Friday, February 23, 2024

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal: Talking points as Premier League toppers share spoils at Anfield

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Liverpool and Arsenal, the two teams currently occupying the top two positions in the Premier League table, faced each other at Anfield on Saturday and shared the spoils at the end.

Gabriel Magalhaes hit a fine header in the fourth minute to sent the Gunners ahead, and Mohamed Salah again showed his quality with an excellent equalizer in the 29th. There was a number of chances at either end in the remaining hour, but the scoreboard stood still at 1-1.

Top teams, top game

The first thing to say about this game is that both teams played at a very high level, completely justifying their respective positions in the table. It was a proper derby-style battle, loaded with duels, creativity, fine defending, smart runs, dribbles, excellent game-reading, and very few mistakes.

Statistically, the contest was unbelievably close. Liverpool had a tad more possession with 51%. The teams took a total of 13 shots each, Liverpool three on target, Arsenal two. Liverpool attempted 442 passes with an accuracy of 80%, Arsenal had 423 with 79% finding the right man. Liverpool took four corners, Arsenal five.

Ibrahima Konate was marking Gabriel when the Arsenal centre-back got away and placed his header into Liverpool’s net in the fourth minute. Konate actually stepped out as if he had hoped to catch Gabriel offside, but there were several Liverpool players who tracked back and though it was close, the VAR confirmed Gabriel was onside and the goal rightfully stood. Konate was obviously wrong to expect his trick to work and the blame for the goal mostly goes his way. However, from that point on, the France international played a brilliant game and was one of the main reasons why the visitors didn’t score again.

As for Liverpool’s equalizer, no Arsenal player should be blamed fully, though Oleksandr Zinchenko should probably have done better. Trent Alexander-Arnold is a fantastic passer of the ball and he displayed it beautifully, hitting it from the centre of the back line straight into Salah’s feet on the right wing. The Egyptian winger still had Zinchenko to deal with, and he did it in his trademark fashion, cutting inside sharply before blasting into the near top corner. A goal brilliantly set up and scored, and sometimes defences simply have to take their hats off and acknowledge the class they’re supposed to be stopping.

The ball traveled quickly from one end of the pitch to the other, chances following one another at both ends. The best among the many that brought no change to the scoreline fell to Liverpool in the 72nd minute. Joe Gomez, who entered the game off the bench in the place of the injured Kostas Tsimikas, cleared his box from a corner and two Arsenal players got in each other’s way, allowing Salah to pounce, steal the ball and charge forward. Salah had options, one on the left and no less than three on the right, and at that point it was a five-on-one situation, very likely to end with Liverpool going ahead. But as Salah passed to the right, it was Alexander-Arnold who took the shot – and hit the bar. David Raya in the Arsenal goal was beaten, but the ball just wouldn’t go in.

All in all, the draw was a fair result in a contest between two evenly matched sides.

Controversies

There were, on the other hand, a few extremely questionable calls from the officials, though only one of them appeared a potential game-changer.

It was still early in the game, a couple of minutes before the end of the opening quarter. Arsenal were still a goal up, and it was Liverpool who attacked through Salah. The winger was dueling with Martin Odegaard, maybe a step inside the box, when the Arsenal captain slipped, lost control of the ball, and then in an obvious panic attack, he used his hand to bring it it back under control.

Referee Chris Kavanagh chose not to blow the whistle, possibly not being sure about what he had seen and relying on the VAR to react if need be. Well, there was certainly need for a VAR reaction, but David Coote, on duty at Stockley Park for this game, for some reason probably known only to himself, did not sent Kavanagh to the pitch-side screen to review the incident. Speaking to the press after the game, even Arsenal defender William Saliba admitted the hosts should’ve been awarded a penalty.

Arsenal also had a penalty appeal in the 81st minute when Kai Havertz hit the ground inside the box under pressure from Alexander-Arnold, but the slow-motion footage showed there was not nearly enough in that contact for the former Chelsea attacker to go down, or for Kavanagh to blow his whistle.

Liverpool’s left-back crisis worsens

There was a freak moment in the 35th minute, when Bukayo Saka committed a foul on Tsimikas which resulted in the Greece international flying off the pitch, knocking manager Jurgen Klopp to the ground, and ending up with a broken collar bone. Tsimikas is already a backup player for Liverpool, with first-choice left-back Andy Robertson out for a long time now through a shoulder injury, and now he’ll be out for a long time as well, likely several months.

Klopp’s only option at that moment was to send Gomez into the fray. The 25-year-old is a highly versatile defender, primarily a centre-back who often plays as a right-back, but his first season at the club, back in the days of Brendan Rodgers in charge, saw him displace Alberto Moreno from the starting XI at left-back.

Frequently seen as a kind of anti-Trent on the defensive flank, Gomez is usually very good at defending but offers little going forward. This time, however, he not only dealt with the threat of Saka as few defenders can, but he was also a threat himself at the other end, coming very close to scoring his first goal for the club.

But with Joel Matip ruled out for the rest of the season, it’s questionable if Klopp can afford to relocate another centre-back and rely on him on the left continuously, particularly with the fact that there are four games to be played in just over a fortnight ahead in mind. The club may turn to the transfer market for a new left-back in January, but with Robertson set to return to action soon and the centre-back department arguably a more pressing problem, that may not be very likely.

The aftermath

As a result of this game, both Arsenal and Liverpool remain ahead of third-place Aston Villa, who also played a 1-1 draw at home against Sheffield United. Arsenal lead the way with 40 points, Liverpool and Villa are both on 39 with the Merseysiders ahead on goal-difference, and Tottenham Hotspur beat Everton to take advantage of the game between Manchester City and Brentford being postponed and move into fourth place with 36. The defending champions are now fifth with 34, but obviously with a game in hand on all four teams in front.

Liverpool will have little time to dwell on anything from the Saturday game, with their clash against Burnley at Turf Moor scheduled for Tuesday, and Newcastle’s visit to Anfield to take place on the first day of 2024. Arsenal have two days more to recuperate, before welcoming West Ham to the Emirates on Thursday, but they play away to Fulham on December the 31st.

And after that, Arsenal and Liverpool will do battle again, at the Emirates on January 7th, in the third round of the FA Cup.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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