It already looks like the only thing that can (but also definitely will) stop Arsenal winning the title is the sheer absurdity of Manchester City after the Gunners answered more serious questions with a thrilling 3-2 win over Liverpool in a Proper Game of Our League football. But what’s next for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who look a pale imitation of what they once were…
1. Fun, wasn’t it? Without wishing to become an Our League Tubthumper, that was a glorious slice of the very finest Barclays. Arsenal against Liverpool was already the goalsiest (shut up, it’s a word) Premier League fixture before tonight and it’s now 180 goals in their 61 matches. And this one came with a very real sense of wider significance. It was a game that already had narrative right out the wazoo before kick-off, and somehow managed to deliver everything it promised and more within the first 58 seconds of a game that never once let up from there on.
2. Obviously “Martinelli v TAA” was scrawled in big letters across our pre-match notes, just as it was on Jurgen Klopp’s. We were pretty sure we would end up writing about it one way or another. We didn’t expect there to be a 1000-word feature on it within the first minute.
3. This is an Arsenal side that is making a habit of finding eloquent answers for the questions non-believers raise and will continue to raise. Easy fixture list. Haven’t shown strength in adversity. Are Arsenal. Haven’t beaten anyone decent. Is it too much of a shitpost to put forward the argument that actually that last quibble still applies?
4. Yes, it absolutely is. Stop being a prick. Liverpool played well here, and at times very well, but even if they hadn’t this was a victory that would always carry huge symbolic significance in the journey of this Arsenal side. It is a fixture in which they have a miserable recent record. In what might reasonably be termed the Peak Klopp Years – 2017/18 onwards, basically – Arsenal had beaten Liverpool only once in all competitions. And that a hollow Project Restart affair after the title was already Liverpool’s and Arsenal were mired in mid-table.
And those Liverpool wins had often been brutal. They won 2-0 here twice last season, in the league and the Carabao, and 3-0 here the year before that. At Anfield, Liverpool have beaten Arsenal 3-1 (twice), 4-0 (also twice) and 5-1 within the last five years.
To beat them, and to do it having been pegged back not once but twice showed an Arsenal side that possesses plenty of the old Wengerian ideal of “character” to go with the quality. Increasingly, the only compelling arguments about Arsenal as title contenders are about Manchester City’s absurdity rather than anything to do with Arteta’s Gunners. They are already clear of the rest in a group of two at the top with City – a position Liverpool themselves know all too well – and that itself is an absurd effort for a club that hasn’t finished in the top four since 2016.
5. Liverpool are in a bit of a mess, though. Yes, this was better but that’s damning in its own way, because a lot of it – and not just Trent Alexander-Arnold – was still really, really not good and they are starting to look like a team and manager coming to the end of their cycle. The excellent final 25 minutes of the first half felt like a team playing from muscle memory. A spasm that showed the glimpses of what they once were and that still remains somewhere in there striving to get out. Their title bid is, obviously, already done. But even the top four looks a long way off right now and things are likely to get worse before they get better with Manchester City next up.
That’s particularly onerous because when you’re Liverpool and you’ve been as good as you have for as long as you have, you can’t really go “Tricky fixture list, though” to excuse being mid-table after a quarter of the season. But playing Arsenal and City in back-to-back games around Champions League commitments is asking an awful lot of anyone, and most of all a great side in decline and suddenly unsure of itself.
For all that this season’s Premier League has had an uneven and topsy-turvy start with Chelsea and Manchester United accepting the Crisis Club mantle at various points the facts are these: five of the Big Six now occupy the top five spots in the league. The other, five points adrift of even fifth place, is Liverpool in 10th.
There’s a concept in cricket called “Root Maths”. It refers to the manipulation of stats to fit a particular argument. Specifically, it involves discounting innings that don’t fit with a general narrative of a batter out of form. “Take away that hundred he scored there,” the Root Mathser will begin, “and he’s only averaging 20.” Clearly, that’s not really on. You can’t just ignore inconvenient results that don’t support the argument you want to make. On the other hand, take away Liverpool’s 9-0 win over Bournemouth (who now sit two places and two points above them in the table, by the way) and you’ve got a team whose only league win this season was a wildly unconvincing one achieved late on against a Newcastle side still finding its feet, and who have scored 11 and conceded 12 in seven games that have earned just seven points.
