It was a match that had me feeling nauseous almost the whole way. Before kick off the nerves sparked, and by the end my body felt like it had been strapped to the Takabisha roller coaster for forty-five consecutive rides.
Arsenal walked into Anfield, did everything right in the first 30 minutes, killed the stadium, weathered the hostility, and then let it all it all flood back into play. The second half was a tough watch. Exhilarating in almost every aspect, but Liverpool’s 67% possession meant the thrill never felt all that pleasing. One point gained or two points dropped?
“ooh, a bit of both”, reflects Aaaron Ramsdale — Arsenal’s clear Man of the Match — and it’s probably an apt reflection many find themselves feeling.
It’s a point gained toward the title; it’s another point added in the tally; and it was, in many ways, another sign of how this young Arsenal side is growing. At the same time, it ceded the control Arsenal had over the title’s future and give joint ownership back to Manchester City. Impossible not to recognize and feel the pressure that adds.
Earlier this week, I wrote that this match would be a test of Arsenal’s maturity. Talented sides go to Anfield and lose all the time. This side is young, they have proven they have the talent, but would they possess the maturity to go to a hostile ground, get punched in the mouth, and walk away victors?
To start the match, we saw the Arsenal we have seen all year and I doubt there was a single Gooner in the world not beaming with pride. Arsenal were calm on the ball and they handled the press. Liverpool looked to use Holding as a press trigger and Arsenal’s first goal soaked up that pressure, passed around Liverpool with ease, exploited the open space through Saka, and an inverted Martinelli finishes the action. A little fortune with a ricochet off van Dijk but the movement was the level of class we have seen all season.
The second goal was another moment of Arsenal’s best. They make it look so easy the way they get Martinelli isolated with Alexander-Arnold and Gabi makes Liverpool pay. The ball to Jesus is perfect as Jesus slips off the back shoulder and nods it home.
It was 2-0, Anfield’s energy was flatlining, the only noise that could be heard was coming from the away fans, and the prized vision of putting this whole thing to bed before halftime with a third goal was appropriately dreamed of.
But Arsenal gift that ground everything they could have wanted to get back into this game. We will talk about Tierney’s “let it flow” precedent feeling lopsided later, but Xhaka is boarded from behind by Konate — it’s a foul for me, every time, and a foul later in the game — but it’s not given and Xhaka reacts. He storms back onto the field, takes a bite at Alexander-Arnold who retaliates with a shove. The two square up, face-to-face, and Anfield is ALIVE. To cap the whole thing off, Arsenal let Liverpool storm down the field from the ensuing free kick, they switch off mentally, and concede a sloppy goal.
From 2-0 and lifeless, it became 2-1 with anger, impetus, and a real belief. From that point on, every bit of Jesus contact, Martinelli foul pleading, or biting Liverpool tackle, saw Tierney wave it away and the stadium ignite with energy.
Is THAT the reason reason Arsenal draw? No, there’s many more forks in the road on the way to the final whistle, but it’s difficult to not feel like if Xhaka walks away, Arsenal stay switched on and Liverpool stay flat. Immaturity from one of our more “mature” players, but a team immaturity to not handle to blow and get back to playing their way? Probably.
Liverpool came out in the second half and if Arsenal couldn’t find themselves in the fog of war. One key to winning this game was the quality in midfield Arsenal possess. Could they dominate in practice the way they did on paper? In the final 60 minutes, the answer was ‘no’.
Liverpool cleaned up the loose balls on their way to 67% second-half possession and put Arsenal under all sorts of pressure. Arsenal have weathered storms and were managing once more, even as Tierney attempted to gift a penalty to Liverpool. For a man that had let the whole game flow and waived away everything, this tangling of legs in the box is an absolute nothing. Rob Holding was good on the day — although we missed Saliba’s composure on the ball — and this was an injustice. Fortunately the ball never lies and Salah puts his penalty wide.
If there is a positive to take away from the pressure, it would be Arsenal’s ability to still work chances on the break. It caused the game to develop an end-to-end frenetic feel, but at least Martinelli, Jesus, and Saka were finding space and Arsenal were up 2-1.
As the game turned outright end-to-end, but Liverpool retained control, Arteta switched to a five-back system with his substitutions of Kiwior and Trossard. It’s a switch we have seen Arteta make before, but the five-back didn’t feel as comfortable as when it’s Holding coming in to join Saliba and Gabriel. Instead, it seemed to give Arsenal less midfield control and add emphasis to Arsenal’s dependency on the counter attack breaks.
