Matches between Arsenal and Liverpool rarely fail to produce in terms of goals and entertainment, and the one on Saturday at the Emirates certainly delivered as well. The Gunners, since Mikel Arteta became their boss, have been known to cause Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool problems, to outplay and deservedly beat them, but this time they simply weren’t anywhere near the level of their opponents as they succumbed twice to the brilliance and determination of Diogo Jota and once to the cleverness and composure of Mohamed Salah.
The Liverpool boss has shown time and again that he is at the very top of the game, but some of his critics down the years have mostly claimed his successes have mostly been down to his immense passion and ability to motivate players, rather than tactical brilliance. Nonetheless, the contest at the Emirates showed that Klopp can actually be very flexible in the way he sets his team up, even inside a single game.
Liverpool came out in their usual 4-3-3 shape at the start, with the only surprise (if it was indeed a surprise) was James Milner starting ahead of Georginio Wijnaldum in the middle of the park, but Klopp obviously knew what he was doing when he named the 35-year-old versatile veteran in the lineup. The Reds dominated the game in every aspect from the start, caused the Arsenal defence a lot of problems and prevented them from doing anything meaningful at the other end, but for a long time they had nothing on the scoreboard to show for it.
But with an hour just gone, Klopp took out Andy Robertson (probably with the Champions League game against Real Madrid next week in mind), shifted Milner to the left defensive flank, and sent on Diogo Jota. The shape of the team was now more 4-2-4 than anything else, and the added attacking threat paid off quickly.
It took the fresh Portuguese just three minutes to drift in between the Arsenal centre-backs at the far post, get at the end of a lovely cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold and slam a powerful header past Bernd Leno. Many were surprised by the similar goal he scored for his country against Serbia in the international break, winning the header against the much-taller Nikola Milenkovic on that occasion, but that’s exactly what Jota does – he identifies spaces brilliantly, makes perfectly timed runs and catches defenders by surprise.
The goal obviously shredded all the confidence the Arsenal defence had before with the chance of a clean sheet gone beyond recall and now four high-quality attackers to deal with, and the insecurities made themselves clear again just four minutes later when Gabriel Magalhaes failed to dispossess Salah with a tackle inside the box, and the Egyptian coolly slotted through the legs of Leno to double Liverpool’s lead.
And that was it as far as Klopp was concerned, it was now time to tune the attack down again with the victory in the bag. In the 78th minute, he reverted to 4-3-3 by replacing Roberto Firmino with Wijnaldum, slowed the game down and increased the level of control in midfield again. But the forwards who remained on the pitch obviously weren’t done just yet, and the third goal, four minutes after the change, was the result of a nice combination between Salah and Mane, and another emphatic finish from Jota.
Klopp should definitely be praised for his in-game management, but Arteta can hardly be blamed for what was happening for the largest part of the match. The Gunners were arranged in 4-2-3-1, and looking at the teamsheet ahead of the opening whistle, it seemed good enough. There was no David Luiz due to injury, but Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes have both been putting in decent performances in the heart of defence. Callum Chambers certainly deserved to start with his excellent outing against West Ham ahead of the international break. The midfield duo of Thomas Partey and Dani Ceballos seems well balanced in theory, and with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left, Nicolas Pepe on the right, and Martin Odegaard just behind Alexandre Lacazette through the middle, they really should have given the opposition something to think about.
But as it happened, only Lacazette and Partey seemed to be doing anything for a long time. Aubameyang seemed useless in the opposition half, but the truth is, he was too often forced to drop deep and help out defensively to make a difference at the other end, as was Pepe. Odegaard wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do – get on the ball, use his skill and creativity to make something happen and with Ceballos having nothing going for him either, it was very difficult for the team to move the ball forward and impossible hold it for long against a very determined opposition.
Consequently, the defence was under constant pressure, and the feeling was, it had to reach its breaking point sometime. It should be said that they didn’t have any luck as well, particularly when Kieran Tierney, arguably Arsenal’s best player these days, picked up a knee problem and was forced off just before halftime.
Things would probably look significantly different, had Arteta been able to call upon Bukayo Saka or Emile Smith Rowe. Both youngsters have been on great form recently, but like David Luiz, both were out injured. There wasn’t any creativity to be thrown in off the bench, and the best Arteta could do was to add some steel to the midfield by replacing Ceballos with Mohamed Elneny and see what Gabriel Martinelli could bring in final stretch of the game; but the young, talented Brazilian was quickly stifled as well.
Top-four race blown wide open
Things got really interesting when it comes to the fight for the top four on Saturday. Manchester City are, of course, heading towards the title and it seems nothing will prevent Pep Guardiola from winning his third crown in five years at the Etihad, but their 0-2 win away to Leicester City has probably cast some doubt in the back of the Foxes’ minds.
But the main reason behind the race getting complicated and exciting was undoubtedly the shocking 2-5 defeat Chelsea suffered at the hands of West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge earlier that day. Arsenal will have been extremely disappointed that they failed to get closer to the fray, but Liverpool are now surely in it.
The still-reigning champions are now just two points off Chelsea in fourth place, but West Ham (fifth place, same tally) and Tottenham Hotspur (sixth, one point less) are yet to play their matches of this round, away to Wolves and Newcastle, respectively.
There is, of course, a long way to go yet, but Liverpool look to have finally found solutions to their problems which saw them spectacularly drop out of the title race over the previous three months. Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips, helped by the presence of Fabinho ahead, seem perfectly able as the centre-back duo at the moment, and with Jota back from injury, scoring and inspiring those around him to do better, there is no lack of goals at the other end.
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