Premier League: Arsenal, Liverpool's six-goal thriller displayed both teams' lack of structure
Arsenal have been engulfed in their own label of mediocrity for years now, while Liverpool, for all their creative guile, simply epitomise a lopsided attack.
The Professor vs the Normal One; the perennial underperformers vs the most devastating counter-attacking unit in England – two profoundly distinct styles of football clashed at the Emirates Stadium in a 3-3 draw as both Liverpool and Arsenal failed to close the gap on defending champions Chelsea who are third in the Premier League standings. Playing each other on a Friday night for the first time in 28 years, this encounter might not be as significant as Arsenal’s last-gasp win over Liverpool in 1989 which helped them clinch the league title, but it wasn’t less thrilling by any means.
In August, Liverpool had all but annihilated Arsenal with their blitzkrieg and a similar story unfolded in the first half. Since their disappointing loss to Manchester United earlier this month, Arsene Wenger reverted back to a regular 4-2-3-1, mostly because of injuries to Skhodran Mustafi and Aaron Ramsey, but Arsenal have been far from the fluid unit which pegged back Tottenham Hotspur and United – and it only took Liverpool 25 minutes to expose the chink in the Gunners’ armour.
As Arsenal lost the ball in the midfield with as many as eight of their outfield players in the opposition half, James Milner sprayed it onto the path of Mohamed Salah, who held off Laurent Koscielny for just long enough to set up Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian had outrun Arsenal’s central midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere to arrive late into the box. Coutinho, responsible for the initial possession turnover, glanced a languorous header over Petr Cech to give Liverpool a well-deserved lead.
As has been Arsenal’s blight over the years against the top clubs, you can never be sure which Gunners side will turn up – the one which produces moments of effortless skill or the one whose shoddy defending compels Wenger to ponder his future in North London – it just so happens to be that both aspects of Arsenal were on display against Liverpool within a span of 90 minutes.
Opting to sit back deep into their own half to negate Salah and Sadio Mane’s bursting runs behind their defence, the Arsenal players looked far from comfortable with or without possession. While the attacking trio of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi rarely got the ball in space, promptly losing it to aggressive pressing from Jurgen Klopp’s men when they did, Wilshere and Xhaka seemed completely out of place in a system neither are adept at playing in – shield the back four, deny the opposition space and counter a counter-attacking side.
Liverpool were granted acres of space in their attacking third and with the Fab Four of Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Mane and Salah running circles around the Arsenal defence, goalscoring chances were inevitable.
The Gunners fullbacks for the night – Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were often caught in two minds about their positioning as Arsenal hit the trifecta of shambolic defending – poor marking, lacklustre pressing in their own defensive third, and lazy clearances. It was a surprise for home and away supporters alike that Arsenal’s ordeal had not resulted in more goals for Liverpool in the first half – the Kops dazzled but failed to convert their plethora of chances.
Arsenal, however, were incapable of reacting as Salah doubled the lead following a brilliant solo run through the centre of the park, in an attacking move orchestrated by Coutinho when none of the Arsenal players even attempted to tackle the Egyptian off the ball. Just when it seemed it was all over at the Emirates, in front of a jeering home support, Arsenal woke up from their slumber and how.
Arsenal’s first goal came from nowhere as Sanchez crept up on an unassuming Joe Gomez to head in a rare successful cross into Liverpool’s defensive third. The equalizer from Xhaka was as much due to an optimistic yet blistering strike from the Swiss as it was due to Simon Mignolet’s erroneous shotstopping.
It was Arsenal’s third of the night when Ozil capped off a gliding run through a maze of Liverpool bodies and a fascinating one-two with Alexandre Lacazette with a delicious finish. Three hundred and eighty eight seconds after Salah’s strike, Arsenal had taken the lead much to the delight of the raucous Emirates crowd, for whom Christmas had arrived early.
Firmino would equalize soon after, in yet another goalkeeping gaffe, this time on the opposite end, but the writing was on the wall – two structurally-deficient and subpar defensive units were once again at the heart of the six-goal thriller – a common occurrence in the Arsenal-Liverpool fixtures of recent past.
While Liverpool would be disappointed they didn’t bury their chances in the first-half, Arsenal have been let off by the hook in a game which once again depicted the gulf in class between the league leaders Manchester City and the remaining contenders for a top-four finish.
Arsenal have been engulfed in their own label of mediocrity for years now, while Klopp’s Liverpool, for all their creative guile, simply epitomise a lopsided attack. Perhaps nothing was more damning than Milner’s admission after the game, “We’ve got to see the game out. We’ve got to become more boring.”
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