It’s safe to say that the expectations of Liverpool supporters have become elevated in the last few seasons. Back in the day, Arsenal was a really big game on our schedule. They, along with ManU and Chelsea, were the dominant force of the Premier League for much of this century. It’s still treated as the Game of the Week by the various broadcasters, but more for the size of the clubs’ fanbases than for any significant scheduling reason, especially when the Gunners come to Anfield, where they haven’t won a game since 2013. Since the London club went into their slow slide under Arsene Wenger and then their relative tailspin under Unai Emery, this game has instead been seen by Reds fans as one which LFC should win. That kind of explains the amount of frustration I’ve experienced when writing about games against them in recent times. The bizarre loss back in July is the only game I didn’t cover last season, at least in part because I just threw up my hands and tried to ignore it in the afterglow of our first title win in 30 years. But then came the Community Shield, where we were again clearly the better side and, yet, for the second year in a row, stuttered to a 1-1 draw that we lost 5-4 on penalties. You could be excused for thinking we were starting to develop a mental block about that team…
Except that our side doesn’t do mental blocks. In the same way that we ground out a succession of 2-1 victories last fall, after going down 0-1 to an unusual Andy Robertson error and a bobbled Alexandre Lacazette goal, we simply got back in the saddle, continued to dominate the game, and scored two in quick succession to take the lead and reestablish what most would see as the natural order of things. This leaves out Arsenal FanTV, of course, as that pack of fools were apparently insisting that they’d been robbed of a win by the officiating of Craig Pawson. But only genuine fools would believe that, since we crushed them in every conceivable stat; outshooting them 21-4 (8-3 on target), corners 7-3, and at one point in the first half, had 75% possession. The latter is often a fairly meaningless stat, but is also often an indication of a lesser team packing it in against a better team and hoping to survive on the counter. Five years ago, that wouldn’t have been the character of a Liverpool-Arsenal match.
The most visually-obvious aspect to the mismatch was the Gunners’ insistence on playing the ball out from the back. If anything, our answer to this has only gotten better than it was in the last two games we played with them. We cut off passing lanes, contain Bernd Leno and his CBs in the box, and generally force them to finally kick it long, whereupon our midfield is essentially waiting for the ball and we end up retaining it on their side of the pitch, anyway. One supposes that Leno and their squad, in general, would’ve been better served by him hoofing it long and hoping for the best. But given the general lack of skill in the Arsenal midfield, against our excellent possession trio of Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum, and Naby Keita… yeah, no. I think they might’ve taken the only route they thought they could succeed with and which is part of the process of their whole squad continuing to learn Mikel Arteta’s system. There aren’t too many other sides that will be able to cut off all of their passing lanes the way Liverpool can, so it’s probably better to play the way they play.
And that, too, is an expectation. This is what Arteta expects from his squad, in the same way that we’ve come to expect ours to beat Arsenal. Seems like a proper place to be for the reigning champions and 2nd in the table after three weeks (being only behind Leicester on GD and goals by 3; the (snicker) winning margin over Man City…)
Liverpool 3 – 1 Arsenal
I honestly can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a PL game with two foul throws. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one with both fouls committed by the same player; in this case, Hector Bellerin. So, aside from the new reality mentioned above, and the lack of fans, and the third week of the season happening in what’s basically October, we also have a professional who apparently can’t execute one of the more basic aspects of the game. What a world.
Caley mentions that Arsenal’s xG is inflated here by Lacazette’s shot in the second half not being flagged offside until after he took it, at which point play was allowed to continue so somehow that counts…? The fact that PL linespeople are waiting a good 10 seconds after a man is visibly offside to raise their flag is rapidly becoming this year’s VAR debacle (right after the handball situation, which has passed the ridiculous to the sublime.) I know they’re trained to not raise it if it’s close, so as not to interrupt a potential scoring play, but that moment wasn’t particularly close. So, raise the damn flag. Thankfully, Alisson blocked that one the same way he did the next time Lacazette broke into the box and took an actual legal shot. Perhaps mildly unsung in the excitement over Sadio Mané’s brilliant performance and Diogo Jota’s debut goal and Joe Gomez’s excellence is that Alisson had a standout game between the sticks, even while only facing three shots. He also controlled the ball well and defused a couple other situations by charging from his box to rescue our now-notorious high line when Arsenal had managed to poke past it.
But, still, MotM honors for me have to go to Gomez. He covered everything that needed to be, including charging into the box to turn aside an open shot late in the second half. He didn’t get caught out of position. And he demonstrated his vastly improved long passing, releasing both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah down the right side multiple times with pinpoint accuracy. Plus, this:
Granted, that’s not just Joe, since Trent had to contribute on that side, as well, and frequently gets overlooked for his defensive capabilities. But that’s about as good as an “in my pocket” game can be from our non-Virg center half. One little niggle is that I’ve been noticing a tendency on long balls in Joe’s direction. He usually attempts an aerial duel and often doesn’t win them (at least in comparison with our other top guys in the air, like Virgil and Roberto Firmino.) When that happens, it’s often a trigger moment through the midfield for the opposition. This may be why Gomez is often the “contain” guy at the back, rather than the “forward challenge” guy, although he and Virg tend to trade that role off regularly.
Speaking of Bob, I’m glad Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux take time out in virtually every Liverpool game they cover to sing the praises of our resident (false) #9. He had another excellent enabling game today, which was quickly pounced upon by the idiots in the World’s Dumbest Place (aka football Twitter) to proclaim loudly about how he doesn’t contribute. Another largely unsung hero (except by Arlo and Graeme) was Gini today, as he was everywhere in the middle third and made a number of dives into the box, as well. Some speculated that he’s motivated about potentially losing his spot to Thiago and has decided to fight for it in what may be his final year at the club. I think that’s just Gini being Gini: He wants to win games. Plus, there’s no danger of that spot getting taken in the next few weeks, as (sigh) Thiago is out with an injury; a not infrequent occurrence at Bayern.
And, oh, yeah! Diogo! He became the 13th player to score on his debut for Liverpool and also the 33rd to score under Klopp. Those are the trivial numbers. The real numbers are that he had 10 minutes of game time, wherein he had 16 touches, 5 in the box, 3 shots with an xG of .47, and a goal. For a game in which we were up 2-1, where Klopp normally subs to maintain control, that’s a ridiculous amount of attacking presence. He came on for Sadio, who was as responsible as anyone for our constant pressure in the Arsenal end, and picked up right where our left winger left off. THAT is the kind of substitute impact that we’ve always wanted. THAT is the kind of depth that we’ve always wanted. And now it’s here…
A couple other numbers. Since we’re talking about the midfield, we might as well point out that that was Keita’s fifth consecutive league start; the, uh, longest streak since he’s been at the club. Also, that was Liverpool’s 60th consecutive league game at Anfield without a loss. The record is 63, set from 1978 to 1981. Despite Robbo’s error leading to the Gunners’ goal, he’s also scored or assisted in 7 of his last 8 league matches, failing to do so only at Chelsea. That was part of 5 more chances created by our fullbacks, with Robbo’s goal coming from an assist by- of course -Trent. And Fabinho is still Fabinho:
OK. Next up is the return match with the Gunners for the WITSBP cup. Maybe Jota gets the start in this one and truly terrorizes them? Could be fun.