Well, that went about as expected. Outside of a few spells of positive possession and a handful of promising moments, Arsenal found themselves on the losing end of the match against the reigning Premier League champions Liverpool. The loss is the first for the Gunners on the season.
If there is one thing that we have learned about Mikel Arteta’s tactics against press-heavy attacking sides, it’s that he is content to have his side sit deep and concede possession, exchanging an aggressive attack for a stronger defensive shape. Unsurprisingly, Arteta stuck with the same plan as their previous two matches against Liverpool. Lining up in the 3-4-3, Arteta made the interesting decision to start a midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, sacrificing the creative nous of Dani Ceballos for a holding midfield duo.
That was not the only surprise decision by the manager. Despite two solid performances to begin the season, debutante defender Gabriel was benched in favor of veterans David Luiz and Rob Holding. Kieran Tierney, who was a late scratch against West Ham last week, started as the left CB.
It didn’t take long for the match to see its first bit of controversy. In the 3rd minute, Sadio Mane caught Tierney in the jaw with his forearm, earning a yellow that looked an awful lot like hands to the face, which is punishable with a red card. Regardless, the Liverpool star was admonished early, something that Arsenal failed to capitalize on as the match progressed.
Liverpool, certainly wanting to make up for the previous two losses to the Gunners, came out in a fury. Bernd Leno was tested early and often, but managed to prevent Liverpool from opening the scoring. Among his saves was an impressive close range save after a Trent Alexander-Arnold low cross was volleyed by Mane from eight yards out directly into the hands of Leno. Arsenal, like much of the league, struggled to deal with the Liverpool attack, which could have easily been netted two or three if not for some Leno heroics and gritty Arsenal last-ditch defending.
It was Arsenal, however, who struck first blood against the run of play. In the 25th minute, Alexandre Lacazette intercepted a pass at midfield before laying off to an open Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the left flank, who barreled forward before putting in an awkward cross that caromed off of Andy Robertson to Lacazette. The number 9 managed a twisting scuffed shot at the edge of the six yard box that bounced over an outstretched Allison. It wasn't pretty, but it counted all the same.
All thoughts of another scrappy stolen win were quickly dashed as Arsenal conceded within minutes. Mohamed Salah found space in the Arsenal box and lashed a curling shot goalward. Leno made an uncharacteristically poor deflection that landed in the path of Mane in the six yard box, and Arsenal’s brief lead was neutralized.
Unfortunately, Arsenal let one goal quickly become two. Liverpool wasted no time driving forward, having already caught Arsenal on their heels. Andy Robertson found himself unmarked at the back post and was met by a TAA cross that the Scotsman chested down before putting it into the net. 2-1, Reds.
The rest of the half was much of the same. Arsenal found themselves with a few promising possessions, but ultimately struggled to make much of them or were caught offside. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was essentially marked out of the first half by a resolute Liverpool defense. Arsenal’s struggles to get in on goal without Auba highlighted the gulf between the talismanic winger and the rest of the Arsenal attack.
The second half started similarly to how the first ended - Liverpool controlled possession and pressed for a third goal, which didn’t come till late on.
In the 60th minute, Arteta subbed Dani Ceballos on for Granit Xhaka, and it was then that Arsenal started to finally grow into the match. Ceballos’ ability to carry the ball and drive toward the goal allowed Arsenal to enjoy several promising spells of possession. In what would be Arsenal’s best chance of the half, Ceballos split the Liverpool defense with a brilliant pass to Lacazette, who found himself one-on-one with Allison. The French striker took an extra touch before attempting to shoot across the onrushing keeper, but the Brazilian net-minder had already closed the space, making a stop with his outstretched right hand.
The match remained fairly even for 20 of the last 30 minutes before Arsenal were put to the sword. Diogo Jota, making his debut for Liverpool after transferring from Wolverhampton, came on for Sadio Mane and proceeded to find ample space out wide, nearly beating Leno on two separate occasions. It was his third effort that finally found the net, as he collected the ball at the edge of the box in the 88th minute and slotted it into the bottom left corner past an outstretched Leno.
The final chance for Arsenal came when Aubameyang, who became more involved in the second half, collected a lofted through ball on the left and drove toward goal. Being closed down by three defenders, he attempted to slide the ball to the right of the box for Eddie Nketiah, but the pass was late and behind the striker.
- Arsenal were neither great nor awful today. A few players put together some solid outings. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was once again a non-stop presence throughout the match. Dani Ceballos was the best player in the second half, and it is a wonder how he didn’t start. Lacazette continued his hot-and-cold form, finding the net once but making a mess of what should have been a second.
- This match highlighted the glaring need for midfield reinforcements. With the ongoing transfer rumors of Houssem Aouar from Lyon picking up more steam, his inclusion in the side would add a much-needed dynamic. Dani Ceballos remains the clubs only reliable creative midfielder, but Arsenal cannot lean on him alone for an entire season, and he is only here on loan. Thomas Partey would also boost the squad, as Granit Xhaka cannot be counted on to play every match, nor can Elneny be counted on for much outside of being a conservative safety valve. Both Aouar and Partey have been heavily linked to Arsenal, and both would bring some much-needed talent and depth.
- While Arteta has leaned on the 3-4-3 for the majority of his tenure, it might be time to start looking at a more traditional 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Arsenal’s attack has become predictable, relying on the wingbacks to push the ball wide before sending in a cross or a cut-back. West Ham did a tremendous job of neutralizing the attack until late on last week, and Liverpool made marking out Aubameyang look all too easy.
- Despite the loss, Arteta has the club headed in the right direction. This could have been a bloodbath under the previous regime, but Mikel has managed to get the most out of the pieces he has at his disposal. With any hope, the board gets him the players he needs.
Arsenal have a quick turnaround before facing Liverpool in the Carabao Cup this Thursday, which will undoubtedly be a battle of the B-teams.