Sometimes, the marquee matchup of the Premier League weekend disappoints after days of incessant hype and dissection within the media, but that was not the case on Saturday night. Over 90 minutes, Arsenal and Liverpool showed just why the Premier League is the most popular in the world. The action oscillated from cautious, probing spells of possession to frenetic, full-steam attacks, touching on everything in between. Nowhere else in the world can quite match the blend of speed, skill and power present in the English top flight, and Saturday was perhaps the most riveting example yet this season. In the end, the 1-1 draw is a fair result considering both sides will feel as though the win was there for the taking, and already some are looking forward to the reverse fixture just before the New Year.
A Chess Match Fit For The Modern Game
Saturday’s clash was not only a battle between two of England’s most storied clubs, it was also a chess match between two managers well-versed in the tactical philosophies that have become so prevalent in the best teams around Europe. Both practitioners of high intensity pressing and free flowing, open attack, Unai Emery and Jurgen Klopp are not that dissimilar in the way they want their ideas expressed on the pitch. Both like their fullbacks to provide attacking width, their defence to step up into a high line to compress the space for an opponent to play through, and both like their players to play on the front foot, asserting their own will on the match rather than reacting to the opponent.
The match was every bit as end to end exciting as promised, with far more scoring chances than a 1-1 final score might suggest. Arsenal seemed totally in control for much of the match, dominating the ball with 62% possession, but Liverpool’s incredible counter attack created more clear cut chances for the visitors. Both teams ended with just 4 shots on target, with much of the match playing out between the two penalty areas. Klopp wisely sent stalwart centre back Virgil Van Dijk up into the box at every opportunity on corners, free kicks and throws, and he nearly scored twice from those situations. Arsenal meanwhile were more successful playing through the half spaces, with Mesut Ozil in particular looking capable of splitting the defence with his probing passes, finishing with 4 key passes on the night.
Fullbacks Win Race For Fitness
Had Saturday’s match come even a day earlier, the Gunners would have faced potentially insurmountable problems dealing with Liverpool’s elite pace on the wings. When Hector Bellerin tapped out at the half with a thigh problem last Sunday against Crystal Palace, his injury left Stephan Lichtsteiner and Carl Jenkinson as the only healthy fullbacks in the squad. Nacho Monreal has been out of regular training since the Fulham match and Sead Kolasinac has been dealing with injuries of his own, keeping him out of action for all but the Gunners’ Europa League trip to Azerbaijan.
Luckily for Unai Emery, all 3 made progress throughout the week, and both Bellerin and Kolasinac passed late fitness tests to start against Liverpool. Despite their struggles through the week, neither showed the ill effects of their injuries and Kolasinac was astonishingly good for a player who had played just 90 minutes of football this season. Liverpool focused their attacks down the flanks, playing long angle balls over the heads of the Arsenal defence, forcing them to turn and run with the lightning quick Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the discipline with which Kolasinac and Bellerin played. While both were taxed with providing attacking width down the flanks, rarely were both fullbacks caught high up the pitch at the same time. Bellerin was tested more often down his side of the pitch as Mo Salah was nearly marked out of effectiveness on the other side by Kolasinac, but he was perfectly comfortable dealing with the threat. Arsenal failed to be the first team to beat Liverpool in the Premier League this season, but there is no telling how the match would have gone without the near heroic efforts of the returning pair.
Good To Be Home
As relieved as supporters were to see Kolasinac and Bellerin make it into the team, nobody was as happy as Granit Xhaka. Having been called upon twice in the last week to fill in at left back, it is likely that the Swiss international wasn’t relishing the possibility of chasing Liverpool’s right wing, Mo Salah, all around the pitch for 90 minutes. Instead, Xhaka was back in his usual spot at the heart of the Arsenal midfield next to Lucas Torreira. The duo responded to the reunion with perhaps their best collective performance in an Arsenal shirt. The pair combined for an incredible 7 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 clearances on the evening, and a glance at Liverpool’s heat map suggests that space was at a premium for their attack in the centre of the pitch, with much of their most dangerous work coming down the flanks.
With Xhaka’s passing range and knack for moving the ball on in rhythm, Torreira’s bulldog-like tenacity is the perfect foil in the Arsenal midfield. Much has been made of the limitations in Xhaka’s game, but there is little denying that Arsenal operate much more efficiently with the ball when he starts in the midfield. Both players were relentless in their effort for 90 minutes, never seeming to tire from closing down passing lanes and chasing down loose balls, and they made life difficult for the Liverpool midfield and Roberto Firmino, who struggled to find his usual space when dropping deep from his centre forward position. It was the sort of gritty performance that Arsenal fans have been desperate to see in their midfield for years, and it looks like the club have finally found a pivot on which they can build for seasons to come.
While the first half ended scoreless, with neither side able to convert on their best chances, Liverpool felt as though they should have already had the lead. In the 18th minute, Trent Alexander-Arnold played Roberto Firmino in clear on goal with a beautiful ball over the top, which the Brazilian drilled into the crossbar, only for Sadio Mane to be there to fire home the rebound. The Liverpool celebrations were quickly halted when the linesman raised his flag for offside, but many believe the call was incorrect.
Despite Mane being in an offside position when Alexander-Arnold played the first ball, he was level with Firmino when he took his own shot, and therefore (according to multiple former referees following the match) should have been deemed onside. While some argue that Mane was influencing play merely by being in the area and in front of Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno, the consensus seems to be that Liverpool were hard done by with the decision. For his part, Mane refused to complain about the ruling, citing a goal earlier in the year which was allowed to stand despite him actually being offside in that situation. It is hard to say how a goal so early in proceedings might have effected the outcome, but for Arsenal, it is safe to say they dodged a bullet that could have had them scrambling for answers before the halftime whistle.
Gunners Announce Top 4 Intentions
Once upon a time, Arsenal were seen as virtual locks to finish in the top 4 of the Premier League. And yet, in just 2 seasons on the periphery of the Champions League, fans and pundits alike have fallen into the habit of excluding the Gunners from the conversation of genuine top 4 contention. Outside the top 3, Tottenham, and even the struggling Manchester United have been picked to beat the Gunners to that final place. An 0-2 record heading into Saturday’s match against fellow top 6 foes this season only seemed to reinforce that belief.
However, Unai Emery and his players put the rest of the league and all of its followers on notice with their eye-opening performance against Liverpool. Even after going down a goal in the second half, the players never lost their nerve, looking to each other to lift their play to another level and claw back into the match. Despite conceding first, the Arsenal defence looked as comfortable as they have in years against such a talented opponent. Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi were superb positionally, and neither player seemed to put a foot wrong for 90 minutes, making 8 tackles, 7 interceptions, 16 clearances and winning 8 aerial duels between them.
Many fans remember last season’s epic 4-4 draw at the Emirates Stadium, but despite coming away with a point on that night as well, the Gunners never felt in control of that match in the same way they were this time around. There is a tangible confidence in the way the players are performing under Unai Emery this season that suggests genuine belief in themselves and their ability to win, even when facing a deficit and a tenacious opponent. Arsenal dropped into 5th place this weekend as Tottenham were able to win their match and leapfrog the Gunners into the top 4, but after witnessing the intensity, fighting spirit, and improvement on display against an excellent Liverpool side, some have awoken to the fact that this Arsenal team may just be for real.