Well… Arsenal lost one. It’s not as though it ever felt like we had been playing at the level of an undefeated side, nor against the best competition the country has to offer, but it is still a crash back to Earth. Losing is never a good feeling, but it’s one this Arsenal team likely needs to experience and learn to overcome swiftly. A betting man would put a lot of money on this not being the final difficult evening of the season and with another matchup against Liverpool in just three days, Arsenal has the chance to get back to winning ways.
Today was the third match against Liverpool in less than 3 months, but a bigger challenge than the previous two. The follow up match looming later this week won’t have mattered much to either side with today’s prize of 3 early Premier League points being the larger award.
Arteta selected a side with a very similar feel to the one picked for the Community Shield:
Leno; Holding, Luiz, Tierney; Bellerin, Elneny, Xhaka, AMN; Willian, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Same backline of Holding, Luiz, and Tierney. Same midfield of Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, and Elneny, and Bellerin. Altered frontline of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Willian. Differences were Leno in net, Lacazette up front for Nketiah, and Willian as the right winger instead of Saka, who did manage the assist in the Community Shield.
It was certainly a match fans will have wished fans they could have attended. Liverpool have grown very accustomed to winning in the Premier League when at Anfield, not having lost in their last 60, but with Arsenal winning the last two matchups, sending the Gunners a message will have been atop of the priority list, which would have made for a fantastic, clashing atmosphere.
Liverpool got out of the gates looking to go fast and play physical. Two hard fouls early from Mane, one through the back of Bellerin and a stiff forearm through Tierney’s throat. Now, I want to pause here and talk about this foul. I don’t complain much about VAR and the relationship it has with the referee for calls like this, but I do feel like they have gotten it wrong. It’s clear that Mane see Tierney coming and it’s clear that he had every intent of putting a good forearm into Kieran. Did he eye him up and try to catch him in the throat? No, not likely, but he has got him there.
How that is any different than someone who means to put in a tackle, but is a little high, I’m not completely sure. But here is where my issue lies. The ref flies in and he gives out a yellow card, but almost as though he will let VAR deal with it. VAR takes a look, knows a yellow has been given and likely feels no clear and obvious error was made, therefore doesn’t overturn it. It’s the type of call that is going to stay whatever the on-field referee determines it to be. But when the ref is looking for VAR to take the responsibility of an early, game-changing call, and VAR is agreeing with the ref to show agreement, it feels as though no one is taking responsibility for the call.
So we move on. It was an absolute horror of a first 3 minutes from Mane and if you can go back and watch it back, I strongly urge you to. Obviously, I am bias to some degree, no matter how much I try not to be within my writing, I thought he was fortunate to stay on.
The rest of the half, Liverpool really did shine. Their opening 30 minutes of play was the display of what a complete team looks like when they play their game. They pressured in unison, they created chances, they forced a good amount of last-ditch efforts from Arsenal’s defence and they cut out just about every third pass from Arsenal. The ability to move the ball was a serious problem for Arsenal, and one entirely of Liverpool’s making.
In the first 20 minutes, Liverpool had three great chances to score. Two through Alexander-Arnold, including a volley off of an Arsenal clearance that was struck incredibly pure. Fortunately, Bellerin was in the way just enough to deflect it off the crossbar. Mane also had a volley from an Arnold cross that demanded Leno stay big and get his hands up. It was hit right at him, but staying stout saw him make a nice save early.
Those three chances foreshadowed the evening Arsenal would have, but against the run of play, Arsenal managed to settle on the ball, move it around and sucker Liverpool for the opening goal from Lacazette. It was a great team movement. Maybe not as comfortable looking as Arteta draws it on the board, but certainly a nice exchange down the left side to Aubameyang showing. It ends up with Xhaka who plays Maitland-Niles into the left sided channel after he overlapped Auba.
To cap off the goal, Arsenal did get a bit fortunate when Robertson struggled to clear Niles’ cross and it wound up right at Lacazette’s feet who mishit it and has it somehow bounce up and over Alisson, but nobody minded, 1-0 Arsenal.
That lead would only last two minutes before Mane would equalize in the 27th after he wins an individual battle with Luiz that stretched the Arsenal defense, leading to an eventual tap in. 7 minutes later, in the 34th minute, Robertson put Liverpool up for good when Bellerin gets pulled too far central to notice Robertson on the back post and Willian doesn’t track the run. 2 taps ins, two goals, and a comfortable first half.
Arsenal were better in the second half, a bit more in control, and the eventual introduction of Ceballos saw the side create a few more chances, including a lovely pass that opened up the defense, allowing Lacazette a clear scoring chance. Unsure if he went for power over placement or didn’t expect Alisson off his line so far, so fast but he couldn’t convert the chance to level the game. Lacazette would exit very upset, although he has started the year with 3 goals in 3.
That wasn’t Arsenal’s final chance. Another through ball from Ceballos put Nketiah though and away, but he couldn’t quite beat Alisson to the ball to get a shot. In desperation, Arsenal threw a few extra numbers forward, and again are punished when Liverpool get on the end of a headed clearance that only makes the top of the box. Jota settles it, possibly with a bit of an arm, but buries the shot to put the game away officially in the 88th minute.
