As we reach the mid-point of the season we can start to assess the progress we have made. In short it started out very promising and there have been a couple of devastating results but, all in all, things are looking positive. That being said, we are about to turn the corner into the so-called ‘business end’ of the season. The big games are about to come thick and fast, and Liverpool will have to be on their mettle constantly between now and May. You’d think that, with this being the season of goodwill, the Premier Fixture generator would have given us a couple of games against ‘lesser’ sides. However, yesterdays game against Arsenal was anything but.
Arsenal lined up with a couple of abnormalities from their normal starting XI. Jack Wilshere was chosen to replace the injured Aaron Ramsey in central midfield, partnering Granit Xhaka who had a torrid afternoon at Anfield in August. Olivier Giroud also missed this game through a hamstring injury so Alexandre Lacazette, probably the much-favoured candidate in the eyes of Gunners fans anyway, started up front. The most surprising selection from Arsene Wenger though came at left back. With Per Mertesacker out long term and Shkodran Mustafi only being fit enough to make the bench, Nacho Monreal was chosen to play at centre-half. Wenger decided to start the much more inexperienced Ainsley Maitland-Niles, naturally a right winger, at left-back over the more conventional Sead Kolasinac.
Jurgen Klopp, on the other hand, decided to play recognised team by his standards for this game. Klopp has utilised the rotation system to maximum effect this season but decided to make minimal changes here, sticking with the back four and goalkeeper which featured in the 4-0 in Bournemouth last week. Although the ‘fab four’ did start, it meant there would be two casualties in midfield. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was rightly given the man of the match for his performance against Bournemouth but was dropped to the bench in this game for Sadio Mane. Gini Wijnaldum was also in the dugout as Emre Can would replace him in the centre of the park, alongside Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho. Conspicuous by his absences from the team sheet altogether once was Daniel Sturridge, further fuelling speculation surrounding his future at the club.
This was always going to be a battle of wits between Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger, and the first ten minutes proved to be so. Arsenal were getting their midfield back in numbers and their defence was looking compact when Liverpool had possession. The Reds, however, were leaving too much space in their own midfield and looked familiarly at sixes and sevens when Arsenal came forward. Liverpool prodded and probed the Arsenal defence but couldn’t find a way through, whereas it looked like one ball, the right ball, could undo this Liverpool backline at any moment. Despite this though chances were few and far between, with Coutinho having the first shot on goal from distance which floated wide of Petr Cech’s goal.
Liverpool would go on to have two identical big chances. First, it was Andy Robertson who would whip the ball into the back post on Jurgen Klopp’s insistence, where Roberto Firmino met it with his head. He try to beat Cech on his near post but the veteran goalkeeper was equal to it and palmed it behind. Minutes later it was Coutinho’s turn to curl a beautiful ball towards Firmino on the far post. This time his header flashed across goal and inches wide of the far post. Arsenal had been slid and paid Liverpool the respect they hadn’t in previous encounters between the two but it was still Liverpool who were creating the more clear-cut chances. Not long after Firmino’s latest failed attempt, Liverpool finally grasped one of their chances.
Having gained a throw-in in our own half, the ball was lifted over the top for Mo Salah to run onto. He had finally escaped the attention of Maitland-Niles, who so far had done well playing out of position against the Egyptian speed-demon, and was away on the Liverpool right. As he bombed forward, Coutinho was breaking his neck alongside him looking for a through ball. Salah eventually played it as Koscielny closed in but it deflected of the French defenders boot and into the air. That didn’t deter Coutinho who rose to flick the ball over Cech and into the back of the Arsenal net with his head. It had been a tight game but, on the balance of play, it was no more than Liverpool deserved. First blood to Klopp.
Following the goal Liverpool completed a turnaround in midfield. They say you’re at most vulnerable immediately after scoring a goal but the opposite seemed to be the case for The Reds. Having looked so shaky and open in the middle of the park before, Liverpool now regained control and closed the space previously afford to Jack Wilshere. He had now been nullified and Arsenal were struggling. Liverpool began to constrict the opposition and suffocated them. The game opened up and chances began to come, the best for Firmino who curled a shot millimetres over the Arsenal bar.
