16 Conclusions: Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool

Date published: Thursday 17th March 2022 1:35 - Matthew Stead

Trent Alexander-Arnold and Gabriel Martinelli

Liverpool secured their best result of the Premier League season so far against an Arsenal side with more positives to take from a home loss.

 

1) The problem teams have when facing the current iterations of Liverpool and Manchester City is that they start at an immediate disadvantage. It is no coincidence that the Premier League’s two strongest sides by far have managers with the longest uninterrupted top-flight reigns, established infrastructures that can be traced back at least a decade, a clear set of principles and a faith in every aspect of their operation that cannot be shaken by one poor result or run. Their success is born from years of preparation, not a single transfer window. Opponents are playing catch up before a ball is kicked, tasked with competing against the finished article when they themselves are at best a fleshed-out draft.

It can be done. Crystal Palace proved that a matter of days ago. Eight different teams have taken points off the two Premier League title contenders this season. But it requires 90 minutes comprised of organisation, focus, precision, ruthlessness, teamwork and fortune. Failure to either tick one of those boxes or maintain such ridiculous standards for the entire game makes defeat likely.

Arsenal have realised quicker than many of their direct rivals that there is no simple, painless and instant way to bridge that gap. They have put systems in place to try and replicate those same phenomenal blueprints and that takes time, patience and investment. One does not have to squint to see areas in which they have indelibly improved, nor is extensive analysis required to identify what needs to be enhanced next. Mikel Arteta might justifiably suggest this defeat did more to engender trust in his famed process than it did to undermine it.

 

2) The usual crowd will scoff at the idea of losing 2-0 at home representing progress, but Arsenal were the better side for most of the first half and the start of the second. They had a clear plan, a tangible belief in how and when to carry that out and a potent combination of bravery and confidence that genuinely seemed to knock Liverpool’s own belief at times. On the stroke of half-time, the visitors had withstood another bout of pressure that culminated in Jurgen Klopp ranting at Fabinho for clearing the ball into touch for a throw-in. It was uncharacteristic to see their collective judgement clouded and a player frantically searching for the valve to release pressure instead of calmly recycling possession to swing the momentum back in their favour. The main difference between the two sides was in their reaction to adversity: Liverpool’s haze of panic resulted in a throw-in, whereas Arsenal’s saw them surrender two goals.

 

3) There is that familiar sense of Arsenal shedding another layer of their former skin against a better side before falling back into damaging old habits. It was only two months ago that the Gunners rose to the challenge of Manchester City, only to eventually fade away in a mist of individual mistakes and opposition resolve. Even their 4-0 defeat to Liverpool in November was underpinned by similar themes. At some stage these optimistic displays have to be converted into positive results; Arsenal have lost all six of their games against the rest of the current top five and that places an asterisk against their status as Champions League qualification favourites when Chelsea and Manchester United await next month.

 

4) This is Liverpool’s most impressive result of the Premier League season so far. Not in terms of scoreline, entertainment or even satisfaction, considering they have won 5-0 at Old Trafford and scored six at home to Leeds. But when it comes to level of achievement and volume of statement, this stands alone.

Arsenal have been imperious at home, losing only to Manchester City on New Year’s Day and Chelsea in August. The Gunners had won five consecutive Premier League games, had a raucous crowd behind them and were not considered favourites. Liverpool bore the weight of two different kinds of expectation: from their own fans, hoping to capitalise and close the gap to the summit; and from neutral onlookers whose only desire was to mock any inability to do so.

It is worth noting that Liverpool would have collapsed under that strain were they at the same point of development as Arsenal currently. But their experience coaxed them through a decisive victory, secured just as the hosts seemed to be in the ascendancy. That second half – brief stutter at the start aside – was phenomenal in terms of game management. It feels like those mentality monsters are back.

 

5) Liverpool were out of the blocks quickest in the first, winning three corners in the opening two minutes. Aaron Ramsdale produced a fine save from Virgil van Dijk at one but the other two rendered nothing meaningful. Fate was even tempted both by the graphics department and the commentary team on Sky Sports, extolling Arsenal’s defending from set-pieces – 125 corners faced and no goals conceded this season is a sensational record that seems to have gone under the radar.

The appointment of former Manchester City coach Nicolas Jover in the summer has proved inspired. Liverpool have the most goals from set-pieces (15) of any Premier League team so far this campaign but barely threatened from any dead-balls against a regimented defence marshalled by Aaron Ramsdale. Considering defending in those situations feels like prime fodder for cliched ‘soft centre’ punditry about Arsenal in particular, their improvement in that area is worth highlighting.

