Mikel Arteta and his men entered Monday night’s match against Liverpool with a 100% win record against Jürgen Klopp and his men. A win in the Premier League last season and triumph in the Community Shield had given Arsenal suitable course for being a little cocksure as they travelled to Merseyside.
Though Arteta has experimented with a midfield three formation in recent weeks, Arsenal reverted to a back five on Monday night. The tactic wasn’t without justification, Arsenal have beaten Liverpool twice with this formation and Liverpool’s struggles with a low-block have proven to be their downfall in the past.
Following on from last week’s Carabao Cup win over Leicester City, Arsenal opted for a more senior approach, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and co. returning to the starting eleven.
It was expected that from the get-go, Jürgen Klopp’s patented heavy-metal football, gegenpress style would unleash itself on the Arsenal side and Liverpool did not dissapoint. Straight from kikc-off, Liverpool smothered Arsenal in a way that few teams in world football are capable of doing.
Arsenal sat back as best they could, but Liverpool managed to find themselves into a number of different pockets of space and Arsenal struggled to contain the roaming Georginio Wijnaldum and the primed Sadio Mané.
In previous matches, Liverpool have struggled to create much from the wings, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson usually being marked out of the matches by the impressive Kieran Tierney or Héctor Bellerín, however, Arsenal had no such luck this time around as Alexander-Arnold found himself creating chances more freely as Tierney had his hands full with the dangerous Mohamed Salah.
But for all of Liverpool’s dominance, it was Arsenal who took an unexpected lead. Arteta’s playing out from the back once again proved to be Arsenal’s best solution moving forward and a quick break saw Ainsley Maitland-Niles break forth, however, his somewhat tame cross was poorly cleared by Robertson, which allowed Alexandre Lacazette the chance to bundle the ball over a falling Alisson, to give Arsenal an undeserved lead at a ground they have not won at since 2012.
Arsenal’s jubilations were excruciatingly short-lived however, as Sadio Mané soon drew Liverpool level. Moh Salah’s somewhat selfish effort was palmed out into Mané’s path by Bernd Leno, who tapped in the equaliser. From there, the floodgates opened.
Barely six minutes later, Liverpool broke forward again on their right-wing and Alexander-Arnold’s inch-perfect ball found Robertson free in the box, with Bellerín and Willian failing to track their man and Robertson calmly slotted home Liverpool’s second.
Arsenal’s first-half showing had been poor. Hemmed in their own half and only through Andy Robertson’s shanked clearance, did they have a goal.
The second-half was a much stronger performance. Though Arsenal lacked the quality to be able to match Liverpool toe-to-toe, they were able to at least fashion themselves some early chances, two of which fell to Lacazette, who’s cute chip for the first was ruled offside and the second, a somewhat tame effort that was kept out by Allisson. Lacazette’s golden opportunity to draw Arsenal level was echoed in his sentiments as he sat on the sub’s bench following his subtitution for Eddie Nketiah, as the Frenchman covered his face with his shirt, the undeniable look of a man who wanted the ground to simply open up and swallow him whole.
Arsenal struggled to create much more, but the introduction of Dani Ceballos certainly promoted a more creative approach to the game from Arsenal. Where Arsenal’s tactic had been for David Luiz to release any of Arsenal’s lightening quick attackers, Ceballos’ introduction allowed Arsenal to create from deeper in the midfield.
Despite Arsenal’s marked improvement, Liverpool continued in much the same fashion and in the 88th minute, the Gunners’ fate was sealed as Diogo Jota rifled home his first Liverpool goal on his Premier League debut.
For Arsenal, a loss wasn’t totally unexpected, despite their exceptional record against Liverpool under Arteta entering the game, Liverpool were always going to dominate both the ball and the opponent. Their bullish approach exposed the need for a more contained Arsenal midfield.
It could not be plainer to anyone who has followed Arsenal’s transfer window, why their interest in Thomas Partey and Houssem Aouar is as concrete as it is. Xhaka and Elneny were easily surpassed in midfield and Ceballos’ introduction only introduced a small amount of creativity.
With their back-five formation, Arsenal have a tendency to usurp their own midfield. This is usually not a problem when you have David Luiz who can ping a forty-yard pass to feet like it’s nothing, but for a while, it was Arsenal’s only point of recourse. A ball-carrying box-to-box midfielder like Partey or a creative midfielder like Aouar or the exiled Mesut Özil would have likely lessened the load on Arsenal’s attacking three.
For Arsenal, it was a sobering reminder that there is a long way to go before they are where they want to be, despite some encouraging early signs, but now their attention switches from trying to mastermind a win at Anfield in the Premier League, to trying to mastermind a win at Anfield in the Carabao Cup.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
23.) David Luiz
16.) Rob Holding
3.) Kieran Tierney
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
34.) Granit Xhaka (Ceballos 60′)
25.) Mohamed Elneny
12.) Willian (Pépé 68′)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 74′)
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
31.) Sead Kolašinac
8.) Dani Ceballos
7.) Bukayo Saka
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
1.) Alisson Becker
66.) Trent Alexander-Arnold
12.) Joe Gomez
4.) Virgil van Dijk (c)
26.) Andy Robertson
8.) Naby Keïta (Milner 79′)
5.) Georginio Wijnaldum
11.) Mohamed Salah
9.) Roberto Firmino (Minamino 91′)
10.) Sadio Mané (Jota 90′)
76.) Neco Williams
7.) James Milner
17.) Curtis Jones
18.) Takumi Minamino
20.) Diogo Jota
27.) Divock Origi