Arsenal should not be too disheartened by what was ostensibly a hammering. But Liverpool gave them a sobering reminder of what is required.
1) The Premier League table had some people fooled. Two points separated Liverpool and Arsenal before kick-off but those 90 ferocious minutes at Anfield were hardly needed to prove that a gulf exists between these sides in reality. A settled team with a clear system committed to muscle memory by a coach established both in talent and tenure should thrash a side similarly crafted in its own manager’s image: potentially excellent but ultimately a little too wide-eyed for these narrow margins.
But just as many were tricked into thinking Arsenal might have been on level footing against their opponents at Anfield, plenty more may be deceived by the scoreline. This was no outright hammering. Liverpool were just phenomenally clinical and suffocated the game in lethal bursts: ten minutes before half-time, ten minutes after half-time and those ten minutes between the 67th and 77th in the second half. Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota scored either side of the break before Arsenal succumbed to the hosts’ usual momentum late on.
In between, there were the briefest glimpses of what Arsenal are and what they could be. Liverpool gave them a ruthless showcase of what they can only hope to become. The Gunners sought a champagne performance to toast their recent improvement; they were given a sobering reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
2) There is an argument that Arsenal needed this sort of result. That ten-game unbeaten run was promising but often undermined by the asterisk of quality. The majority of the teams they were beating were not close to the requisite standard and their aggregate scoreline against the three Premier League title challengers is now 11-0 from three games this season. But there was no capitulation or leadership absence that underpinned the 5-0 shellacking by Manchester City, nor the hopelessness that characterised that 2-0 defeat by Chelsea. Arsenal may have lost 4-0 but there was more fight, more personality and more to cling onto from this particular humbling, even if it won’t feel as such.
3) Therein lies one key point: many critics will point to a four-goal defeat and instinctively argue that damage limitation was needed and Arteta should have been more defensive. But Arsenal would have learned nothing from reverting to three at the back and reducing their game plan to the specific objective of not conceding. There is a grey area in games like this where the scoreline starts to lose all meaning. The deficit was twice as stark but, as aforementioned, the 2-0 Chelsea loss was far more desperate than this.
Arteta and his players realised that there were more lessons to be learned from continuing to play their way. There is a balance to be struck, and they were almost arrogant in continuing to pass the ball out from the back when Liverpool had already punished them for it. Their approach was too rigid when it needed tweaking, but at least one was evident. The lack of any discernible plan was the most damning aspect of the Manchester City thrashing; the inflexibility in changing the plan was the biggest issue at Anfield, which at least represents some small progress. That makes this feel like more of a whiplash-inducing bump in the road rather than an absolute dead end.
4) Liverpool, though. Their victory was emphasised by the hallmark of any dominant win: the substitute debut handed to a teenager who was able to soak in a raucous atmosphere for the final few minutes. Tyler Morton enjoyed most of the game from a ludicrously raw bench as Liverpool’s selection issues continue to rumble away in the background. Fortunately for Jurgen Klopp, he has assembled a pool of starters good enough to mask any absences.
Kostas Tsimikas looks a natural fit at left-back. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was excellent in central midfield. Diogo Jota is legitimately one of the Premier League’s best forwards, especially in terms of versatility. Thiago took his first start since September in characteristically composed stride. Takumi Minamino and Jordan Henderson rose from the bench to play their parts in the fourth goal.
There are still complaints and murmurs of discontent about transfer investment and the strength in depth in comparison to their closest rivals, while the imminent departure of Michael Edwards will only intensify that spotlight. But Klopp has a brilliant starting XI and numerous stand-ins who can fill roles without much drop-off, if any. That deserves more praise than is given.
5) Oxlade-Chamberlain put in a particularly noteworthy performance. He is eminently frustrating on the ball – moments of inspiration interspersed with sloppiness and poor decision-making. But his tireless pressing and unabated aggression set quite the tone. Three off-target shots were a little too on-brand yet his defensive work was crucial, particularly the first-half block on Takehiro Tomiyasu’s cross towards Bukayo Saka.
Fingers have been burned before in terms of thinking the 28-year-old has turned a corner and become a reliable central midfielder at the highest level. His opportunities this season might not have even come were it not for injuries elsewhere. But this was another promising step towards consistency after his own physical issues. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s last two Premier League starts between these teams at Anfield have ended in 4-0 defeats for Arsenal. Liverpool signed him four days after tormenting him as a wing-back in August 2017 and he is approaching his best performance levels at any point since.
6) But Fabinho, as he tends to be, was the midfield star and the fulcrum upon which this victory was built. His diligent covering gave Liverpool foundations sturdy enough to hold their shape and establish a foothold that Arsenal could never quite dislodge. It was clear from the first minute, when Alexandre Lacazette dispossessed Tsimikas and tried to break through but was met with the Brazilian and his unerring foresight, that Fabinho would be crucial once more.
He just so rarely makes a mistake despite playing in a position which would ordinarily leave him most susceptible. Fabinho misplaced one pass all game against a team that actually pressed pretty well for the first half, while he has become a defensive cheat code. Alisson and the defenders will receive the most credit for the clean sheet but Fabinho’s perfectly timed tackle on the halfway line as Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tried to launch a counter-attack in the 38th minute was spectacular.
7) Liverpool were ahead soon after, as if to further highlight how important an intervention that was. Trent Alexander-Arnold swung a free-kick into the area and Mane found himself in between two defenders, heading into the ground and past Aaron Ramsdale.
