I texted my brother, the Mugsmasher, before kick-off and said, “This could be a mad game.”
When the final whistle blew, I don’t think I was wrong. Arsenal beat Liverpool 3-1 and deserved all three points based on the performances of the two sides, but this game played out to a script I don’t think too many people could have written beforehand.
We were without Gabriel Jesus, so – as he did in the FA Cup game – Mikel Arteta started Jorginho in midfield with Kai Havertz nominally up front. The German had his moments there, but often became part of a midfield quartet that left Liverpool a bit unsure of themselves. The first big chance came when a quick David Raya throw sent Gabriel Martinelli down the left, his cross into the middle was met by Bukayo Saka but, with perhaps a little nudge from Joe Gomez, he headed wide.
You thought, ‘Not again’. The cup game was lost because we didn’t take first half chances, but it didn’t take long to make amends. After Cody Gakpo had shot wide up the other end, Arsenal fashioned a nice move between Oleksandr Zinchenko and Martin Odegaard to send Havertz in behind. The defender wasn’t catching him, but his effort was saved by Alisson. Thankfully though it fell for Saka who took a touch and blasted it home from relatively close range. 1-0.
That gave us the platform to mostly control the first half. There were moments, half-chances that we might have done better with, but there wasn’t much in the way of threat from Liverpool. I think it’s fair to say they had something of an off-day overall, but I also think Arsenal deserve credit for how they prevented them from finding space and making the kinds of opportunities they create almost every other game.
Then, when you thought we were going to take a 1-0 lead into the break, we gifted them a goal. William Saliba had control of a fairly speculative ball over the top, but he dallied – expecting Raya to come and claim – allowing Luis Diaz to poke it back into the middle. It could have gone anywhere. Nine times out of ten it trickles to relative safety, this time it hit Gabriel’s hand and scuttered over the line to make it 1-1. To concede just before the break was a sickener.
I’ve watched it again, and while I don’t think either player covers themselves in glory, for me Saliba has to clear it. He’s in control and he can take all the jeopardy out of the situation by launching it upfield. I know it’s not what he does most of the time, but even the best young defenders have to know there is a time and a place for that kind of thing.
Would that goal then take the wind out of Arsenal’s sails? The timing of it couldn’t have been worse, and there were further shades of the cup tie early in the second half when Liverpool made a tactical change which allowed them a bit more of a foothold in the game. We had replaced the injured Zinchenko with Jakub Kiwior, and there were efforts from Diaz and Mac Allister that weren’t too far off-target.
A triple change from Liverpool, and Arsenal figuring out how to deal with those changes, swung the momentum back the other way. There were shouts for a penalty when Havertz went down in the box, and while I think the German’s touch was poor as he drove into the box, Mac Allister didn’t get any of the ball. It’s one of those that probably shouldn’t ever be a penalty, but you’ve seen them given for a lot less this season.
Not long after though, we were ahead. Gabriel played a long ball forward from the back, it should have been bread and butter stuff for someone like Virgil van Dijk, but he committed the cardinal sin of letting the ball bounce. It allowed Martinelli to put him under a bit of pressure, Alisson came charging out and didn’t make contact with the ball, allowing the Brazilian the simple task of rolling the ball home to make it 2-1. If our goal was a cock-up, this was even worse, and when you consider the quality and experience of the two Liverpool players involved, it was quite extraordinary.
Arsenal made changes, with Leandro Trossard replacing Martinelli, and Reiss Nelson coming on for the injured Bukayo Saka. Kiwior, of all people, had a chance to make it 3-1, but his stooping header was straight at Alisson. I was thinking to myself, ‘Why are you even there?!’, but hey. Late on there was a red card for Konate, and I don’t really understand the furore around it. The first one is a yellow for me, even if both players were grappling, he clearly pulled Havertz by both shoulders. I’d expect an Arsenal player to get booked for that, even if Gabriel was a bit lucky to avoid a second yellow for a similar foul on Darwin Nunez late on. I don’t think there can be any complaints about the second for Konate though, and gave us an advantage in the final few minutes.
Trossard made the most of that, skinning a couple of defenders on the touchline before driving into the box. I thought van Dijk’s reaction to this threat was a bit strange, ambling towards his keeper rather than across the line of Trossard’s run, and he paid the price a bit when the left footed shot hit his foot and deflected between the legs of the keeper to seal the game at 3-1.
If Mikel Arteta went mental at that goal, he had every right to. I might come back to it in the next day or so, but that so much of the post-game analysis was about how the Arsenal manager and players celebrated says a lot about the state of punditry these days. Liverpool are a brilliant team who hadn’t lost a game in the league since September, and even that one was when they were basically robbed against Sp*rs while playing with 9 men. Arsenal dominated this game on xG, 3.5 to 0.4, and while your mileage may vary on that stat, it’s a much more interesting platform for discussion than trying to police and micromanage the joy that the game of football brings to the winners of a big match.
Wrighty said it best. Listen to Wrighty.
This was, by any measure, a massive win. While Arteta played it down pre and post-game, the pressure of knowing Liverpool would have had an 8 point lead if they’d won had to be right in the front of the consciousness of him and his players. As I said yesterday, it was a both a must-win and a must-not-lose fixture for Arsenal, and thankfully we’re sitting here this morning after the former came to pass.
Collectively I thought the tactical approach worked really well, Liverpool’s goal came from a mistake which we dealt with superbly. Man of the match Jorginho, who played through the pain according to Mikel Arteta, spoke well about the half-time reaction. Asked by Sky Sports if it was difficult to get going in the second half having conceded so late in the first, he said:
No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t because we believe in ourselves and we rely on each other. That goal wouldn’t change anything of what we’ve done the first 45 minutes. So we knew how to do it, how to get back in the second half and to go again because we knew we could do it. We just had to push each other and keep the energy high.
I liked that reaction, and I really liked his performance yesterday. It was certainly his best in an Arsenal shirt, and while we all love the youth and potential of this team, he’s an example of how experience can be vital in a big game. When the decision comes this summer about which experienced central midfielder to keep, he’s 100% my pick.
So in conclusion, this was a win which keeps the title race very much alive. We’ve already beaten both Liverpool and Man City this season, and if there’s more than just the points to take from those results, we have to do it and apply it to every game we play between now and May. This is the period of the season where you must take every bit of confidence and belief you can, and use it to grind out results.
We have a week to recover and rest before a trip to West Ham next Sunday, but this was a big test of our credentials, and we’ve well and truly passed it. Enjoy it, soak it all up, and we go again next week.
Right, let’s leave it there. We are recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
Podcast should be out around mid-morning. Until then.