Perhaps it was apprehension, possibly fear, in part surely a little laziness. Certainly, though, Arsenal could in no way be surprised by the way Liverpool started: pressing high up the pitch, bursting down either flank, flustering their opponents into a general state of panic.
Yet, the Gunners still seemed like a deer caught in the floodlights of their own stadium. Andrew Robertson barrelled past the limp Cedric Soares at will, Roberto Firmino almost capitalised on a mistake by Emiliano Martinez. At one point, you started to wonder whether Arsenal would ever comfortably play their way out of their own half. So, when the goal did eventually come after 22 minutes, it had already long felt inevitable. If anything, a little overdue.
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Robertson won the header, burst down the left wing on the overlap and didn’t even need to take a glance up to sense Sadio Mane lurking on the edge of the six-yard box. The cut-back was perfect, the finish was routine.
Arsenal had barely had a sniff at goal, with the game taking on the rhythm of a training game, Liverpool launching wave after wave of attack, probing for openings and finding them in plentiful supply. Then, out of the blue, something bizarre occurred. Something so out of character, you blinked and stuttered and wondered if you’d missed the obvious joke.
It was an extraordinary mistake by Virgil van Dijk; the first individual error he’s made leading to a goal since March 2019. Under slight pressure from Reiss Nelson, the centre-back seemed to totally lose concentration, lost in half-speed, his mind drifting towards the end of the season: the finish line, trophy presentation and gala celebrations. His backpass was mishit and Alexandre Lacazette stole in to score the simplest of equalisers.
The second came in equally tragicomic fashion. Alisson, a usually impermeable rock, also fluffed his pass and Lacazette pounced again, this time returning the favour for Nelson. Just like that, Arsenal had taken the most improbable and, in truth, undeserved lead. But Liverpool only had themselves to blame.
Mikel Arteta made five changes to the side defeated in the north London derby last weekend, with Lacazette, Nelson, Cedric, Bukayo Saka and Lucas Torreira all afforded a starting berth. The Gunners no doubt have one eye on the FA Cup semi-final, their best and, in truth, probably only route to next season’s Europa League. But few of those players – Saka aside – did anything of note to take their opportunity. Nelson scored, of course, becoming the fifth player aged 20 or under to do so for the Gunners this season, but remains behind Saka in the pecking order. Lacazette is industrious and a real asset in defence, but lacks the speed and incision of Aubameyang, while Torreira is still understandably shaking the rust of a broken ankle.
Changes did allow Arteta the chance to experiment with his system, though. The five at the back formation seems deadset, providing extra stability to a shoddy defence. But after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Joe Willock were introduced in the second half, the latter played as something closer to a false-nine as Arsenal attempted to sit tight and spring on the counter as Liverpool began to dominate possession. Rarely ever a side known for holding onto victory without panic, this time, that structure somehow stayed together.
In the 10 minutes prior to the second half drink’s break, Liverpool boasted 92 per cent of possession. Even then, that only tells half the story of their dominance, relentlessly careering downfield, Arsenal incapable of stemming the tide. Yet, for all Liverpool’s attempts, their cutting edge had deserted them. Mohamed Salah’s header was tame, Takumi Minamino got caught in two minds, Gini Wijnaldum’s header soared high over the bar. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, Liverpool had taken 17 shots to Arsenal’s two.
There’s little surprise that Jurgen Klopp’s side are finding it harder to motivate themselves, even if it was much to the manager’s frustration, who wore a hangdog and disbelieving expression for much of the night. The 100-point barrier is, in reality, an insignificant mantle compared to all their achievements thus far, even if it’s painted as something to keep the meaning of their remaining fixtures alive. You can’t help but feel that, if there was that extra edge to fight for, Liverpool would have found the breakthrough.
It was a scoreline that would shock many, a loss that was totally of Liverpool’s own making. But Arsenal’s ability to stand firm in the second half was impressive. Three points can only push Arsenal as high as ninth, though, with three points and as many teams still separating them from the Europa League places. The financial benefits cannot be understated, but barring any miracle, it’s too little too late for Arteta’s side. Instead, their hope lies in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Man City, and if they are to conquer that uphill task, a final against Chelsea or Manchester United. It’s not impossible, but any success will come far harder than tonight.
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