Tri-yearly humbling

Yesterday’s humbling result always felt like it was a possibility given Arsenal’s recent track record at Anfield but for the recent run of form to come to such an abrupt end still hurts. After their disappointment against West Ham, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to expect some bite from Liverpool and in the end, it was more of a mauling – even without more heroics from Aaron Ramsdale. The first half may have given an illusion of competition, but I suspect that feeling would quickly ebb away over the course of a second viewing, because it was clear that Liverpool had plenty more to work with and they still deservedly went in at half time with a lead. The first goal was always going to be crucial, the second was the point of no return and it was cascades from there on out.

Arsenal’s young squad has managed to get by in recent weeks by starting quickly and using a lead to control games – there or thereabouts. There have been wobbles but they’ve usually been offset by spending larger parts of the game on the front foot, which is easier to do when you are ahead. While there were half-chances to take the lead at Anfield, a Liverpool opener had been coming and with so much quality available from dead-ball situations, you always run that risk with players like Trent Alexander Arnold. In typical Arsenal fashion, the day’s villain was naturally the first goalscorer and despite a growing number of occasions where Mané has escaped red cards both against Arsenal and elsewhere, I think it’s besides the point on this occasion.

After half time, something had changed and Liverpool did what they do better than anyone in pressing relentlessly and capitalising on lapses. I thought the variety in Arsenal’s first half distribution had given them something to think about, with Aubameyang and Saka both finding space to run into on a few occasions and I’d naively hoped that we would be able to hang in there playing Liverpool at their own game. I don’t have an issue with Tavares’ marauding run and lapse of concentration, because he was only doing the thing that’s put him on the map in the first place. Where other teams may not gamble in leaving a player in that pocket, Liverpool can afford to do so and when you have a player of Jota’s quality there, anything is possible. He also put Ben White and Ramsdale on their arses in the process and sometimes you just have to put your hands up and applaud the quality, because what he did was reminiscent of Ozil’s superb goal against Ludogrets.

Where Arsenal have been able to survive mistakes in recent weeks, Liverpool are a team that punish and Anfield is Arsenal’s most unforgiving venue. I don’t know what to make of that, because while Arsenal went through a period of inevitability with these fixtures (and probably still are given the combined 11-0 scoreline against the league’s Top Three), I don’t feel the same as I used to. Continuing to play with such a young squad was always bound to throw up some speed bumps and the characters within the squad don’t strike me as the types to now balk at the fixture when it comes around again. There was a naivety in some ways, both from Arteta and the players and they fell victim of the Hot Shot fallacy; Ramsdale has bailed us out a few times so he’ll continue to do so (in fairness, he still did); Tavares and Ben White will bound forward and open up the park – both did and both were dispossessed; the two Hale End starlings will find a way – both lacked the confidence and the ability in the final third to make an impact because Liverpool aren’t your average team. Even Thomas Partey, who usually rises to the occasion and has experience playing and winning at Anfield at the highest level, was kept quiet and ineffective by Fabinho and Thiago and looked just as junior and out of his depth as Sambi.

By their own admission, they preyed on Arsenal’s naivety, with Trent Alexander Arnold saying “the first 15-20 minutes of the second half was as good as we’ve played pressing wise this season. Completely ran all over them.They continued to play out the back but we were all over them, they were just seeing red blurs all over the place.”

There’s often a fine line between bold and stupid, but it would seem they didn’t take kindly to a fresh-faced team like Arsenal playing with fire. Be that as it may, I think I still prefer Arsenal playing and losing as they mean to go on rather than sitting 10 men behind the ball and trying to snatch a goal on the counter-attack in the fashion that earned Arsenal’s last win against Liverpool. That might sound nonsensical to prefer a 4-0 loss over a win but I don’t think pandering to what the opposition can do to you is conducive to long-term progress and hoping that you’ll snatch a game isn’t sustainable. The same can just as easily be said of Arsenal’s problems in the final third, which, while papered over in recent weeks thanks to some wins on the board, are still evident.

Goals scored14th
Open play goals19th
Big chances19th

It’s no coincidence that if you’re not creating many big chances, you’re not going to score many open play goals and the same can be said for possession. Not controlling games is distinctly un-Arsenal and despite managing to do so periodically, rarely is it sustained and that’s what you need if you want to get those numbers to look serious again. To make up for a blunt spear tip, Arsenal’s shrewd acquisitions at the back have dampened the effect but it’s clear where Arsenal’s next round of transfer business will be focused because these metrics will catch up with us.

Arteta thankfully has a kind fixture to roll into for a reset in bottom-placed Newcastle but going forward, he is running out of “whipping tokens”. The side is young today and Liverpool are seasoned, ruthless and in a three-horse title race. Despite what the table suggests, Arsenal are still a long way off and the best thing to take away from the game is to watch how Liverpool scored their 3rd and 4th goals because that looks like the next big hurdle this team needs to overcome.

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