Liverpool were excellent against Arsenal, for whom failure to “do the basics” means desperate trouble for head coach Mikel Arteta.
1) When Arsenal beat Chelsea on Boxing Day it felt like a corner had been turned. A run of seven games without a Premier League win was punctured by a vibrant and youthful victory secured through energy, commitment and quality. The Gunners were brilliant and the momentum of their season had tangibly shifted.
This has the same transformative potential, so bad were Arsenal in defeat to Liverpool. It was chastening and humbling, a deflating reminder of the work that still needs to be done to even solidify guaranteed top-half status. Their heaviest defeat in a Big Six game under Arteta can only ever feel like a demoralising step back under a manager who had at least seemed to figure out how to bridge that considerable gap in one-off matches.
2) If playing an association football game against Arsenal is not enough of an opportunity in itself, Liverpool were presented with added incentive in the form of earlier stumbles by Leicester and Chelsea on Saturday. It had almost become the accepted wisdom that Jurgen Klopp would use the Premier League as a chance to rest his weary players and keep them fresh for the only realistic route into the Champions League – winning the Champions League – yet those slips created a possible conundrum.
The five-point gap to fourth has already been whittled down to two by a Liverpool side who gave a perfect answer and now face one team currently higher than tenth in their seven remaining league fixtures. The Reds were once advised to sacrifice either the Premier League or Champions League to laser-focus their ambitions on one competition. They were crowned European champions that season and missed out on the English title by dropping two points in their last 11 games. Victory is contagious, Klopp knows it and this bizarre campaign could yet be a historically brilliant one at Anfield.
3) That bears repeating when lines such as ‘if Klopp can miraculously lead his depleted side to Champions League glory in Istanbul or guide them to a top-four Premier League finish’ are committed to print. There would be no particular divine intervention involved in this exceptional group of players being guided by a phenomenal manager into achieving either or even both objectives. Their struggles this season with injuries and form seem to have lowered our collective expectations of what they can do as individuals and as a team.
This game might help correct that, so dominant were they almost completely throughout. The first half was a lesson in how to render an opponent utterly incapable of anything. Liverpool shut Arsenal down in every phase, pressing high to force aimless long balls from the back, overloading the midfield to prevent build-up and keeping their defensive shape impeccably. The hosts had a single shot and that would have been ruled out for offside had a sudden gust of wind blown Nicolas Pepe’s weak header past Alisson and his delightful moustache. That might have been Liverpool’s best half all season, with that final touch in front of goal the only thing lacking.
4) That arrived in the second half, in which Arsenal improved and showed more willingness to attack, thus further exposing their weaker points. The Rafael Benitez ‘short blanket’ analogy is timeless. Mikel Arteta had no real choice but to implore his players to just be better at football – they really had been that bad up until half-time – yet that equally played into Liverpool’s hands.
The visitors would likely have scored eventually either way: whether Arsenal continued to offer nothing and hope for the best or offer hope and, at best, accomplish nothing. But Liverpool still needed someone generally untainted by their own ridiculousness this season. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, but mainly the latter two, spent so much of that first half contriving to miss chances in the most creative of ways. Diogo Jota is fresh enough in mind and body to make a vast difference both in these final months of the season and for much longer beyond that.
5) The mitigation for Arsenal is that this came without four of their five best players in possession, with Martin Odegaard ploughing a lonely and anonymous furrow. The poor sod did not have a single shot, key pass or dribble but ended the game with the highest pass accuracy of any player for either team (93.8%), which was a genuinely phenomenal achievement in the context of this game. When so many seemed guilty of actively avoiding the ball, failing to take up proper positions to receive passes or make the necessary runs, he stood out as brave enough to shoulder the responsibility.
6) But yes, that absent quartet. Arsenal desperately missed the quality in build-up play that David Luiz and Granit Xhaka offer, as well as the ability to retain and create in attack that Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe brings. It turns out that Bernd Leno constantly kicking it long was not an adequate Plan B. The side Arteta chose was not particularly bad, imbued with plenty of Premier League, European and international experience and a sprinkling of youth; it was just so imbalanced as a result of a shallow squad impacted by injuries to key personnel.
Luiz and Xhaka might be prone to error but much of that is down to their desire and obligation to take chances. Calum Chambers, Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes are fine players in their own right but that comes far less naturally to them, and even more so when an energised front three are chasing down their every pass. Even on the odd occasion Arsenal did bypass that press and get it to their own forwards, it did not stick for longer than a couple of seconds until the threat was ably removed. These were 90 painful minutes that highlighted just how much work needs to be done on Arsenal’s squad. Kieran Tierney’s absence might expose that further.
7) It did not help that Dani Ceballos was playing on a dodgy stream which was approximately five minutes behind the actual game. The Spaniard was ineffective in midfield both in terms of advancing the ball and resisting the press. There was one point in the first half when he lost two successive tackles and was only spared by James Milner’s poor finish on the edge of the area. Ceballos improved slightly after half-time and did at least start to show for the ball but his removal in the 57th minute felt about an hour too late. At least with Mo Elneny there is no pretence that he is intended to be a regular starter.
8) The initial reaction to Gary Neville referring to Arsenal as “flaky” was to roll the eyes as another pundit wistfully lamented about when they used to down 427 pints before games and how they have failed to replace Patrick Vieira. But comparing the performance of these two teams, there was an element of truth to it. Liverpool zipped into challenges while some Arsenal players seemed to hold something back. Nicolas Pepe v Andy Robertson midway through the first half was a particular mismatch and Alexandre Lacazette was dominated. I feel dirty for even vaguely ascribing to that school of thought, to be honest. And describing Odegaard as such was patently false. But there is still an aspect of fragility to this team, especially up against such an aggressive opponent.
