Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal: A harsh but necessary reality check
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
“Title decider tomorrow,” one Arsenal twitter account tweeted on Sunday night after Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City had dropped points over the weekend. As much as this was definitely a satirical comment, there was an unwarranted level of hype being created around a team that had below average underlying metrics last season.
A 3-1 defeat in familiar circumstances against the reigning champions followed this optimism, and the entire fanbase came crashing back down to reality. Not that we should go so far the other way like some fans have and all of a sudden dismiss all the good work Mikel Arteta has done since his arrival, but it was important we got this sort of a knock down and didn’t get carried away with our prospects. Top four is our ultimate aim and nothing better will happen this season. Accept it.
In truth, this was a very similar display to those games against City and Liverpool towards the backend of last season- the difference of course being, we didn’t get a result this time. Pretty inevitable that being destroyed in your metrics consistently in these big games is not a sustainable theme. Unfortunately, you can’t not concede from all of the 500 shots you face and score all shots you take, even if producing an xG/Shot masterclass on a consistent basis. It doesn’t work like that.
Eyebrows were raised with the team selection. Arteta opted for Mohamed Elneny over Dani Ceballos, which arguably came back to bite the Spaniard. Despite Elneny producing a typically impressive ball retention performance, offering the team security in possession, this was also to our demise in progressing the ball. The Egyptian’s lack of ambition on the ball meant we struggled to break the Liverpool lines and thus struggled to build attacks on a frequent basis. As for Granit Xhaka, he typically attempted to progress the ball, but his limitations through lack of mobility shone through just as you’d expect against Klopp’s relentless gegenpressing machine, which was at its absolute best last night. A more mobile ball progresser is so desperately needed in this team to deal with these high pressing teams (cough cough Thomas Partey).
Liverpool’s aggressive pressing forced us into losing the ball far too often, and derailed Arteta’s clear tactical game plan. He set up in a similar way to how he did in these games that saw us be successful against the league’s elite last season, most likely because this system got us results. Sitting in a low compact block, and then building all our attacks from playing through the Liverpool press at the back and thus hitting them on the counter. Unfortunately, when Liverpool’s press is coherent, it’s nigh on impossible to stop. Last night it was very, very coherent and we suffered the consequences, particularly in the first 45 minutes.
In the second 45 we were somewhat able to negate this press. This was just as much to do with Liverpool’s players tiring after their relentless first half effort, but also because we were slightly more direct when playing the ball out from the back. We were even able to exploit their high line on two separate occasions, both of which saw Alex Lacazette spurn two clear cut opportunities. If he’d taken at least one of these chances, the narrative may have been very different. Arteta was hailed a tactical genius after leading us to that 2-1 win at the Emirates two months ago against the same opposition- if we’d snatched a point with Lacazette’s finishing being more efficient, he’d likely have received similar plaudits.
We may even have had a completely different narrative had Sadio Mane been dismissed after just a handful of minutes for seemingly punching Kieran Tierney in the face, but we’ll gloss over that because if we complain about horrendous match changing refereeing decisions, we get accused of searching for excuses.
Nevertheless, not a great display, but far from disastrous. There’s definitely something to be made of our increased resilience, ability to not capitulate and insistence on sticking by the game plan Arteta wanted to implement. All things you couldn’t have said of us with regards to trips to Anfield in years gone by. Arguably our hardest fixture this season now behind us, so we can now move. The title is on.