Arsenal and Liverpool started the match in an unusually cagey manner. The Gunners were content passing the ball out of the back, Liverpool were content with a light press, and when Liverpool had the ball they too wanted to play out from the back and Arsenal gave them a little pressure. They were in many ways the mirror image of each other, with one play perfectly illustrating this: both sides had an early possession where they moved the ball from keeper to CB (wide), back to keeper, to the DMC, back to the CB (wide other side), and drawing the CF out to that CB, then playing the breaking ball into midfield. Nothing came from either possession, but it was odd to see both center forwards chasing the ball nearly into the corner a few seconds apart from each other and both teams moving the ball in the exact same pattern.
For Arsenal it seemed like Arteta was telling Klopp that his Arsenal side can also play the way that Liverpool play and it was a bold move by the Arsenal manager. Many other sides would travel to Anfield and switch up their playing style, do something much more overtly defensive, and the fans often demand that their team and their managers go for something different in these games. That’s especially true after the match if their side has lost 4-0.
But for Arsenal, at this moment, it was the right call and most fans understand why. After two years of coaching, Arteta seems to have finally hit on a style he wants his team to play and it has produced results. So, after a 10-match unbeaten run it was more important at this moment to test his team and this style to see how they react under the most difficult pressure in the league (or perhaps, top three most difficult). In that way they could figure out where they need to improve.
That seems to have been the plan and it was bold. But it was also slightly naive.
Liverpool seemed bemused by Arsenal’s approach in those first 30 minutes. Klopp’s men seemed content to let this match play out the way that it was going: they had 7 shots, 4 in good areas, and forced Arsenal into 10 clearances. On the other end, Arsenal had 2 shots and struggled to get the ball forward as Liverpool forced them into 10 turnovers and seemed to get shots off those turnovers fairly easily. The best chance for Pool was Sadio Mane’s shot in the 28th minute from very close range, which Ramsdale scrambled to claim after a bit of a bobble.
But Liverpool’s contentment evaporated just a few minutes after that Mane chance. Mane seemed to be interested in turning the heat up in this match and went in for an aerial duel with his elbow quite high. It’s the kind of challenge that can draw a red card – especially if you swing it – and Mikel Arteta let the officials know how he felt. Klopp wasn’t a fan of Arteta trying to get his player sent off and let Arteta know about that. Arteta wasn’t a fan of Klopp telling him not to tell the officials what to do and he let him know about that. Then both men started waving their arms at each other and telling their assistants to “hold me back!” like they were going to fight.
The official tried to calm things down by giving both men a yellow card but the entire incident had the opposite effect. Liverpool found a second gear and with the Anfield crowd behind them started snapping into tackles, pressing Arsenal off the ball, and camping high in Arsenal’s half. Arsenal were like Inigo Montoya saying to the dread pirate Westley “I must admit, you are better than me, but I know something you do not know, I’m not left handed” and then switching to his right hand. Only for Liverpool to respond “There’s something I ought to tell you. I’m not left-handed either.”
Tsimikas ghosted Tomiyasu and put in a draw back for Salah. Ramsdale needed to make another brilliant close-range save. Arsenal were cut open again a minute later as Trent Alexander-Arnold got off a great shot.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, however. With Liverpool pressing extremely high there was a breakaway chance for Arsenal which needed an inch-perfect stop by Fabinho but that’s exactly whet he did.
Then Aubameyang fouled someone with a very poor slide tackle and got away without a yellow card but conceded a free kick on the right side. Trent Alexander-Arnold stepped up and pumped in a perfect cross. Gabriel couldn’t get to the ball, and despite the fact that he’s the smaller man, Mane scored a header, powered down and through Ramsdale’s hand.
Liverpool dominated from that point on. When Arsenal had the ball, Liverpool pressed high and completely eviscerated Arsenal’s strategy to play out the back. Under Liverpool’s organized press, Arsenal’s players were forced to dribble into cul-de-sacs or make passes to dangerous areas. By my count, Liverpool created 6 shots off pressure between the 33rd and 60th minutes, including one for a goal for Jota, which was one of the best goals you’ll see all season. By the time that Arsenal realized that they should probably switch up tactics, it was too late and Liverpool had a two-goal lead.
Mane has gotten a lot of criticism from Arsenal supporters and he did put himself about several times in this match (including twice against Tomiyasu, the second time resulting in the Arsenal players coming to Tomi’s rescue) but the fact is that Arsenal could have used a player like that yesterday, someone to fire them up and get into it with the opponents. Instead, Arsenal seemed to go limp after the second goal and though there was one good shot for Aubameyang, Liverpool were hardly ruffled. Only Ramsdale’s saves kept this match from turning into a bigger rout than 4-0.
Liverpool were just very good. Their last two goals showed a class in attack that is sorely lacking at Arsenal. Jota created a counter attack from nothing with a brilliant flicked header, and Mane’s cross to Salah for the goal was superb. And for the 4th goal Alexander-Arnold did what he does best – getting in deep and drilling an unstoppable cross which only needed a body on the end of it to score.
After the match, Arteta said he’s taken lessons from this match, that it was a learning opportunity. But it’s difficult to tell what lessons Arsenal can take other than Liverpool are still miles ahead of Arsenal. Arsenal may be in 5th place (as of this article) but after watching Chelsea, Liverpool, and Man City this weekend you’d have to conclude that Arsenal aren’t in that group.
Many saw this match as a test for Arsenal after their 10-match unbeaten run. It was supposed to be a match which told us more about Arteta’s playing style and the abilities of his team, to tell us what level Arsenal can aspire to. Well, there’s no question Arsenal are not a top three team so it seems that the real test is coming up when Arsenal play Man U, West Ham, and Everton. That’s where we will see where they fit in race for the 4th place cup.