Managers, even managers with Klopp’s talents and record, have been sacked for less. Thomas Tuchel, for one.
6. There’s arguably a parallel here between Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. Clearly the level of ability and achievement is not equal, but the sense of a cycle ending, of a race run, is similar. Both teams ran out of steam after a debilitating Champions League final defeat. Both teams grew old together with inadequate recruitment for regrowth. When Spurs sacked Pochettino, they had 11 points from eight games. Liverpool are one point worse off. Logically, this also means we are set for Jose Mourinho to continue his tour of the Premier League’s Big Six. Surely a plan only Liverpool fans could oppose. Make it happen, universe.
7. It arguably points to the scale of Liverpool’s problems that Taking The Positives from a Premier League defeat is now a legitimate and necessary avenue of enquiry, but they were there if you squinted hard enough. All of us who imagined a Darwin Nunez v Erling Haaland contest might be interesting this season are feeling very silly, but he was excellent in the first half here and both he and Liverpool were fully deserving of an equaliser that had been coming for a good 10 minutes before it finally arrived.
Concerns that Liverpool’s midfield of Henderson and Thiago would be overrun by Partey, Xhaka and Odegaard didn’t materialise in a first half where Liverpool regrouped impressively and after the unpleasantness of the first 10 or 15 minutes were the better side. Liverpool’s precise route to an equaliser had already been trailed by a quick break and early cross that William Saliba had to intercept at full stretch and then trust Aaron Ramsdale would be able to deal with the goalbound loose ball. The second attempt made one crucial change: it was Saliba closing down the cross and Gabriel forced to try and deal with the cross and/or Darwin Nunez in the centre. He managed neither, and Liverpool were deservedly level.
8. Liverpool looked the likelier scorers for the rest of the first half, right up until Arsenal scored instead. It was another combination of attacking verve and defensive disasterclass and, sadly, Alexander-Arnold was right in the thick of it again. He was drawn out to the ball and left the centre unguarded as the magnificent Martinelli squared for the only slightly less magnificent Bukayo Saka to tap in. It was such a revealing mistake. It wasn’t the straightforward error of a misplaced pass or misjudged tackle. It was an inexplicable malfunction of reason.
It was obvious to anyone with eyes where Alexander-Arnold needed to be, yet something compelled him to run the other way to where he was not required. It was actually painful to watch a player of this great talent reduced to this level of confusion and uncertainty. It was impossible not to feel for him. Defending was obviously never his strength, but he could do it pretty well. He’s forgotten even what he did know about defending. He’s now making mistakes that go beyond technical and point to a mind in a muddle.
His withdrawal at half-time for his own good may have been in part injury-guided, but it was a decision that needed to be taken regardless. Joe Gomez might not bring as much subtlety to the role, but the way he sent Martinelli into the advertising hoardings was more what Liverpool required.
9. Liverpool had strong appeals for a penalty waved away by first Michael Oliver and then VAR after the ball struck Gabriel on the arm. It’s the sort of penalty we’ve seen given plenty of times this season, but it’s also not remotely the sort of penalty anyone should actually want to see given if you aren’t emotionally invested in the specific moment at hand. For want of a better phrase.
Gabriel was moving at speed and it’s pretty much impossible to do that without moving your arms. He was no more than a yard away when the ball was propelled towards him. It’s just not the sort of thing that anyone should really want to be an offence that equates to conceding 0.8 of a goal every time it happens. The idea that any raised position for the hands is unnatural and holding them stiff by your sides or behind your back is somehow natural is one we all need to forget about. They look so much worse in slow-motion than they ever do in real time, and we just don’t need to be seeing penalties for these kind of ‘offences’ that are so small and twatty.
All that said, Gabriel indicating the ball had hit his chest rather than his arm when he must have known it was about to be subjected to full multi-camera VAR scrutiny was a moment of great joy.
10. Arsenal retook the lead against the run of play, and Liverpool then equalised against the run of play in a second half that quickly became utterly exhausting for the visitors. Again, there to be a sense of a side somehow just trying to insist to themselves as much as anyone else that they are still as good as they used to be dammit and refusing to accept the reality.
