Arsenal 3-2 Liverpool: Talking points as Gunners beat struggling Merseysiders to retake Premier Leag

Arsenal beat Liverpool by 3-2 on Sunday in what was an extremely interesting contest, full of tempo and emotion, and not short of controversy either. There was plenty of good football to see, along with fighting spirit clearly visible in both sets of players.

Gabriel Martinelli broke the deadlock for the hosts after less than a minute, and Darwin Nunez silenced some of his critics with a 34th-minute equalizer. Bukayo Saka made sure Arsenal were ahead at the break after the 45 minutes had already gone, and Roberto Firmino, who had come off the bench to replace the injured Luis Diaz, set the score back level in the 53rd. However, Saka was on target for Arsenal again in the 75th, this time from the penalty spot.

Gunners attack in waves

After taking the early lead, Arsenal understandably relinquished the initiative to the result-chasing visitors and mostly defended well. However, they occasionally had short periods when they went forward will all their might, trying to catch Liverpool off-guard.

It’s a well-designed strategy when a team isn’t able to compete in the middle of the park for every ball between the first and the final whistle, something that used to do wonders for Atletico Madrid at times during the long reign of Diego Simeone. Not that Arsenal use it that often, though; Arteta prefers his team to dominate the ball and push the opposition back, but it’s always advisable to have it ready for a clash against an experienced top side which has had tremendous success built on a possession-based game in previous seasons – like Liverpool.

Also, it’s worth noting how most of Arsenal’s attacks that caused problems for the Liverpool defence came through quick changes of flanks. The opening goal, for example, came after Ben White, deployed as the right-back at the moment, released Saka down the right flank.

The England winger burst forward and having reached the final third, he passed inwards to Martin Odegaard in the middle and the Norwegian playmaker then sent Martinelli through with a lovely pass as the Brazilian came in from the left. The right-to-left change left the visitors’ defence unbalanced and far more likely to crumble as it did.

The second goal was similar in a way, this time with Martinelli breaking down the left and finding Saka coming in from the right on the far post with a tricky low cross through the box, which Gabriel Magalhaes let pass through the middle to confuse the overloaded Kostas Tsimikas. The Greek had three opponents to defend against by himself in that situation, all

due to Martinelli’s pace and a timely and perfectly executed pass from one flank to the other.

Liverpool: The system, the players

There has been plenty of talk among pundits about the way Jurgen Klopp set his team up in the 2-0 win over Rangers earlier in the week, when he abandoned his standard 4-3-3 shape in favour of a more adventurous 4-2-3-1, which occasionally seemed like a totally offensive 4-2-4. Former Arsenal star Paul Merson, for example, said Liverpool would get hammered at the Emirates if they went with Thiago Alcantara and Jordan Henderson in the middle, that they would be able to hold onto the ball against Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka and Odegaard.

Merson was obviously right to an extent – Arsenal won the game, but it can hardly be said that Liverpool got ‘hammered’. The Merseysiders actually had more possession and better pass completion rate than the Gunners, despite the fact that Klopp went exactly with Thiago and Henderson in midfield and that neither of them had a good game individually.

The change in the system did achieve something – Liverpool do look slightly better like this than they did in a 4-3-3 this season. However, it also seems that that change took them about as far as it could in itself, and now it’s time for the players tasked with executing the manager’s ideas on the pitch to take a long, hard look at themselves.

Thiago didn’t look himself at all; careless in possession, late in tackles, erroneous in passing – three of his generally best traits went down the drain at the Emirates. Henderson repeatedly failed to track runners, and when he did, like for Arsenal’s second goal, he was thrown off far too easily.

Mohamed Salah, so often Liverpool’s deadliest weapon since 2017, seemed to be playing a game of his own. Rarely involved, and when he was, he forced it too much, tried too hard to beat his man and mostly failed. Once he succeeded in sending Tahekiro Tomiyasu out for the paper, but then his embarrassingly tame shot went well wide of the target. The Egyptian looked like a definition of an off-form player on Sunday.

Much has been said of Trent Alexander-Arnold lately, and though he scored a great goal against Rangers, the 24-year-old right-back didn’t cover himself in glory either. He contributed very little going forward and was as susceptible defensively as ever. Liverpool’s back line looked much more stable after his injury-forced withdrawal in the second half, though of course, Joe Gomez offered even less in attack.

The midfield section has been scrutinized heavily since the summer transfer window, at the end of which Liverpool signed Arthur Melo on loan from Juventus. The Brazilian midfielder, however, suffered a severe muscle problem ahead of the Rangers clash and won’t be back in

action for several months.

But at the moment, it looks like Liverpool lack a decent option on the wings as well. Salah and Diaz are absolutely nailed-on to start every match that bears any significance, but now they’ve come to the point where Salah isn’t himself and Diaz has picked up an injury, which, according to The Athletic journalist James McNicholas, had the Colombian leave the Emirates on crutches and with his leg in a brace.

Diogo Jota took over on the left when Diaz went off, but though Jota certainly is a fine player in his own right, Liverpool lost a lot of penetration potential on the left from that point on. Other alternatives are teenagers Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott, as the latter came on to replace Jota in the 81st minute.