He had played poorly until then, shackled by Tomiyasu and painfully wasteful whenever he did wander into decent positions. Ramsdale had been wonderful, passing out confidently and saving well from Thiago, Mane, Mo Salah and Alexander-Arnold. Nobody could possibly have seen it coming.
Sadio Mane has been quite not very good and Arsenal have been impressively compact so Mane's goal from a defensive fuck-up in a minute or two will be funny.
— Football365 (@F365) November 20, 2021
Football makes no sense.
8) And it was a Ramsdale mistake. Mane chose well with the bouncing header but it was central and ought to have been stopped. Ramsdale, perhaps buoyed by an eye-catching performance up to that point, seemed to try and scoop or flick it around the post when a simpler save would have sufficed. A minor point from an otherwise great and ultimately futile display.
9) Just after the half-hour mark and before the opening goal came two crucial moments: Lacazette’s offside goal and Mane’s aerial challenge with Tomiyasu. The first showcased Arsenal’s ability to impose themselves at this level and create; the second provided the game with a spark it perhaps needed.
Shortly after Emile Smith Rowe flicked the straying Aubameyang through to centre for an unmarked Lacazette, Mane and Tomiyasu continued a rivalry that had been quietly simmering away as they both jumped for a header. It seemed innocuous and neither man particularly complained about the outcome but Arteta was apoplectic about a suspected elbow and he and Klopp engaged in some choice words. Their respective coaching teams indulged in a spectacular spot of ‘leave it, mate, he’s not worth it’ and the noise levels in Anfield rose to the occasion as both coaches were booked.
Liverpool had four shots, 73.7% possession and the opening goal in the five minutes after that flashpoint. It genuinely seemed to lift them.
10) Back to that offside goal, which Lacazette regretfully buried in the knowledge that Aubameyang had already been flagged. It was one of too few occasions on which Arsenal showed their quality in the attacking third.
A couple of minutes into the second half it was Aubameyang again who Smith Rowe tried to slip behind Virgil van Dijk, but the centre-half recovered well to slide the ball away. Then when the game looked a little beyond Arsenal at 2-0, they constructed an excellent flowing move that sliced Liverpool open. Passing out from defence, Lacazette found space on the right and threaded a perfect pass for Aubameyang to latch onto once more. His low shot towards the far post was saved by Alisson but it is that sort of moment that Arsenal are capable of, and a side they did not display often enough.
11) That is easier said than done against a team the quality of Liverpool, granted. But the two strikers were poor and Smith Rowe and Saka behind them were not much better. Lacazette was substituted soon after that pass, his game ending with three tackles but no shots, while Aubameyang seems far easier for players to defend against then even a year or so ago.
They have both been crucial in Arsenal’s recent revival but, 28-year-old Partey aside, Aubameyang (32) and Lacazette (30) were the only starters older than 24. That presents a problem in terms of the balance of experience, as they certainly needed that sort of older head a little deeper to help influence things and maintain structure.
12) Central midfield was a huge problem for Arsenal, perhaps the biggest contributing factor to their lack of cutting edge. Saka had a few brief moments when dribbling in the first half, while Smith Rowe and Lacazette created at least half-chances for Aubameyang. But there was no control behind those four. Partey was largely anonymous and Albert Sambi Lokonga might wish to have been. The Liverpool three had thrust, force and craft. The Arsenal pairing might as well not really have been there for the majority.
13) That may come with time, as it should not be downplayed just how young this Arsenal team was. Ben White was both the oldest defender and, in Premier League terms, most experienced with 46 appearances. He was caught a couple of times in the first half, leading to shots from Salah both times, and that became something of a theme for Arsenal.
Lokonga made one mistake in possession near his own area and that seemed to snowball into a hail of personal anxiety, while Nuno Tavares really started to struggle. He actually managed to tackle Alexander-Arnold but after dribbling away his blind pass found Jota, who floored White and Ramsdale with dummies before scoring. Five minutes later, Tavares ran down the same blind alley and encountered similar problems.
With Lokonga and Tavares in particular, they have never played against this calibre of opponent, nor such an uncompromising press. Liverpool test teams not only physically but mentally with how they attack in waves and some players will naturally make mistakes under such pressure; that is the idea. Supporters likely prefer for Lokonga and Tavares to make the sort of error they can learn from at early points in their careers, rather than watching Cedric Soares, David Luiz and Willian make infuriating blunders in their 30s. Of course, option c) of Arsenal being consistently brilliant against everyone would be ideal, but this is the reality.
This team is ultimately in the middle of a transition. Of the 12 players Arteta used most in terms of minutes played in the Premier League last season, five were on the bench, four were in the starting XI, two have left and one was injured. Put any team in that situation away at Liverpool and they won’t emerge unscathed.
14) Should probably have played Kieran Tierney in hindsight, mind.
15) The variation in Liverpool’s goal will please Klopp. A set-piece opener, followed by the forcing of a mistake for Jota to score, then two vicious counter-attacks against a team that pressed higher in search of unlikely salvation. The through header from Jota to find Mane and then Salah was sublime. The move that Minamino finished from Alexander-Arnold’s low cross was delightful.
With the goals being shared equally among those forwards, there is hope for Liverpool when the Africa Cup of Nations depletes their squad in the new year. Jota has shown he can shoulder the burden as a starter and the challenge is for Minamino to do the same. But with Alexander-Arnold supplying these bullets at his current rate, they should manage well enough.
16) The longest current unbeaten Premier League run now belongs to Crystal Palace.