and scored inside the first five minutes.

They collected a grand total of one point from these two games. Arsenal have dropped only nine points from winning positions all season; for five of those to come against a Fulham team who have won only one of their four games against Burnley and Sheffield United is very, very silly indeed.


2) The emotional fallout of the quadruple’s collapse
There’s a case to be made that Liverpool’s most damaging moment of the title race didn’t even happen directly during the title race. We hope there is anyway, because we’re about to attempt it.

The most costly single game for Liverpool this season is surely the freewheeling, absurd FA Cup defeat to Manchester United. The specific opponent is a key factor here, and the manner of defeat in a game Liverpool could and should have won several times over and in multiple different ways.

For one thing, it ended the quadruple dream. Now obviously Liverpool were never really likely to actually win four trophies, because winning four trophies in one season is famously quite difficult. But the idea of it, in Klopp’s farewell season as well, had a power of its own that seemed to be propelling Liverpool forward in self-fulfilling fashion.

It was always near-certain that Liverpool would eventually have to ride out the disappointment of that dream dying, but it came in such a painful and unexpected way at the worst possible location that we’re really not sure they’re over it.

Since that day they’ve made hard work of home wins against both Brighton and Sheffield United and then suffered another painful daftness at Old Trafford before being humbled by Atalanta and stunned by Palace. In the space of six games, the possible quadruple has become a near-certain single.


3) Unai Emery’s revenge
Good ebening indeed. Unai Emery doesn’t appear to be the sort of manager to worry too much about the idea of revenge or point-proving, but he’d have to be some kind of automaton not to have taken a modicum of pleasure in beating Arsenal home and away this year.

When people talk about the difficulty/impossibility of following a legend, the Moyes fiasco at Manchester United will always be the go-to Premier League example. But Emery’s treatment as Arsene Wenger’s replacement is more instructive.

For one thing, he was not – unlike Moyes – a manager clearly promoted beyond his capabilities. He has proven before and since that he was plenty good enough to manage Arsenal. That doesn’t mean he was right for the job, but he wasn’t out of his depth like poor Moyesy was.

Arsenal also just simply weren’t, in hindsight, as bad under Emery as everyone now remembers. It took a good while for Arteta to turn Arsenal into what they are now, but he was trusted and indulged on that journey in a way Emery was never going to be.

Taking zero points from Villa is not as bad as taking one point from Fulham, because Villa are much better than Fulham, but they were deserved, well-crafted wins from Villa achieved without so much as conceding a goal. And it does rather make the ‘can’t compete with that’ line of defence harder to land when there are 11 points left on the table against Villa and Fulham.

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4) Well done boys, good process
But we’re pretty sure that if Liverpool do manage to hang around to finish the title race within a few points of the eventual winners (who, as we’ve now established, will be Manchester City) then it is not emotional fallout from the FA Cup or any of their own mistakes that they will immediately turn to.

It’s going to be the ‘Good process’ at Tottenham, isn’t it? And you know what, fair enough. The facts still remain that Liverpool have lost only three times in the Premier League all season, and one of those defeats is undeniably marked by an officiating error destined to live long in Barclays infamy.

That the VAR officials were not actually bothering to properly watch a game as big and as fun as an Angeball Tottenham at their novel early-season peak before everyone rumbled them against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool until such time as they were called upon to make a decision is arguably a worse indictment than the lazy, arrogant carelessness of the mistake itself.

Had they been watching the game properly – and again, we understand that not all Premier League games are eminently watchable but this one really was – it simply couldn’t have played out the way it did. It must have been a particularly ticklish Candy Crush level to be so compelling a distraction from the action unfolding at White Hart Lane 2.0.

Of course, we’ll never know precisely what would have happened next had Liverpool’s perfectly good opening goal been allowed to stand – they were already down to 10 men, after all (and for the record we still think both red cards were a smidge on the harsh side but not in and of themselves A Disgrace) – but we do know Spurs scored their own opening goal very shortly afterwards and Liverpool were still the better side for large parts of the game at 1-1 even when down to nine.


5) Arsenal’s West Ham goal allocation
Across two games against West Ham this season, Arsenal scored a total of six goals from an xG of 6.3 and conceded two goals from an xG of 1.6. That’s pretty much fine, isn’t it? No problems there. It’s as close to the correct number of goals as anyone could reasonably expect, it’s not an exact science, is it?

The problem is how Arsenal spread those goals around. Because they did it very foolishly indeed. Instead of pocketing a pair of lovely little 3-1 wins and toddled off home with six points to the kitty they inexplicably decided to score none of their goals in a 2-0 defeat at the Emirates and all of their goals in a 6-0 win at the London Stadium.

Are we saying one of Arsenal’s biggest mistakes of the season was a 6-0 win? Yes. Yes we are. In a way.


6) Liverpool going to the well one time too many
Liverpool will not have been overly concerned when Eberechi Eze gave Crystal Palace an early lead at Anfield on Sunday. Because this was very familiar territory for Liverpool – it wasn’t even the first time they’d gone behind this season against Crystal Palace.

