In a lot of ways watching Arsenal play Liverpool was surreal. We know how Klopp wants his team to play and they are the toast of the Premier League for it. They press high, they play with energy, and they attack opponents quickly, scoring beautiful one-touch little goals.
Liverpool are also one of the most organized sides in the League. In order to stop Arsenal playing it out from the back, they posted three forwards, spread them out perfectly in front of the Arsenal back four and dared us to try to play the ball to Holding and Mustafi who were split wide on either side of the box.
When Arsenal tried to play it out, they were patient in their press. In a way that was reminiscent of the old Arsenal back four, their front three played like they had a rope between them: pushing the ball back, trying to trap Arsenal into a corner, using the sidelines to squeeze space, and hope to force a turnover. This isn’t the haring around press of Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez, this was a team press. It was as fun to watch them press Arsenal as it was frustrating to watch Arsenal turn the ball over.
There were a few possessions where Arsenal kicked the ball long. There were a few times that Xhaka felt hot breath on his shoulders and kicked the ball out of play. But most of that happened early in the match. As Arsenal grew into the game, pressing from the front themselves, the midfield grew more confident, more assured, and passed the ball nicely through the tiny spaces that Liverpool allowed.
And that Arsenal press up front was something that was also fun to watch. Slightly less organized, Lacazette sometimes running full speed at Allison to close the keeper down, but winning the ball back in their own way. And putting Liverpool under pressure with their own front three attackers. There was even a funny moment where I was laughing because Liverpool’s front three were perfectly spaced and Leno had to go long – which is pretty pointless since van Dijk just swallowed up all the long passes and belched them back into midfield like Bowser spitting fireballs in Super Mario. But then when Allison had the ball, Arsenal did the same thing and there for a moment I saw what Unai was really trying to do with this team. I felt proud of this team, there for that moment: they were breaking pressure from one of the best pressing teams in Europe, they were pressing them right back.
This was a modern football match at its best. Two players up top? Pushaw. That’s ok if you’re Eddie Howe. But this is Arsenal and Liverpool, both teams attacked with three players, Klopp even joked that he was waiting for Emery to bring on van Persie and Bergkamp.
It wasn’t perfect. Arsenal still had a few moments where Mustafi was caught ball watching. Arsenal didn’t quite press in midfield well enough to stop delivery, and Leno was called upon to make a few outstanding saves. Liverpool also struggled to get the ball through Arsenal’s midfield and both team’s defenses left a few gaps, just enough to get some shots off that really got the heart racing.
Is it sour grapes to mention that they were missing some of their best midfielders? No. Is it also sour grapes in return to point out that Emery has had just a few months with this team and when these two teams meet again, Torreira and Xhaka will be even better? No.
Emery likes to talk about the process. Trust the process he says. And part of that process is to slough off the demons of Arsenal’s past. Arsenal exorcised a few demons in this match: dealing with a press, pressing from the top. In the end though most Arsenal supporters have to admit that this Emery side has a lot in it to be excited about. This manager has a lot of potential to be excited about. And this match has the potential to be a hell of a matchup for years to come.