Monday, June 17, 2024

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal: Talking points as Gunners lose title race ground in electric Anfield atmosphere

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Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta spoke once about the difficulties of facing Liverpool at a charged Anfield, and he felt them keenly again on Sunday, when his team failed to win the game at the iconic ground by surrendering a two-goal lead. It was Gabriel Martinelli who needed a little bit of luck and all his illustrious talent to break the deadlock within eight minutes, and it was the young Brazilian winger again who found Gabriel Jesus with a perfect cross to set him up for a free header in the 28th.

Then it was time for a Liverpool winger to take the central stage, and with just over three minutes of the first half remaining, Mohamed Salah halved Arsenal’s advantage. He also wasted a great opportunity to equalize by shooting just wide of the post from the penalty spot in the 53rd, but to his relief, substitute Roberto Firmino sent Anfield into a frenzy with a well-taken header in the 87th.

The game

Arsenal completely dominated the contest for over 40 minutes. They were winning possession in the middle of the park with ease, creating chances, scoring goals, and everything seemed to be pointing at the day being theirs as scenes very familiar this season for both sides unfolded – a superb, league leading Arsenal, and a largely underwhelming, mid-table Liverpool.

The opening goal came after an attempt between Saka and Odegaard to play a simple one-two didn’t quite come off, but all Van Dijk managed to achieve with his interception was to redirect the ball into the path of Martinelli. The young winger managed to utilize his impressively quick feet to take it in his stride, and just as it seemed he wouldn’t be able to do anything with it, he poked it past the onrushing Alisson and into the net.

The second goal was the end product of a move started by Xhaka, whose pass in behind down the left caught Alexander-Arnold on his heels and sent Martinelli running, forcing Konate to leave his central area and come out wide. The French defender, otherwise brilliant in this match, failed to stop Martinelli from whipping in an accurate cross to the far post. With Konate far away, Van Dijk moved into the middle of the back line and the cross flew over his head, finding Jesus in the air at the back, completely free.

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But in that 43rd minute, Arsenal were suddenly reminded of the vast quality, mostly hidden this season, of the team that gave them so many problems over the last few seasons, as Curtis Jones employed Diogo Jota with a clever back-heel flick down the left. The Portuguese pulled a low ball across the box which Jordan Henderson redirected into the six yards towards the far post, and Salah beat Gabriel Magalhaes to it to score.

From that point on, Liverpool were charging forward, squeezing Arsenal deep into their own half for large spells, and forcing goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale to keep his team alive with a number of incredible saves.

In the 52nd minute, Holding clumsily clipped Jota from behind inside the box, and Tierney, standing close and having seen the situation clearly, blew his whistle and gave the penalty. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Salah missed the target from the spot for the second time in a row, and his confidence seemed severely shaken afterwards.

And yet, Liverpool continued pressing forward, with Arsenal defending for their lives and only occasionally trying to hit back through Martinelli’s pace. In the end, the league leaders succumbed as Alexander-Arnold pulled a nutmeg on Zinchenko and burst into the box from the right, sent a lobbed cross over Ramsdale to the far post where Firmino leapt high and placed the ball in the gaping net.

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Liverpool came close to taking the whole prize late on, but following a scramble inside the six yards, Konate couldn’t get the ball over the line and Salah believed he was pulled down from behind by Gabriel, who certainly had both arms around the Egyptian attacker, but Tierney wasn’t interested in presenting the Reds with another opportunity from the spot and the VAR remained silent.

The Men of the Match

There were four goals and four goalscorers in this game. What’s more, Martinelli not only scored but also assisted, and yet, the best performer on the night for Arsenal without a shred of doubt was Ramsdale. The England international produced a total of four saves, three of which (two from Salah, one from Darwin Nunez) were incredibly difficult, and as Arteta himself admitted after the final whistle, his team needed his goalkeeper in the end to hold on to a point.

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Ramsdale will only hope England manager Gareth Southgate was watching. If he was, he surely observed the obvious difference between the Arsenal shot-stopper and Everton’s Jordan Pickford, his usual No. 1.

On the other hand, Konate was simply superb for Liverpool. With eight duels won, possession won eight times, five tackles and three interceptions, the 22-year-old centre-back was the best player on the pitch in every one of those categories. He was also the main reason why Martinelli didn’t cause even more damage to his team.