Palace have one of the worst records at turning leads into wins, and Liverpool the best at turning deficits into victories. We all thought we knew what was going to happen next.

Except this time… it didn’t. You can only push your luck and tempt fate so many times, and Liverpool had at last gone to that particular well too often.

Liverpool have trailed in 16 Premier League games this season, and that’s just too many times to be pulling yourself out of the sh*t for a title contender. It’s the same number of deficits as Villa. It’s only one fewer than Chelsea.

It’s seven more than Arsenal and three more than a City team who are themselves frankly pushing their luck a bit too much on this front.

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7) Autumn draws
The fun thing about picking a team apart for the very few times things have gone wrong in an otherwise excellent season is that you get to go back and be horrible to them about things everyone thought were broadly fine at the time, back in the early days of the season before the white heat of a title race turns every dropped point or missed opportunity into an all-consuming disastrocrisis.

For Arsenal, that means a pair of 2-2 draws back in those hazy autumn days when the season’s full narratives were yet to emerge. Back then, we all still trying to work out what the f*** Tottenham were up to, but it looked like they might be quite good.

Arsenal’s 2-2 home draw with them therefore looked like a perfectly acceptable result, really, albeit one laced with frustration at a failure to kill the game off. The Gunners were missing a few players, Spurs were rampant. It was okay.

We now know, of course, that Spurs are still in fact Spurs and therefore this failure to beat them was an enormously costly one. Arsenal certainly can’t be so careless again in a couple of weeks’ time.

A month later Arsenal came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Chelsea. Again, that seemed broadly fine. If you want to know how long ago that one was, it was when everyone was still trying to make Arteta Has Needlessly Confused The Goalkeeper Situation a thing. David Raya did admittedly help them out by letting a Mykhaylo Mudryk loop over him and into the net, but still.

Arsenal hit back to draw, and that was a solid point won. Except we now know that too was a game that had to be won against a team that was, if anything, even sillier than the previous season’s iteration of Chelsea. Which is very silly indeed.

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8) Liverpool’s six-point frailty
We’ve tried to keep Man City out of this feature as much as possible. The main thrust of it is that the whole ‘impossible to compete with City’ line is a bit flimsy when there are a whole host of ways to compete with them that don’t involve directly competing with them. But if you’re looking at areas where Liverpool’s title challenge comes up short, then it’s impossible to look beyond the games against their two direct rivals. Liverpool have won none of those six-pointers and they really should have emerged with all three points from at least one of the home games.

They fought back admirably well to take a point against City after a first-half chasing, but such was their second-half dominance that it was undoubtedly in the end two points dropped, however harsh that seems.

As for the Arsenal game, the focus will once again land on the officials and their failure to spot Martin Odegaard briefly taking up basketball in the penalty area, but there were plenty of other ways and chances and opportunities for Liverpool to render that an amusing if baffling subplot rather than the main narrative.

This one’s harsh, because of the three contenders it is Liverpool who have most conspicuously exceeded expectations this season and marking them down for coming up short – and three draws in four games is hardly catastrophic against the very best the division has to offer – but it needed very little to change for one of those draws to become a win that would make everything look very different now.


9) Crossing the line
Newcastle’s winning goal against at St James’ Park back in November really was a tremendously funny one. The most important part, given how hot and bothered it made everyone, is that it was correctly awarded despite not one, not two but three lengthy and borderline VAR checks.

Had it gone out of play? Was it offside? Was there a foul in there? The reasonable answers VAR came to were “Don’t know, no, probably not” and thus the goal stood.

Now if this goal happens against your team, you’re furious about it. It feels like there’s a balance of probability at play here that means it shouldn’t count because there’s so much uncertainty and so many different ways it might be illegitimate. But VAR doesn’t – and more importantly can’t – work like that. You can’t add up three different small possibilities to make one clear and obvious error. Which should go without saying.

But Mikel Arteta, seeming desperate to have a righteous Good Process ‘world’s against us’ moment of his own, completely lost his mind about it in the post-match.

It could hardly be said that Arsenal let it get to them, given they won their next six straight games in all competitions, but it was a goal that on another day wouldn’t have counted and could have led to a wholly different outcome in a whole game full of such fine margins.

We would, though, still like for Arteta to at least make some effort to learn the geometric properties of spheres and lines, given their importance to his chosen line of work.


10) United stalemates
If Liverpool can be swiftly enough forgiven for failing to register a win against City or Arsenal, it’s harder to explain away their problems in seeing off a very sh*t Manchester United this season.

We’ve already touched on the lasting wounds inflicted by the FA Cup game, but the league encounters were no better. United shut Liverpool out in a goalless draw at Anfield, while the recent 2-2 draw at Old Trafford was every bit as silly in every bit the same way as the cup clash.

Liverpool should have been home and dry in that one before Jarell Quansah decided he didn’t need to look where he was sending this straightforward square pass.

Arsenal and City currently have three wins from three against United, while Tottenham, Brighton, Palace, Newcastle, Bournemouth, West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Fulham and Chelsea have all done what Liverpool could not and picked up a league win against Erik Ten Hag’s clown car team. Oh Liverpool.

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