I am more than happy to say that I was wrong about this one. I thought Liverpool were going to snap out of their post-title-winning funk and absolutely batter Arsenal today. That feeling was heightened when Mikel Arteta’s lineup looked as if he was more focused on beating Manchester City at the weekend than Liverpool tonight. Sometimes, it’s okay to be wrong.
For the first 15 to 20 minutes of tonight’s match, Liverpool were rampant. Arsenal’s defense looked as if they were defending at 3/4ths speed on the training pitch the way the Reds went through them for Sadio Mane’s first goal. Cedric made a mistake, David Luiz’s positioning wasn’t great, and Granit Xhaka completely failed to track a runner. It was a Greatest Hits of Arsenal defensive miscues. It looked as if Arsenal were in for a long night.
Then came the drinks break. For whatever reason, Arsenal have looked better coming out of the breaks, and if football pundit Twitter is to be believed, Liverpool have looked worse. The Reds weren’t nearly as threatening on the attack and committed to Arsenal-esque defensive errors for turnovers that led to goals against. On the first, Reiss Nelson pressured Virgil Van Dijk into a bad pass and Alexandre Lacazette scored. On the second, Alexandre Lacazette intercepted an errant Alisson pass and returned the favor to Nelson (for his first Premier League goal). Pressuring opposing defenses and keepers into mistakes and capitalizing on them is a definitely a feature of Mikel Arteta’s setup. We’ve seen it several times now.
Arsenal sat back in the second half and defended pretty well. Liverpool had a ton of possession and a bunch of shots, but Emi Martinez was only forced into a handful of saves. His diving save in the 95th minute of a double deflected shot was spectacular. Arsenal have a genuine keeper “controversy” when Bernd Leno comes back. Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney had strong games. Holding’s last-ditch defending is really good — his timing for lunging shot blocks and saving tackles is consistently spot on. Tierney essentially shut down Mo Salah, which is extremely hard to do. Shout out to Ainsley Maitland-Niles who, after misjudging Sadio Mane’s run and letting him in behind, recovered well to pressure the attacker into misplacing his shot without giving away the foul and penalty.
I don’t want referee-complaining to take away from today’s good feeling (and I know that I’m a bit more complain-y than most), but that Trent Alexander-Arnold challenge on Bukayo Saka was bad. It was virtually the same challenge for which Eddie Nketiah had a yellow VAR’ed to a red — the only difference was TAA’s foot was slightly lower. But it was studs up, over the ball, into an opponent’s leg. Textbook red card. And it wasn’t even looked at by VAR. I can understand not seeing that it was a red card challenge at full speed because things happen quickly. But I cannot fathom how the challenge wasn’t even reviewed. I’d be less upset if they had reviewed it and decided that a yellow was warranted, but they didn’t even take a second look. Perhaps Arsenal took the restart too quickly and didn’t protest enough, but they shouldn’t have to. VAR should be catching that, and it didn’t.
Anyway. As TSF’s Godfather Ted Harwood said, Arsenal have been on the other side of matches like this for years and years. Utter domination of a weaker team only to lose by a goal on something silly. I could do without Arsenal being as far behind Liverpool from a quality standpoint, but it’s really nice to be on the other side of that match script for a change.
The three points are massive. Arsenal are still alive for a Europa place.
Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday. Time for some cup magic. If we take something from today, it’s that anything can happen.