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Van Dijk may have been the standout player of the Liverpool back line since his arrival from Southampton in January 2018, but Konate is a serious contender for that title already.

The linesman and the elbow

Apart from Salah’s goal, there was one more notable situation which somehow helped turn the tide, and it also came in the late moments of the first half.

Believing he had suffered a foul which referee Paul Tierney failed to give, Xhaka made a deliberately aggressive contact with Alexander-Arnold from behind, causing a scuffle between them which soon had several players from each team rush over.

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Tierney eventually regained control and booked both Xhaka and Alexander-Arnold, but Anfield exploded. The Arsenal midfielder endured the boos of the stadium with each touch of the ball for the rest of the game, and the suddenly charged atmosphere provided an additional lift to the home side.

There were other niggles here and there, quite normal for a game of such magnitude as this one, but the biggest controversy of all happened after the halftime whistle. The players and officials were walking off the pitch, and Robertson approached assistant referee Constantine Hatzidakis to argue about something and appeared to grab his arm, when the linesman suddenly threw an elbow and hit the Scotland captain in the throat. Robertson was understandably livid, but Tierney wasn’t interested and merely booked the Liverpool left-back for dissent.

However, the incident expectedly caused an uproar throughout the football public in England. Much has been said lately about protecting officials from violent behaviour of players, especially in the aftermath of Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic receiving an eight-game ban for handling an official, but this time it obviously went the other way around – an official behaved violently towards a player, and there hasn’t been a recent precedent for it.

After the game, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) came out with a claim the incident would be investigated.

“PGMOL is aware of an incident involving assistant referee Constantine Hatzidakis and Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson at half-time during the Liverpool v Arsenal fixture at Anfield. We will review the matter in full once the game has concluded,” the statement said.

On Monday morning, they issued an update.

Regardless of what Robertson may have said to Hatzidakis, what the linesman did is completely inexcusable and the PGMOL will do well to address the incident accordingly. Many doubt Hatzidakis will be officiating any time soon, while some call for a ban similar to that given to Mitrovic to be administered.

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However, there are some, like Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane, who believe the fault lies with Robertson. The former Manchester United captain even went as far as describing Robertson as “a baby”.

Since starting his work as a TV pundit, Keane has been known to spout such violence-defending atrocities on several occasions, and there are others, like journalist Paul Hayward, who have placed themselves on Hatzidakis’ side too. Luckily, there are other members of the press as well who have called it as they saw it, upholding the honor of their profession.

The bottom line is, if Hatzidakis thought Robertson had crossed the line by grabbing his arm, he should’ve gone to the referee and asked for a suitable punishment, even a red card if he believed it was called for. Under no circumstances, however, should an official be allowed to hit a player.

And once again, an incident involving an official became the main talking point of an otherwise great game of football, a game that had it all and presented the spectators, be it in the stands of Anfield or in front of TV screens around the world, with pure football excitement and satisfaction. This has become a regular occurrence in the Premier League, severely marring its reputation as the best and most competitive league in the world. A reminder – only a day before, the PGMOL admitted a severe mistake was made which seriously impacted the outcome of the clash between Tottenham Hotspur and Brighton and Hove Albion in North London.

The conclusion is very simple: the Premier League, the FA and the PGMOL have to find a way to improve the level of officiating. There is nothing for it.

Table rankings

For Arteta and his men, who obviously had nothing to do with this particular incident, the only thing worthy of note after this game is the fact that they’ve dropped two hugely significant points in the title race. The gap between them and Manchester City in second place is now only six points wide, while the defending champions have a game in hand and a better goal-difference, and with the two teams still to meet directly at the Etihad later this month. Further more, Arsenal face Chelsea at home and Newcastle away straight after City.

Had the Gunners won at Anfield, the race would still be completely in their hands. As it is, City are in a position to take over, providing they remain consistent and beat Arsenal, as they did earlier at the Emirates.

As for Liverpool, the point they earned from this game means very little. They’ve come out of a difficult week, losing to Manchester City, drawing away to Chelsea and now at home against Arsenal. After this round, the advantage Newcastle and Manchester United in third and fourth place, respectively, have over the Merseysiders amounts to 13 points with the same number of matches left to be played – only nine.

It almost feels safe to say Liverpool won’t be playing in the Champions League next season, even if their list of remaining fixtures doesn’t look too daunting.

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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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