9) Arteta will be most alarmed at his party trick being so thoroughly crashed and crushed. The one aspect in which Arsenal have excelled under him is being brave and skilled enough to pass out from the back against any side. It is a risk-reward strategy that can fail against Burnley but rip through Manchester City; that is the inherent gamble that the Gunners have accepted from the start. But Liverpool barely gave them the opportunity to even try it here.
One of the biggest victims in that regard was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, once the finisher of such flowing team moves and now the elite goalscorer wasted out on the left-hand side in the name of unnecessary sacrifice. He is not a winger. He never will be. Yet Arsenal have engineered a situation whereby he is their best-paid player and captain and has not disrupted the dressing room so has to be crowbarred in somewhere. If it isn’t as a centre-forward then it is not worth it. You almost have to admire the way they have lumbered themselves with another 30-something mega contract situation.
10) Stuart Attwell has had a haircut. Not one of us is in a position to judge.
11) Fabinho was phenomenal. There is so much to be said for a player who takes genuine offence at the mere idea that the opposition might try and advance five yards or so with a pass or dribble. He completed a slide tackle in Arsenal’s defensive third in the first half that was so perfect and ultimately unnecessary that I forgot to take note of who had dared to be in possession of the ball near him, or even why Fabinho was there in the first place.
It is not difficult to understand why Klopp dropped him into central defence to cope with a ludicrous spate of injuries. But his continued inclusion in the position for so long is one of the few ways Liverpool began to mismanage that crisis. He is too important in midfield to sacrifice, too crucial in setting the tone and tempo to use anywhere else. Even in the case of another emergency Fabinho should be a constant in midfield henceforth. There is no better player in the world in the position.
12) Thiago looked much better with that kind of security and comfort alongside him. The way he deflected Fabinho’s pass straight into Trent Alexander-Arnold’s path with a sort of standing judo kick early in the second half in the build-up to another Salah chance was bafflingly good. That was an idea ball in theory and execution from a player who, shockingly enough, continues to improve as the system around him finally settles.
13) Salah missed that chance, taking a poor touch before a weak effort. Liverpool had eight shots by the hour mark but their best openings failed to even reach Leno: Mane’s burst through the centre in the fifth minute before inexplicably passing to the back of Firmino’s heel and Salah getting the ball trapped in his feet from Mane’s low cross spring to mind. Klopp was right to identify that the opportunities were being created and he leaned into the momentum of the game, introducing Jota not for any of the front three but for an understandably tired Robertson.
It was a calculated risk that almost instantly paid off. Klopp could have been forgiven for being a little more cautious but he instead shifting James Milner to left-back and accommodated his four best forwards against a team he suspected might crumble under the added pressure. Jota is now the highest-scoring substitute of the Premier League season and Klopp’s players have scored six off the bench, second only to the eight from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United.
14) “Take a look, Gareth Southgate,” roared Martin Tyler, who added that Trent Alexander-Arnold was “hitting back in the best possible way” with a wonderful cross for Jota’s opening goal.
The idea that Southgate would have “taken a look” at that assist and learned anything new about Alexander-Arnold is laughable. The fact that anything the Liverpool right-back does between now and the summer is going to be viewed through the prism of ‘isn’t the England manager stupid for not picking someone who has never played well for England?’ is deeply and unavoidably regrettable. And Klopp is a sod for playing up to it.
Southgate literally conceded last month that “I feel like I have got to look at myself a bit with Trent. I don’t feel that he has hit that level he’s hit with Liverpool here with England, and other players have. So there is an element of me having to look at how can we do that”. He has publicly accepted some responsibility for his international struggles when he absolutely didn’t have to. So is it really necessary to labour this player-versus-manager narrative for evermore? He is an exceptionally brilliant player for club, if not yet for country. And that really is fine.
15) Holding being out-jumped by Jota for that header was not particularly great, nor was Gabriel providing the most inconsequential of hurdles for Salah to ride for the second, the Brazilian then picking out Alexander-Arnold to help create the third. It felt like some time had passed since the last proper collapse of Arsenal’s mental resolve under concentrated pressure and this was no disappointment.
That second goal from Salah was sublime. The way he slowed his run and waited for Gabriel to commit – the ball from Fabinho was excellent, by the way – followed by his psyching out of Leno before placing the ball between his legs, were definitely the actions of a player so very desperate to leave. Some are only going to appreciate him when he has gone, if even then, and that really is shit.
16) One of the precious few positives for Arsenal is that Arteta seemed genuinely apologetic. He described the display at various points post-match as “unacceptable” and pledged imminent improvements. Similar results and performances have been explained away before as a natural byproduct of facing such excellent teams but this was something else. Arsenal would have struggled against Championship-level opposition on that basis.
But hearing about a failure to do “the basics” and “the simple things” brought to mind one recent player turned manager who was soon found wanting after the initial promise dissipated. Whether the players are unable or unwilling to carry out the tactical demands, or if it is a ploy to deflect from a poor plan that was executed as hoped, that always reflects terribly on the coach. Arteta might find that his employment prospects are hanging by a Europa League thread at this point, and Slavia Prague have already knocked out better sides en route to their foreboding quarter-final date.