Arsenal and Liverpool played to a frantic, pulsating 1-1 draw at Anfield, a result that ensures the Gunners retain their place atop the table for Christmas. It was a more or less even match. You could fairly argue that either side were the better team. Both could have come away with full points, which means both could have come away empty-handed, too.
Gabriel Magalhaes opened the scoring four minutes into the match, heading home a Martin Ødegaard free kick. After a surprisingly lengthy VAR review (it always seems like they look extra hard when the opportunity to rule an Arsenal goal out is on the table), Gabriel was deemed (well) onside and the goal stood. The Gunners came out flying, creating two good chances inside the opening minute and a half and were rewarded for their strong start. There wasn’t much time lag between the non-converted chances and the goal, but it was definitely a “they might regret not scoring those” situation.
Mo Salah evened the match in the 29th minute, blasting the ball into the roof of the net after an incredible cross-field, long-ball from Trent Alexander-Arnold. Oleksandr Zinchenko didn’t cover himself in glory on the goal, either. He dropped several steps beyond the rest of the defensive line and seemed to freeze for a beat while the ball was in the air trying to judge it. From that moment on, he was on the back foot. When Salah got into the box, he showed him to the middle and onto his left foot, presumably anticipating help from Gabriel Magalhaes, which arrived late. He might have been better served forcing him towards the goal line and onto his right foot, especially because there wasn’t much space.
But you’ve also got to give full credit to the ball from TAA and the finish from Salah. They’re quality players and sometimes you get beat. Let’s put it this way, there might not have been anything the Arsenal defense could have done on the move, but they could have provided more resistance.
Other than that moment (and a fluke break that we’ll get to later), the Arsenal defense was fantastic. William Saliba and Gabriel had magnificent games, as did Declan Rice in front of them. I’m running out of superlatives for Declan. He’s an otherworldly footballer. I will go to my grave believing that if William Saliba doesn’t get hurt last season, Arsenal win the title.
The Liverpool centerback pairing had a strong game as well, Ibrahima Konate in particular. He doesn’t deserve criticism for his performance, but Virgil Van Dijk was a clear 4th of 4 of the centerbacks today, which is a bit of a feather in my cap because I’ve been banging the “he’s not the player he once was” drum for a while. He’s still a very good centerback. He’s not in the same class as William Saliba.
Wataru Endo had a good game in front of his defense but was fortunate to stay on the pitch. Midway through the second half and on a yellow, he dragged down Martin Ødegaard with a foul that looked quite similar to fouls that merited bookings earlier in the match. That seemed to be a theme for referee Chris Kavanagh today. He was quick to his pocket for first yellow cards but not for second ones. More as a laugh than anything else, I’ll mention that Virgil Van Dijk pretty clearly mimed the suggestion that the referee had been drinking after a call went against him. You can’t mime a card. If you are Mikel Arteta, you can’t even wave your arms. But indicating that the referee is drunk is okay, apparently.
Kavanagh was mostly fine on the day, although I think he was a bit lighter on Liverpool with the bookings — Konate and Luis Diaz were both lucky not to have been booked. But that’s to be expected. We know that home-field bias exists. You never want to see a player get injured, but it was a bit of karmic justice that he was forced off with a knock when he came off worse in his attempt to clatter Bukayo Saka. Diaz plays a bit over the edge and out of control and goes through the back of opponents too often for my liking. His late challenge on Ben White in the first half was particularly nasty.
Kavanagh did get the big moment in the match correct. Martin Ødegaard slipped in the Arsenal box and as he flung his arm out to catch his balance, it struck the ball. Liverpool wanted a handball penalty, but Kavanagh did not give it on the pitch, and VAR confirmed his decision. Some will bray about Arsenal getting lucky, but they’re wrong. You can take your pick of reasons why it isn’t a handball: players are specifically allowed to use their arms for balance when going to ground, his arm was in a natural position, close physical and temporal proximity between when the ball was last touched and when it hits the arm.