 

6) Their fates would soon diverge but it was plain to see from the early stages that Ramsdale and Alisson would be heavily involved. The amount of pressing from both teams meant the goalkeepers would be needed as an almost constant passing option, but both were also astonishingly quick in advancing out of their areas to clear passes that had landed behind the defence. Their proactivity added a charming sense of urgency and speed to the game, starving all forwards of space and time. It also meant there were a few instances of no outfielders touching the ball in between some of Ramsdale and Alisson’s long-distance baseline rallies. Ben Foster, Adam Bogdan and Artur Boruc must have been having kittens.

 

7) Thomas Partey was the best player early on. His awareness and positioning in defensive transitions allowed Arsenal to sustain a sort of pressure to which Liverpool were clearly not accustomed. One particularly crunching slide tackle on Sadio Mane rebooted the attack when the hosts looked most vulnerable. His use of the ball was also efficient, with one and two-touch play evading Liverpool’s intermittent swarms and time seeming to slow each time Partey offered himself up to a teammate. The Ghanaian disguises his passes so well and the Reds struggled to shut down those lanes as a result.

In the ninth minute, Partey had the ball in his own half and spotted a surging run from Bukayo Saka out of the corner of his eye. Instead of rushing the delivery, he took the time to swerve past Luis Diaz and thread the ball into Saka’s path. While the move soon broke down, it was a wonderful display of vision and execution. Arsenal’s biggest problem in that humbling defeat to Liverpool four months ago was a lack of midfield control. There was no such problem this time.

 

8) His direct opponents in the Liverpool centre were, conversely, pretty ineffective. Jordan Henderson was regularly bypassed by the long balls deployed by both teams, while Fabinho was not his assured self. Thiago found Trent Alexander-Arnold with one sublime pass after 18 minutes – the right-back did not have to break his stride to collect the 40-yard switch – but was otherwise anonymous.

All three seemed to be disconnected from the game, middle men being cut out by the reliance on wide play and centre-halves kicking it long. It took Fabinho dropping back and Thiago and Henderson taking the initiative more centrally at the start of the second half to make the difference. Klopp deserves credit for that tactical tweak: Mane scored an offside goal from Henderson’s quick turn and pass just ahead of the centre circle, with Thiago sliding Diogo Jota in from a similar position for the opener soon after.

Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard

 

9) Arsenal did focus heavily on those wide forwards. Their use of Saka was interesting as his slight 5ft 10ins frame was constantly put into aerial duels on the right. It was difficult to keep count of the amount of times Ben White played a high ball out to his England teammate as an outlet and most Ramsdale goal kicks were aimed in the same area, as if the pitch kept being tipped on its side.

Arteta’s justification soon became clear. Saka did not win every battle – in fact, he rarely came out with the ball himself directly at all – but it helped force situations in which Arsenal could immediately press. They forced a few turnovers through that method and when Saka did finally bring one of those deliveries down late in the first half, it created an opportunity for Alexandre Lacazette when the Frenchman shot instead of moving the ball to the vacated left flank.

It demanded an awful lot of Saka, though, and his touch notably suffered for the constant physical challenge. A bit more variation was required as the game wore on.

 

10) The main problem Saka encountered was Andy Robertson, who was excellent. He gave precious little away in defence and contributed going forward, resulting in his assist for Liverpool’s crucial second goal when he blocked Saka’s tired attempt at a clearance down the line and raced away to set up Roberto Firmino’s gorgeous flick.

“I am still tired just looking at Robertson,” Jose Mourinho once said when on the verge of being made unemployed. His tenacity really is remarkable. There are perhaps six or seven players who are more readily lauded in this Liverpool team but few are as important to their success as the left-back.

 

11) In the end it was those avoidable but understandable errors that compromised Arsenal. Saka’s poor decision for the second goal was one of those unnecessary risks they had previously avoided, but which crept in after the otherwise great Cedric had temporarily chosen to focus on Robertson instead of Jota for the first. Ramsdale will take his criticism for committing the cardinal sin of Being Beaten At His Near Post for that one.

But Firmino’s clincher was Arsenal at their absolute worst: a Gabriel mistake giving way to team panic in the area, Partey’s lazy clearance and then poor marking for the next attack. Liverpool can provoke that sort of hysteria in the very best teams but Arteta will be replaying that eight-minute implosion in his gorgeously coiffured head for the next few days.