It seems Klopp has only scratched the surface with the changes to the system he’s made, and now it’s time for the German to consider his playing personnel and get his superiors at the club to act in the transfer market with more determination and willingness to invest. That, however, cannot be done before January, and the pause in club football that the World Cup brings will surely come in handy.

The only problem is, Liverpool are set to play 10 matches between now and then, set three to five days in between.

Controversies aplenty

But for all the woes of Liverpool in this match, the worst performer on the pitch wasn’t wearing their shirt, or Arsenal’s, but the black one marking the man in charge of the match. Michael Oliver’s woeful performance was only matched by his colleague Darren England in the VAR room.

Oliver is generally considered one of the best English referees, which doesn’t really say much as it’s a low standard for a decent official to measure himself against. But on Sunday, it was like watching Martin Atkinson, Mike Dean and Jonathan Moss with all their mind-boggling decisions rolled into one. Simply horrendous outing for the 37-year-old.

There were minor mistakes from the start, but the real issues began in the 15th minute when the referee failed to award a penalty for Liverpool, as clear as it can be.

A well-measured pass from Alexander-Arnold down the right flank found Jota running in behind and Gabriel tracking the run into the box, and as the Portuguese attacker tried to find Darwin Nunez or Diaz in the middle of the box, the Brazilian defender raised his hand in a clearly unnatural position, made himself bigger that way and blocked the cross. Jota, Salah and Diaz all demanded Oliver to point to the spot, but he simply waved the appeals away, and there was no reaction from the VAR.

The Premier League later explained the decision by claiming Gabriel had no time to remove his hand from the path of the ball, but the most obvious question that poses itself here is – why was his hand there in the first place? All club affinities aside, even Arsenal fans, at least the more realistic among them, will admit Oliver made a mistake here.

As has been said, Diaz and Alexander-Arnold both had to be replaced due to injuries, and at the moment, it seems both face a spell on the sidelines. Alexander-Arnold’s injury was a consequence of a stamp on his ankle by Martinelli, which seems to have been accidental apart from the fact that the ball had gone when the contact happened, and Oliver’s decision not to give a free-kick, let alone anything else, was probably the right one.

However, it’s a different story with Diaz. The Liverpool winger was first hit in the knee and then pulled down to the ground in a wrestling manner by Partey, and the Arsenal midfielder eventually sat on him with practically the full weight of his body. As has been said, Diaz left the stadium on crutches, but Oliver saw nothing wrong in what Partey did and gave no foul here either.

As for the penalty that eventually proved the match-deciding moment, given for a foul by Thiago on Jesus, it has been called soft, but there was definite contact and this is probably the only really big moment of the match where not everyone will agree, even after checking the situation via slow-motion footage. In any case, this is a decision that Oliver cannot be blamed for; there were elements of a penalty present.

At the very end of the match, a scuffle broke which appeared to involve Henderson and Gabriel Magalhaes, though other players from both teams were close by. Oliver stopped the match for a minute or two to have a word with both Klopp and Arteta, and the English FA subsequently released the information that they are “aware” of an incident between the players on the pitch and are conducting an investigation into what exactly happened. Neither manager was willing to make any comments on the apparent issue.

It remains to be seen, of course, what the investigation will reveal and whether there will be any consequences, but all in all, Oliver made huge mistakes in this match, and his performance has probably eroded the already stained reputation of English referees further.

The aftermath

Oliver’s mistakes and the fact that they almost all went in favour of Arsenal aside now, the Gunners were the better team in this match and deserved the three points, and there’s nothing for Klopp to do but return to the drawing board, once he has all the information about the injuries and potential suspensions.

The Liverpool boss probably won’t be giving up on his new system at this point and rightly so, but he needs to find a way to motivate his players to do better in the coming matches. There were a couple of positives for him to take back to Merseyside, most notably that Nunez finally scored and continues to get into promising positions.

Also, looking at the game from a different angle, one might argue that an injury-ravaged team, with a large majority of the players completely off form, criticized for what is now the worst league start in a decade, lost by a single goal away to a team everyone is raving about, a team that sits top of the Premier League table, supported by around 60,000 fans in the stands, after the officials made at least one match-deciding mistake in the favour of the hosts.

The downside for Liverpool is obvious – the three points lost again, the morale of the team still very low, the injuries suffered by two players one of whom has arguably been their best this season so far, and the fact that they’re now in the exact middle of the table with defending champions Manchester City and the sensational Erling Haaland coming to Anfield in a couple of days. But before that, they must beat Rangers again, this time at Glasgow, or risk dropping out of the Champions League after the group stage.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are now back at the top of the Premier League table, and though they were referred to as an “elephant up a tree” a two or three weeks ago, their quality is obviously genuine. Arteta has really built something at the Emirates; the next task is to make it last through the season as Manchester City keep knocking on the door.

The Spaniard will lead his team to face Bodo/Glimt in Norway on Thursday, before taking on Leeds United at Elland Road a few days later.

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