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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Arsenal clone Anfield aura to reaffirm place in title fight

LONDON — And then there were three. An afternoon that began with Arsenal facing the prospect of the Premier League leaders disappearing from view ended with a powerful statement of intent suggesting Mikel Arteta’s side can challenge Liverpool and Manchester City for the title.

They have now beaten both at Emirates Stadium this season, victories that add results to the rhetoric Arteta is using to make believers of us all. Sunday’s 3-1 win over Liverpool was achieved through a force of will more than anything else, a relentless pressing game designed to unsettle Jurgen Klopp’s side and knock them out of a rhythm that had taken them clear at the top of the table.

That the decisive error came from a mix-up between the stoic pair of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk showed how much Liverpool were shaken here. Bukayo Saka had given the home side a 14th-minute lead later cancelled out by a bizarre own goal from Gabriel in first-half stoppage time. But it was the Reds who imploded with a piece of defending that prompted Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane to brand Liverpool “a pub team.”

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Van Dijk tried to leave a long forward pass for Alisson with Gabriel Martinelli swarming around him. When Alisson came to deal with it, he kicked at thin air, leaving Martinelli with a loose ball and an open goal to put Arsenal in front. Van Dijk was also slow to engage Leandro Trossard in stoppage time as the Gunners substitute added a third, firing through Alisson’s legs as if the Liverpool goalkeeper wasn’t there.

Arteta ran along the touchline in uncontrolled joy. The Spanish manager has previously talked about trying to replicate the kind of hostility Anfield is famous for, creating an environment in which Arsenal’s self-belief can grow.

Arsenal went as far as producing a prematch video widely circulated on social media — including from Arteta’s own Instagram account — before kickoff in an attempt to sharpen minds. Sources say Arteta was integral in the production. The end result was a victory to enhance the conviction in their ability to achieve this season’s aims.

“That’s the best atmosphere I’ve seen all season,” Arteta said after the match. “We demanded that. We had to go to a different level and connect it again to the demands that this league has. I think the players left absolutely everything.

“They put their heart and soul in every single ball. I cannot be any prouder because I know how hard it is to beat this team, how much you have to suffer and how much you have to process to do what we did on the ball.

“It was a huge game that was going to dictate where we are and where we’re going to be. What the players produced was phenomenal. When they do that I have to put my energy in, too.

“We are connecting with our people. We tried to produce a video to tell them how much we need them. [The fans] got the best out of every player today.”

Arsenal moved within two points of Liverpool at the top of the table. Even if City felt like the biggest winners of the day, given they can now go clear at the top if they win their two games in hand, Arteta now has the chance to be bullish about their own prospects.

“We are [in the race], that’s for sure,” he said. “We want to continue to be there. We’ve been really consistent all season, if not, you aren’t where we are today.

“We take it game by game, the availability of the squad is going to be crucial. We have learned that from last season. Let’s try to make that happen.”

Arteta played down Saka limping off with 11 minutes remaining and Gabriel Jesus‘s absence entirely as minor issues that should be rectified before Sunday’s trip to West Ham United. East London is where the next test of their resolve awaits.

Liverpool lost Ibrahima Konaté to an 88th-minute red card, picking up a second yellow for a clumsy challenge on Kai Havertz, but they had already allowed this game to slip away through individual errors and a failure to seize control when enjoying their best spell of the game in the 20 minutes after half-time. Klopp’s side missed Dominik Szoboszlai and Mohamed Salah, struggling to produce the sort of attacking cohesion that has been at the forefront of “Liverpool 2.0.”

Now they must now respond to a rare setback, only their second league defeat of the season, with Burnley up next.

Liverpool have the joint-best defensive record in the division, alongside Arsenal, but the Reds now rank joint-third for errors leading to goals (five) this season. It is an issue that cannot be allowed to creep back into their play if City are to be repelled.

“We have to play our soul on the pitch and see where we end up,” Klopp said in response.

Arsenal appear ready more than ever to bear theirs and see where it takes them.

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