But as these things tend to go, the dam took its blows, could only weather so much, and eventually broke. Bobby Chompers Firmino gets on the end of an Alexander-Arnold cross after Zinchenko is nutmegged on the endline, and the game is leveled.
Arteta has to shoulder some blame. I won’t be one of the people that uses this one example, after a season worth of incredible play, to say “Arteta can’t handle game management”, he clearly can. We have seen it all season and it’s part of why Arsenal are top of the league. But it would be fair to question why he stuck with Zinchenko for that long in a match you could steadily see Salah becoming more and more dangerous throughout.
In the home leg, Tomiyasu bottled up Salah and drank it like refreshment on a calm, sunny day. But Zinchenko inverts and that left channel was there for the taking. It left Gabriel with a lot of ground to cover (which he did well) but it only takes one moment for it to go wrong. Theres a lot of space for Alexander-Arnold to run into as Gabriel is occupied and Zinchenko scrambles back, and he seizes his chance to go right under Zinchenko.
I and many of the players were left on the floor.
But this game wasn’t over. With six minutes of action left, both teams had chances to win it, and Aaron Ramsdale steps up as the Arsenal hero on the day. He made three or four majors saves that a team could never demand their keeper make including a 1v1 save, a huge stretch to get to a close-range Salah curler, and feats of heroism to get across the line and paw away Konate’s effort off the line.
Shortly after that, Arsenal charge up the field in a 3-v-1 and Martinelli plays a through ball just beyond the reach of Saka. Allison clears the dangers and Arsenal fans are left head and in hands with dreams of a fourth late winner dashed.
I don’t usually put a lot of post-match thoughts into referees, but I have to talk about Paul Tierney because I genuinely think he did a horrible job managing the match. If Anfield coming to life got into Arsenal’s head, it got into his about ten-times worse. He came into this match and set a clear “let it flow” precedent, but then lost his head. He calls the Holding penalty, he’s dishing out yellow cards for a snack, he getting riled up, he’s jawing with players… he looked lost for consistency. Hes not why Arsenal draw, but gosh, did his inconsistency from whistle to whistle play its role.
The league is having a nightmare these last two seasons with refereeing incidents and they will certainly continue to for the foreseeable future. They spent all week defending their brothers for the Mitrovic handling, and then they get their assistant referee throwing an elbow at Robertson and Tierney having another nightmare, with all eyes watching. I’m not sure how the league gets better until they either get a new batch of better referees or switch to some refereeing methodology that involves the game overseen by a team the way many other free-flowing sports are managed.
The game ends in a draw and Arsenal will have all the mixed emotions with eight games left to try and claim a title.
Ramsdale was clearly Arsenal’s Man of the Match. I’m not sure why such a debate revolves around this player. He has been immense this season and comes up with big saves time and time again. His ability on the ball is unquestionably top class and while he may have a moment where you want him to do better — what keeper doesn’t — he has collected a reel of game-saving moments this season.
He was just outstanding in the second half to keep Arsenal ahead and then level at the death.
The opportunities dried up a bit in the second half, but when they came, they were often through Martinelli. He was the key man in the first half has a ran Alexander-Arnold and Liverpool’s right side ragged on his way to a goal and assist. Arteta made the brave call to stick with him instead of Trossard and I think he rewarded his manager aptly. He’s probably the Man of the Match if Arsenal win this.
The conflicting emotions arise from three things: a point at Anfield, the fashion in which that point was earned, what a single point does for the title versus three points would have done.
I think when Arsenal reflect on the game, and the final 60 minutes of it, they will feel like they got away with something. I think when they think about how they started the match, and the leg up they had earned themselves, they will wonder how they let it slip away. They may even ask themselves if they were naive to let the moment get to them, but too inexperienced to reclaim the momentum they lost in an environment like that.
The title was not won or lost today, and it technically was never going to be. Arsenal’s treacherous run-in is filled with traps and challenges to be navigated, City have their own hurdles to clear. But Arsenal will certainly be feeling like the Ethiad now stands as a second away fixture in which they will NEED to collect a result. At least there, a draw does them wonders.
8 matches left, a point at Anfield and all to play for, West Ham next.