As I’m sure you’re all painfully aware, Arsenal were thoroughly beaten by Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday. The stats of the game were heavily in favour of the home side and they go some way in providing the reasons for the final score (3-1). They had more possession, more shots both on and off target, and the ball spent most of the 90 minutes in the third of the pitch which the Gunners were defending. But the most damning piece of information is the fact that this was now the fourth consecutive defeat away to Liverpool; ever since the 3-3 draw back in January 2016, Arsenal have been unable to get a single point there.
However, is it really the right time to compare the levels and the stages of progress the two teams are in at the moment?
First of all, it’s worth pointing out at this point that Jurgen Klopp has been at the helm at Liverpool for almost four years now. It wasn’t all that great for them either when the charismatic German took over from Brendan Rodgers in October, 2015. It shouldn’t be forgotten that at the time, Liverpool were a team that, having beaten Manchester City at the Etihad, would go on to lose at home to Crystal Palace. They got thrashed 3-0 by Watford at the Vicarage. Having beaten Arsenal at the Emirates in the opening round of the 2016/17, the lost the following week to Burnley at Turf Moor.
The point is, Klopp had plenty of work to do, plenty of problems to solve, to put some balance into the way his team were performing – and it took time. Now, they are the Champions League holders and the only team that seem capable of challenging Manchester City for the Premier League title. So the main question that Arsenal fans should be asking themselves at this point is certainly whether there is any shame, or real reason for worry, in losing to this Liverpool team at Anfield? Remember, it is the place where Barcelona conceded four earlier this year. It is the place where Manchester City were forced to play a lot more defensive than they usually do in order to stem the tide and get away with a point last season, and were comprehensively beaten twice the season before.
Pep Guardiola recently spoke about coming to play at Anfield, in an attempt to explain what had happened to Barcelona in that incredible second leg of the Champions League semifinal. One of the things he pointed out most strongly was that the well-known Liverpool slogan “This Is Anfield” is not a mere marketing spin. Arsene Wenger also spoke on more than one occasion about the difficulties of playing there.
Looking at the game itself, it seemed for a long time that Unai Emery had got a lot of things right. He arranged his team in a 4-4-2 diamond, realizing perhaps that without Hector Bellerin or Kieran Tierney, there was no point in contesting the wide areas against the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. Instead, his defenders stayed narrow and focused on defending the crosses the opposition fullbacks kept whipping in. And they defended them well, right until that fateful corner at the end of the first half. That moment was a big mistake from Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
The Greek seemed to have been trying to mark both Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk all by himself – a bit of a tall order, you’d think. He was firmly holding van Dijk by the shirt and jumped to challenge Matip in the air at the same time. By doing so, not only did he diminish his own chances of winning that duel, but he also prevented Matteo Guendouzi from jumping. Had Matip failed to score, VAR would have most likely given a penalty. It was a moment of complete lack of reasoning by Sokratis.
The difficulty of playing against Liverpool increased many-fold with that goal, as they now had the lead and played with lot less pressure on their backs. And the last thing Arsenal needed at that point was a lazy piece of defending. David Luiz allowing Salah to slide past him and then pulling his shirt in a fairly obvious way can’t be described in any other way. Penalty, yellow card, 2-0. And as if that wasn’t enough, Luiz then allowed himself to be pulled out of position by Salah instead of staying put and forcing the Liverpool forward to take him on directly. Once so high up, it was fairly easy for Salah to utilize his pace and escape Luiz, with the Brazilian unable to foul him due to the possibility of getting sent off. 3-0.
Make no mistake, the only reason Arsenal were able to pick their game up late on and score the consolation goal was because Liverpool had relaxed far too much towards the end.
But this is where the right perspective becomes crucial. It was Liverpool, at Anfield, where they have now played 42 Premier League games without a single defeat. The optimism some of the Gunners were publicly expressing before the game was all fine, but realistically, it wasn’t to be expected that Arsenal, at this particular point, would break that impressive streak.
Do they have the tools? Yes. Despite this particularly bad game from Luiz, he will prove a significant signing through the course of the season, as well as Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos, who obviously need some time to adjust to playing in England and be more mentally prepared to play at a stadium like Anfield. Pepe in particular gave Liverpool quite a few things to think about, but his lack of focus at a few crucial moments prevented him from really making his mark on the pitch.
Other opponents will come, and if Arsenal only allow the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City to outplay them, they should comfortably make the top four at the end of the season, which is what this season should be all about, really. Once we get there, there will be time to talk about the next step.