With the game nearing half-time, there was time for one last big chance for Liverpool. Mistakes were creeping in for both sides and this passage of play started with a poor kick from Mignolet. Liverpool managed to hold onto possession though. Milner played a ball through the middle which should have been easily cut out by Koscielny. But he missed it and Salah was now clean through. His low shot was saved by Cech but spun into the air for what seemed like a routine finish for Sadio Mane. However, Mane attempted the spectacular and his scissor kick ended up in the crowd behind the goal. It was a chance which Liverpool would hope wouldn’t come back to haunt them.
When Martin Atkinson did blow for the break it will have been welcome sound for Arsene Wenger. With his team being booed off as they trudged down the tunnel, he will have wanted to get his team to rollick them for a first-half display devoid of quality. The precision of Arsenal’s passing was uncharacteristically poor by their standards and had contributed in them being unable to carve a clear chance on goal. Jurgen Klopp will have been happy overall with his sides performance yet the same problems plagued Liverpool. The lack of quality or concentration in some of our play was disappointing, and one couldn’t help but wonder how many we could have scored had due care been taken when playing the ball into dangerous areas – Mane’s late chance being a case in point. Would that come back to bite us on the backside?
When the second half kicked off, Arsenal made a change. Nacho Monreal was forced off injured and Shkodran Mustafi was brought on but it made no difference to their fortunes. They continued to show a lack of quality on the ball. They would be punished for it.
With Arsenal attacking, Liverpool won the ball in the left back area. Milner poked it onto Mo Salah who ran at Jack Wilshere and done him for pace. He played it Firmino, who dragged three players across to the right wing with him. The ball back into Salah from Firmino was inch perfect and, from there, it was all about the Egyptian. He held it up before curling it beyond Cech, via the shin of Mustafi, to double Liverpool’s lead. That was now 15 in the league alone now for Salah and 21 in all competitions. It was typical Liverpool, exploiting the opposition expertly on the counter-attack. The lead wouldn’t last though.
It started immediately after the goal. Arsenal had their first meaningful ball into the box put in by Bellerin. As the ball curled towards the back post where Joe Gomez switched off and allowed Alexis Sanchez to beat him to it, heading the ball beyond Mignolet and pulling a goal back for Arsenal in the process. Minutes later Arsenal’s comeback was complete when Granit Xhaka let fly from 25 yards. The ball moved in the air but Mignolet really should have done better, and it bounced off his wrist and into the back of his net. Arsenal had looked dead and buried but were now level – they weren’t done there though.
Milner lost the ball on the Liverpool left and Arsenal were away. Mesut Ozil, anonymous for the prior 57 minutes, played the ball into Lacazette in the Liverpool area. He held off the attentions of Lovren before backheeling the ball between his legs, into the path of Ozil. The German playmaker showed impudent brilliance to run onto it, unmarked, and deftly chip the ball over Mignolet to make it 3-2. It was a stunning comeback from Arsenal’s point of view. As for Liverpool, it was one shambolic mistake after another. If they would go onto lose this game then the fault would lie with nobody but themselves. It looked as if Liverpool had bottled another game, a la Sevilla, but there were still more goals to be had. The next would be crucial.
With the ball in the centre circle, Milner played it into the feet of Firmino who was central on the edge of the Arsenal area. He turned and fired a powerful shot towards Cech’s goal which the ‘keeper was able to parry. However, he could only parry it into the air and when it bounced it spun wickedly away from the Arsenal defenders and into the back of the net. Liverpool were somehow level from another woeful goalkeeping error. With twenty minutes to go, would we see a winner?
The game was now hell for leather. Arsenal threw on Walcott and Welbeck to inject pace into their attack. Liverpool responded by replacing Mane and Coutinho, with Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal were throwing men forward but Liverpool were coping well with the threat. Liverpool tried to stick to their gameplan of picking Arsenal off on the counter. Clear-cut opportunities were now few and far between though, despite both sides throwing caution to the wind and when the referee blew the final whistle there was an air of acceptance from both sets of players and supporters regarding the result.
This was truly a game of two halves, more so for Arsenal than for Liverpool. For an hour they were abject and were being deservedly beaten. However, the game changed within three minutes and forty-five seconds in a manic second half. Arsenal suddenly showed up and Liverpool couldn’t cope for a while. The goal from Firmino was lucky but absolutely essential not just for the result, but also for Liverpool’s performance. From there we woke up and began to compete again. In the end, a draw was probably a fair result but Liverpool will be wondering what might have been after having so many chances to seal the victory.