As last night’s Premier League game approached, it’s fair to say that Arsenal’s form since the restart has been something of a mixed bag.
After a disastrous opening two games away to Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal soon turned their form around with impressive wins over Southampton, Sheffield United in the FA Cup, Norwich and Wolves, before slumping to a draw at home to Leicester City and a humiliating North London Derby defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur.
Coming up against the current champions Liverpool, you’d be forgiven for a somewhat puzzled look as Head-Coach Mikel Arteta named a team that was far from his best eleven.
Héctor Bellerín, Sead Kolašinac, Shkodran Mustafi, Dani Ceballos and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all dropped, with Arsenal’s head coach keep a furtive eye on his side’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Saturday.
For Liverpool, it was business as usual, but for the injured Jordan Henderson, Jürgen Klopp’s team very much picked itself, with Liverpool’s formidable front three of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah no doubt licking their lips with glee at the thought of coming up against a backline of David Luiz, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney.
It wasn’t totally unexpected what we saw.
Liverpool asserted their dominance over the home side, much the same as they have against almost every other team this season. Good areas of possession and their ruthlessly efficient gegenpress technique was forcing Arsenal into a series of mistakes. Granit Xhaka was caught wanting in midfield more than once, Rob Holding struggled to remain composure in his passing and Emiliano Martínez, who has been exceptional in the absence of Bernd Leno, was spared his blushes as his attempted clearance was blocked by Roberto Firmino and grazed the post. The warning signs were there.
Soon enough though, the holes at the back for Arsenal were starting to become exposed. Andy Robertson winning a header against new boy Cédric Soares led to some nice build-up play between Georginio Wijnaldum and Firmino and led to Robertson tearing past Rob Holding to square the ball for Sadio Mané to slot home the opener. You couldn’t say it hadn’t been coming and Arsenal’s already remarkably difficult task had just got a lot harder.
If there is anything that Mikel Arteta can be commended for so far in his tenure with Arsenal, is his instance that his players remain focused and don’t let their heads drop. Such a scenario under Arsène Wenger or even Unai Emery would have likely opened the floodgates for more attacks and likely more goals, but Arsenal kept at it and soon, their own pressing game gave Liverpool a taste of their own medicine as Virgil van Dijk was put under pressure by the onrushing Reiss Nelson, which forced the £75m defender to sell his goalkeeper short on the passback and the loose ball was pounced upon by Arsenal’s captain for the evening Alexandre Lacazette, who rounded Alisson and slotted home the equaliser from a tough angle.
It’s a testament to Arteta and his philosophy that Arsenal kept at it and they got their just rewards. Arsenal are starting to see the added benefits of pressuring the goalkeeper, as was shown by Eddie Nketiah’s goal at Southampton and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first against Norwich, now Lacazette can add himself to the list. As Mikel Arteta said in his post-match interview: “If you press, you’ll force mistakes”.
With a few minutes to go to half-time, it seemed as if both sides would likely take the result in at the break. Liverpool would have plenty to build off and would be able to shrug off their earlier mistake and it would be a chance for Arteta to do some damage control and likely sure things up for a rather hopeful point, but after Robertson threw the ball back to Alisson from a throw-in, Reiss Nelson once again pressed high and forced the keeper into an error.
The Brazilian’s pass to Robertson was intercepted by the tenacious Lacazette whose touch took him out wide, dragging both Robertson and van Dijk out of position and leaving Nelson free in the middle. The ball in was good, as was Nelson’s first touch and soon enough, Arsenal had their second and Reiss Nelson had his first-ever league goal for Arsenal.
Mercifully for Arsenal, half-time was ushered in soon afterwards.
While the half-time scoreline wasn’t totally expected, one thing that was, was Liverpool’s intention on taking their frustrations out on a very nervous Arsenal defence and, sure enough, the backline was welcome to an onslaught of possession from Liverpool.
Arteta changed things around, switching in Aubameyang, Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock in the hopes of stemming the tide, but Liverpool still marched forward and still, they couldn’t find a way through. A wonderful ball forward from van Dijk to Trent Alexander-Arnold meant the right-back could finally bomb forward, the England international pulled it back and Mohamed Salah danced his way through two tackles before prompting an acrobatic save from Martínez to keep Arsenal ahead, the look from Salah of “What else could I have done there” showed how impressive the Argentine has been since stepping in for Bernd Leno.
Liverpool changed a few things up themselves, with former-Arsenal forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being switched out for January signing Takumi Minamino. Minamino began to wreak havoc of his own and came achingly close to equalising for Liverpool with his shot fizzing just wide of Martínez’s post.
With the introduction of Aubameyang, Ceballos and Willock, Arsenal had struck an odd shape. Willock seemed to be drifting out wide, Aubameyang on the left, Nicolas Pépé through the middle and Ceballos dropping into midfield in case of a counter-attack and for the most part, no such avenue presented itself, until Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolašinac combined well to release Aubameyang who skimmed a ball across the penalty area, only for Willock to slice his effort wide in the dying embers of the match.
However, the most impressive side of Arsenal’s defence would not reveal itself until Liverpool took a short corner in the last few seconds. Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner was given to Robertson, who cut it back for Alexander-Arnold, who saw the angle open up for him and decided to have a go, though his shot was charged down by Willock it was still heading goalwards before Martínez acrobatically managed to tip the shot onto the post.
When Paul Tierney mercifully brought an end to Liverpool’s onslaught, there was a definite feeling of relief that echoed around the mostly empty Emirates Stadium. Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff knew all too well that the performance did not justify the result and that the Football Gods had been unmistakably cruel on Liverpool and surprisingly kind to Arsenal.
Despite their possession and their attempts on goal, Jürgen Klopp graciously admitted in his post-match press interview that Arsenal deserved their victory, saying “You can’t lose focus in the Premier League” with his team’s two rare errors leading to Liverpool’s downfall. Despite his team’s victory, Mikel Arteta wasn’t in the buoyant mood one might have expected with the Spaniard saying “The gap between the two teams today is enormous. We can not improve it in two months, but the accountability, the fight is now equal and I am very proud of that. The rest will take some time.” When pressed over his team’s potential finances heading into the extended transfer window in two weeks, Arteta simply responded “I don’t know” and it’s clear to see that his job looks even harder than when he started in December.
26.) Emiliano Martínez
23.) David Luiz
16.) Rob Holding
3.) Kieran Tierney
17.) Cédric Soares (Maitland-Niles 76′)
11.) Lucas Torreira (Ceballos 57′)
34.) Granit Xhaka
77.) Bukayo Saka (Kolašinac 85′)
24.) Reiss Nelson
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Aubameyang 57′)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Willock 57′)
33.) Matt Macey
2.) Héctor Bellerín
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulous
8.) Dani Ceballos
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
28.) Joe Willock
31.) Sead Kolašinac
1.) Alisson Becker
66.) Trent Alexander-Arnold
4.) Virgil van Dijk
12.) Joe Gomez
26.) Andrew Robertson
15.) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Keïta 61′)
5.) Georginio Wijnaldum (Shaqiri 83′)
11.) Mohamed Salah (Origi 83′)
9.) Roberto Firmino (Minamino 61′)
10.) Sadio Mané
6.) Dejan Lovren
8.) Naby Keïta
18.) Takumi Minamino
23.) Xherdan Shaqiri
27.) Divock Origi
48.) Curtis Jones
67.) Harvey Elliott
76.) Neco Williams