Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: After a dominating first half display with plenty of shots and nothing to show for it, an Arsenal error eventually gifted the opposition a goal that secured another defeat for the Gunners.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m tiring of this script. I’ve seen this movie too many times before. It’s Charlie Brown optimistically running at that football for the umpteenth time. It’s Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill once more. It is all so thoroughly expected at this stage. And it sucks.
The starting lineup saw Mikel Arteta make several changes to the usual lineup - 5 in total, with the most notable change coming in the form of Kai Havertz starting at striker in the place of the injured Gabriel Jesus. Reiss Nelson started on the left wing, with Jorginho anchoring the 6 and Jakub Kiwior at left back. Aaron Ramsdale also made a rare start in place of David Raya.
To Arteta’s credit, the changes were largely successful, especially in the early stages. In the 3rd minute, a long ball released Nelson, who had beaten Ibrahima Konate, in behind and through on goal. Despite evading an onrushing Allison, an errant touch (and some good positioning from Konate) forced him into an awkward wide angle and his shot hit the outside of the post. From kickoff, the Gunners looked far more spry than when they played last weekend against Fulham, and they routinely broke Liverpool’s press with ease. The Gunners were largely unbothered by Liverpool, who rarely threatened.
But once more, Arsenal’s inability to finish great chances torpedoed a very winnable match. Arsenal could have - and should have - been up by multiple goals by the end of the first half. The most fruitful chance came in the 11th minute, when a defensive error by Liverpool led to Havertz dribbling in from the right before laying it off to Nelson, whose shot was blocked by Konate. The ball caromed around before Martin Ødegaard crushed a shot from 12 yards off the crossbar, and the sequence ended with a Bukayo Saka shot blocked. It was the epitome of Arsenal’s scoring woes these last few weeks, all wrapped up into a 10 second sequence.
It was lather, rinse, repeat throughout the match. Havertz had an uncontested header sail wide of the post on a corner. Gabriel Magalhaes flew through the air for a header only to whiff entirely from 6 yards out. Countless cutbacks were over-hit or crossed to empty space. It was a lesson in futility like no other.
Few people, though, had as wasteful an outing as Bukayo Saka. No one in the squad is in a worse run of form at the moment. His dry spell has become a full on drought, and he is playing like a man with zero confidence. You can nearly hear the gears in his head grinding to a halt with every attacking sequence. It’s evident he is desperate to get back on the score sheet, but that has led to him forcing poor shots and making head-scratching decisions in and around the box. He needs a rest and a reset more than just about anyone.
It looked like the match was heading to a replay when it all unraveled for the Gunners in the 80th minute. After Ødegaard conceded a foul near the Arsenal end line, Jakub Kiwior headed home the subsequent Trent Alexander Arnold cross. The irony that the moment the Gunners finally put a ball in the net it was their own is not lost on us or half the internet. But it was a dagger of the most deflating kind. Liverpool didn’t seem particularly bothered afterward, knowing that the hosts wouldn’t find the net even if Allison went into the concourse for a pie. A 95th minute Luis Diaz goal sealed the match, and now Arsenal are once more left with no one to blame for the result but themselves.
The result would be more comedic if it wasn’t so predictable at this stage. The Gunners largely didn’t put a foot wrong, but in front of goal, they couldn’t put a foot - or head, or knee, or anything - right, despite numerous chances. Arsenal doubled Liverpool’s xG at 1.89 to 0.85. I cannot for the life of me remember a worse patch in front of goal for Arsenal, who have 3 goals in 5 matches, are now goalless at home for over 180 minutes despite registering a combined 48 shots.
I hate to say it, but it’s a relief knowing that Arsenal will not be playing again for nearly two weeks, when they host Crystal Palace on the 20th of January. The club is in a bad way and needs to rediscover their confidence in front of the goal. The chances are there, which make the issue that much more tough to comprehend. Arsenal need to score, and not just because that’s what wins matches. Scoring goals changes the complexion of the match. If Arsenal are up 1-0 early and 2-0 at halftime, I think Liverpool lose their fight, especially in a cup match when they still have the Premier League and Europa League to contend for.
The longer matches go on without a goal, the higher the pressure on Arsenal’s defense to keep the opposition out, too. The defense has been less stout than usual, but some of that is direct reflection of the attack’s inability to do their job when needed. The defense is not without it’s issues at times - especially on set pieces - but the brunt of this poor run of from lands firmly on the shoulders of the attack.
So Arsenal begin 2024 the way they ended 2023 - frustratingly. The next two weeks should provide some much-needed respite for players and fans alike. Let’s hope they can get it figured out soon, or else the second half of the season is going to be long and painful.