It was a tough game. Arsenal were in with a shout until the end, but we have to admit were thoroughly outplayed on the day. Here are a few of my thoughts, negative and positive, about what we can take away from the match.
Usually I break this into a few specific points, but in reflection, it made a bit more sense to cover this in positive and negative aspects — some I have alluded to.
First up, the press. Liverpool press extremely well and it was something Arsenal couldn’t handle. Arsenal couldn’t string passes, they couldn’t turn up field, and Liverpool was prepared for the flow of Arsenal’s passing and were looking to head it off and jump the next pass. Plenty of teams lose to Liverpool’s press, that’s not the negative, but the lack of ability to compose themselves under that pressure, adapt to it, and adjust was certainly something to note. Is it just a matter of getting a better midfield that can play under that onslaught and not panic? Hopefully we find out this year with another transfer or two for our midfield.
Second, and it ties in with the backline. Arsenal were sloppy in back. Look, I imagine almost every losing side for the last year or two, has walked away from their match against Liverpool saying, “we were sloppy in the back”. It’s how Liverpool beat you, it’s what they want to do to you, and it’s the area they want to create mistakes and expose players. While there weren’t any major, glaring mistakes that directly resulted in a steal, shot and goal, the constant pattern of connecting one or two passes, losing it, and having Liverpool coming at the backline is tough to deal with.
The sloppiness at the back wasn’t just with the ball at our feet. Arsenal defenders saw themselves lose multiple individual battles in their defensive third. Mane caused all sorts of problems when he was isolated with and without the ball, one-on-one with an Arsenal defender, including having the strength to see off and get past Luiz in the build up to their first goal. My biggest worry here is that the 3-4-3, which plays more like a 5-2-3 without the ball, is deployed to reduce the number of isolated instances a defender has to face, because it isn’t the strongest skill for some of Arsenal defenders. However, it is a skill that is necessary if Arsenal want to successfully transition to four at the back where there will be more situations that see center backs isolated with attackers. Seeing them struggle today leaves me feeling further from that 4-back system than we may want us to be.
Finally, handling the lead. I know the goal came against the run of play and Arsenal were fending off waves of attack moments before it, but responding positively after going up is important, and this is not the first time Arsenal have given something up immediately after scoring. Just last year, Lacazette scored a rocket versus Spurs only to have them give up the equalizer in under 2 minutes. Something to work on.
I know that it can be hard to take positives away from a match that saw Arsenal only manage 34% of the ball and work 4 shots, I do. But there are things worth noting, pieces worth wanting to build on, and one aspect in particular that is promising.
First, as I mentioned before, Arsenal were in the game until the end. They gave themselves a chance to create two really good chances, and had they managed to convert one and take the point, this article would have a slightly different tone. It would still talk about being beaten soundly for most the match, but giving themselves a chance to get something from it is a big deal. After all, Liverpool was champion by 22 points last year and collected 43 more points than Arsenal. We all want Arsenal to be that team that roles into Anfield and gets the job done, but that won’t come over night. Small steps first.
Second, you could see the two different aspects that Arsenal were attempting with the ball in order to breakdown Liverpool or sucker them down the channels. There were clearly two options. Option 1: move the ball around the back, much as we have seen in recent matches, build up the play to get numbers transitioned into the attack and create chances. It didn’t work often enough, but it is how Arsenal scored. Option 2: The more success Liverpool had pressing in, the more on top of Arsenal they got. However, there were moments where it was clear Arsenal were looking for the quick ball into the channels to catch Liverpool over committed. To be honest, this didn’t come off and Gomez did a very good job on Aubameyang, but the identity was there.
This brings us to our third, and in my opinion most important, positive. Despite the struggle, the adversity, the amount of times they failed — Arsenal maintained their shape, maintained the plot, and attempted to play within their game. It would have been all too easy to get bent out of shape or throw it all to the wind, but Arsenal kept at it. They were rewarded with the goal and they were rewarded with really good chances late in the game to tie things up. It’s not happening frequently enough right now, but having the complete team bought in like that is a testament to Arteta and the squad for being on the same page. That is a positive that we should hope moves with them because it will lead to a lot more success down the line than failures.
Finally, I am just going to call out Ceballos here. He came on for Xhaka and was a breath of fresh air, playing closer to how he finished last year than his previous appearance. He simply offered Arsenal that little something different, instead of Xhaka and Elneny who offered a pretty similar look today in the center of the park. Lovely through balls, crafty bits of dribbling, some decent defense and harassment without the ball, and if this marks the moment when he has regained that level of comfort with Arsenal he had at the end of last season, it’s a very promising thing.
We are only 3 matches into the Premier League campaign, the window isn’t yet closed, and we knew this began the toughest stretch of matches in the season. It was not the ideal beginning to them, but it also wasn’t the worst match against Liverpool of Arsenal’s last 3 — performance wise. This felt like a small step in the right direction, and one I am confident can be built upon. Chins up Gunners! A long ways to go.
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