 

12) Those fine margins extended to the other end. Arsenal should have taken the lead three minutes before they fell behind. Thiago sought the escape route of Alisson but found only the lurking Lacazette, who pulled Alisson out of his net and allowed Martin Odegaard to do the honours. The Norwegian set himself with one touch before aiming for the top corner, only for the Liverpool keeper to save brilliantly.

That felt like a psychological shift, almost like a penalty save galvanising one team and causing the other to lose concentration. Arsenal tried to capitalise and find a foothold – Saka had an effort immediately after that bobbled into the arms of Alisson – but the moment soon passed. They had seven more touches of the ball before Jota scored. That is the line between victory and defeat against this standard of opposition.

 

13) Klopp had already planned to bring Jota off before he scored. Not one to change his mind based on frivolous things such as goals and confidence, the Liverpool manager continued on that path and substituted the Portuguese, along with Luis Diaz.

Liverpool ended the game with Mane, Firmino and Mo Salah in tandem, as if a reminder was being issued that the Reds had not quite outgrown their attacking stabilisers just yet. Mane was pretty poor all game and Salah was hilariously wasteful, but Firmino was transformative.

The Reds looked so much more fluid and interconnected upon his introduction. The Brazilian knitted moves together at a time when everyone else was accidentally pricking their fingers. Firmino’s goal could even be traced back to his own pressing of Gabriel to win the ball in Arsenal’s area. Six of his nine goals this season have now come off the bench; a new role might await.

That movement, anticipation and intelligence makes him irreplaceable in this squad. Klopp will sign other forwards and is deep into the process of reimagining his attack. But Firmino is entirely unique and attempting to replicate him is a fool’s errand.

 

14) Lacazette did do a vaguely passable impression of Liverpool’s No. 20. Arsenal’s first foray past the halfway line involved his quick passing after dropping deep and that tireless work off the ball would become a theme. Soon after the half-hour mark he controlled a heavy-footed Gabriel pass, swivelled away from Matip and created an opening that Granit Xhaka would eventually waste. His link-up play was, at times, genuinely excellent.

But the difference between a very good centre-forward and a great striker was laid bare. The latter would have converted the intercepted Thiago backpass, or shown more awareness when a quick free-kick was played into his path in the second half. The former did not do quite enough to cancel out those limitations in a match of this magnitude. There is a place for Lacazette at this version of Arsenal, but it should not involve regularly starting matches.

 

15) Alisson was superb in that moment, staying on his feet as Lacazette tried to round him instead of committing and going to ground, risking either a penalty or opening up enough space for Arsenal to score. The subsequent save from Odegaard was almost secondary, as fantastic as it was. He is another who perhaps does not get his due both because of the more headline-friendly names in the squad and the way his excellence has been normalised.

There is currently no better goalkeeper in the world at one-v-one situations. He is such an imposing figure, akin to Van Dijk and how opponents seem to subconsciously fear him. Alisson ranks higher in terms of most important Klopp signings, too. Liverpool simply could not play the way they do without him.

 

16) Gabriel Martinelli has purposely not been mentioned thus far, if only to annoy specifically you. But he was glorious, the game’s best player and an absolute livewire who commands the adoration of the fanbase.

From the first moment he had the beating of Alexander-Arnold after a quarter of an hour, gliding past him and driving a cross into the box for Robertson to clear, it was clear that Martinelli was up for the battle on that side. The two were at it again five minutes later, although this time it was Martinelli accelerating past Alexander-Arnold to clean up in defence and play it back to his keeper.

Klopp has long been fond of him and for good reason. The way in which he plucked a long Xhaka ball down from the skies on his knee before skipping inside Alexander-Arnold to forge another attack was quite something.

Just before half-time came a sort of roulette tackle on Diaz, before flicking the ball away from Henderson, wriggling free from Matip and keeping the ball by playing it back.

There was no respite for Liverpool after the break as the Brazilian teased Alexander-Arnold then burst past, nutmegged Henderson and pushed past Alexander-Arnold again, only for a lack of support in the area to cause the move to break down.

Martinelli almost had his goal in the 88th minute when a fine move ended with Xhaka’s pass to the left and the forward opening up his body, only to curl an effort just wide of the post.

It was a breathtaking performance at times, a display of application and aptitude and a potential watershed moment in the career of a 20-year-old whose future is incredibly bright. Martinelli looked more like an ideal Liverpool forward than any of those in yellow and he is precisely the sort of player Arteta will know he must build around.

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