He also got another important call correct, although it happened so late in the match it might not have had much of an impact. With a few minutes left in regular time, Bukayo Saka, who was on a yellow, beat Ryan Gravenberch to a ball at midfield. As he got there and touched the ball first, he slipped and the two collided. Kavanagh called a foul on Saka, which I disagreed with, but did not produce a second yellow card despite heavy protestations from the Anfield crowd and the Liverpool players.
Speaking of slipping, the Arsenal players lost their balance on the Anfield grass a surprising number of times. There was a suggestion that the pitch might have been over-watered. You’d like to see a Premier League pitch in better shape for a marquee match. And if it was a decision by Liverpool and their groundskeepers to try to give their side an edge, it may have backfired on them.
Liverpool had a chance to go ahead late in the match on a jailbreak, 5 v 2 counterattack. On the back of an Arsenal corner, Martin Ødegaard and Oleksandr Zinchenko (I believe) had a mix up and got in each other’s way (and one or both may have slipped). The Gunners would have easily recycled possession otherwise. Instead, Liverpool broke the other way. Mo Salah laid the ball off to Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose shot hit the bar. On replay, it looked like the ball wasn’t rolling smoothly and may have bobbled before the shot. Was that another bit of karmic justice meted out by the football gods to Liverpool?
Had the football gods not intervened, Liverpool had scored, and the goal stood, I would have been livid. On the break, Darwin Nunez fouled William Saliba multiple times, pulling him back to impede his recovery run. I’m not sure it would have mattered, but given that Saliba had nearly drawn level with Salah when he laid the ball off towards TAA, an unimpeded sprint might have helped break up the play.
My personal gripe with the break aside, a deciding goal off a fluke break would have been an unsatisfactory way to decide a cracking match of football. The sides played an even game with incredible intensity and pace. It was a contest befitting the two top teams in the Premier League and one that lived up to the billing.
Indeed, I was surprised at how fast the match was played. I thought Arsenal might have tried to grind things out and play at their usual, controlled, methodical football. It’s tough to tell whether that was because Liverpool were successfully able to push the pace to where they wanted it or Arsenal set out to play faster and meet Liverpool where they were at.
The more I think about it, the better Arsenal’s performance seems. The match may have been played faster than we’ve seen Arsenal matches this season, but the faster pace, which Liverpool thrive on, didn’t really lead to many Liverpool chances. Whatever chaos Liverpool were able to create in the middle third, Arsenal didn’t allow them to turn it into chances in the final third.
It’s not as if Arsenal can’t play fast. Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli both have pace to burn on the wings, although both were not as influential as you’d like them to be. I’ll chalk Saka’s performance up to being on a yellow card. He pretty cleared slowed down once he’d been booked to avoid being out of control, colliding with someone and / or committing a common foul that gives the referee a chance to make a big decision.
Gabriel Martinelli, on the other hand, is struggling. He’s still involved and looking dangerous, but the end product isn’t there right now. He missed a somewhat-difficult shot at an Alisson-less net in the first half (after Bukayo Saka fought to stay on his feet in a situation where other attackers might have gone to ground). And Martinelli had several forays down the wing and into the box that didn’t amount to much of anything. Perhaps the slippery pitch influenced him. It’s tough to change direction at pace on wet grass.
Martinelli, along with his attacking compatriots, might have scored the decisive goal by taking a chance in the box. Both Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka flashed the ball across the face in the second half, but the run that would have scored was either late-arriving or not made at all. Maybe the attackers were leggy. Everybody in an Arsenal shirt worked really hard off the ball and on defense to keep a lid on Liverpool’s dangerous attack.
You take a point an Anfield. Arsenal could have walked away with all three points. They might also have walked away with no points. As it stands, the Gunners are top of the table at Christmas for the second year running. Hopefully they’ve learned from last year.