11. But they couldn’t build on it. The last half-hour of the game was an exercise in making both these sides look their age. Arsenal looked every inch the young, vibrant side at the start of its journey. Liverpool, well, they looked real tired. At 2-2 Jurgen Klopp started making changes and by the time they were forced to chase the game after Saka’s second goal had restored Arsenal’s lead once more, they simply didn’t have the right players on the pitch to make it happen. The sight of Virgil van Dijk as emergency striker for the game’s closing minutes was a pretty clear indicator that this was a game that had spiralled out of Liverpool’s control.
12. But would the ‘right’ players have got Liverpool any further? Mo Salah’s struggles continued on an afternoon where he got absolutely no change out of an Arsenal left-back who was in fact their second-choice right back Takehiro Tomiyasu. Both last season’s Golden Boot winners have been way off the pace this season, but Salah’s problems are a mirror to Liverpool’s which means they catch the eye all the more. And unlike Son Heung-min, his struggles go back much further. It’s now just six goals in his last 19 Premier League appearances for Salah. To put that in some 2022/23 context, that’s two home games’ worth of goals for Erling Haaland.
13. Perhaps the most striking thing about the game, though, beyond the excellence of Arsenal’s players and the struggles of Liverpool’s was the role reversal from what we’ve seen in recent years. Here it was Liverpool who looked like the collection of admittedly talented individuals, while Arsenal were the precise and efficient and controlled systems team where everyone knew precisely what was required and how best to go about it.
The system may be more like Manchester City’s than Liverpool’s – they unsurprisingly given Arteta’s schooling look more like a Guardiola team with every game – but still look likely to share Liverpool’s fate of ending the season looking up at those impossible blue bastards. But most likely down on everyone else.
14. We await the full findings of the Celebration Police investigation into the scenes at the final whistle, but we’re pretty confident that Arteta and co will be once again found guilty as charged of celebrating a significant win in an important football match. All right, they weren’t ever behind in this one and Liverpool used to be quite good, so it’s a bit different to celebrating the win over Fulham. But they still conceded a couple of equalisers and yet celebrated at the final whistle like it was the World Cup or something. Which Arsenal have never won and never will. And Arteta spent most of the game outside his technical area again. (Something that, all joking aside, we do actually find a bit annoying and uncomfortable. He just constantly seems so very close to the pitch and it gives us anxiety. He’s going to trip an opposition winger up one day, and Richard Keys will be unconscionably smug about it all.)
15. Arsenal had 46 touches in Liverpool’s penalty area today. To ram home the point about the rarefied air Arsenal are currently breathing, it’s a total only City can match in recent years. It’s as many as Arsenal have managed in their last five league games against Klopp’s side combined. We haven’t actually checked this, but we reckon a good 15 or 20 of those touches were from Granit Xhaka, whose transformation from undisciplined, unreliable red-card-in-waiting to redoubtable box-to-box midfield general has been so complete that we almost found ourselves surprised to see him get involved in some unnecessary sh*thousery after the award of Arsenal’s match-winning penalty. Lovely to see the old Xhaka remains in there, just to keep us all on our toes.
16. The penalty that won Arsenal the game was inevitably described as “soft” by Klopp but was one you’d expect to be given more often than not. It certainly wasn’t one that could really be contested by any logic stronger than “sometimes you might get away with it, if you’re lucky”. And really, to argue about the award of the penalty itself would be to miss the point of the five minutes that preceded it and most alarmingly the last 30 seconds. Liverpool’s defending was in full desperation mode, looking more like a League One side trying to hold on for a lucrative FA Cup replay than a fellow Premier League heavyweight going toe-to-toe with a rival. It’s not just that these two clubs appear to be travelling in opposite directions, it’s that the speed of that travel meant that even though you know it’s Arsenal and you’ve seen them concede two equalisers already, you never really sensed any significant chance of a third equaliser. Liverpool had thrown all their punches by then and had nothing left to give. We still don’t know just how much more Arsenal have in reserve in what promises to be a thrilling season at the Emirates.