Sunday, September 24, 2023

Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal: The champions dominate, but Gunners can have some regrets

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If recent results against some of the big teams have – rightly – given Arsenal cause for optimism and hope, last night was a stark reminder of just how big the gap is between us and the best team in the league. Make no mistake, Liverpool were good value for their win, they played with a intensity that was hugely impressive and very difficult to deal with, and they are a side that is assured, mature and knows exactly what to do.

Their pressing is almost frightening at times. I’m sure more than one Arsenal defender had flashbacks as they were going to sleep last night of red shirts fizzing towards them as they looked for someone to pass to in our defensive third. The coordination of it, that snap as they hunt down their prey is really something.

However, even in games over 90+ minutes in which one team is superior, there are always moments, and two stand out for me this morning. First, I think Sadio Mane was extremely lucky to get away with just a yellow card for a straight arm/punch into the face of Kieran Tierney. He was obviously wound up for this game, because a minute earlier he absolutely clattered Hector Bellerin in midfield – borderline yellow in itself – and the challenge on Tierney was a red card for me.

I’m not here to blame what happened on that decision, or say that we lost because of that – but a sending off that early would certainly have made life more difficult for Liverpool. I’m also slightly unsure of why we see replay after replay of handballs, marginal offsides etc, and this barely got a second mention once the yellow card was issued, but there you go.

The second moment is the Alexandre Lacazette chance midway through the second half. We’d definitely been better in this period than the first, and the introduction of Dani Ceballos gave the midfield some of what it was missing. His pass to the Frenchman was superb, but what followed was so poor. The touch was bad, the shot was bad, and it was a glorious opportunity wasted. In games like this, when you know chances are going to be few and far between, you have to be more efficient.

It came just a couple of minutes after he’d had another sight on goal, and maybe it was because he knew he was offside, but his tame dink into the keeper’s arms wasn’t a good look. I know he’s scored in all three Premier League games so far, and on the surface it’s very difficult to argue with that, but I can’t help but think he’s somehow emblematic of the gap I mentioned earlier.

There is only so much Mikel Arteta can do with this squad of players, and the limitations they have were obvious last night. We all know that midfield needs reinforcement, a Granit Xhaka/Mohamed Elneny partnership isn’t going to take you anywhere new, but I think we need to think very, very strongly about the centre-forward position. We have a world class striker in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a player who can last 90 minutes too – something Lacazette rarely does (effectively anyway), and that’s a problem he’s had since he first arrived.

Again, it’s not simply his fault that we didn’t get something from that game, but if we’re serious about bridging the gap to a side like Liverpool, it’s time to start moving away from players who are part of the reason that gap exists. It’s not easy, it’s not going to be possible to do it all in one go or one transfer window, but that miss felt like a pivotal moment last night, and in the end it’s one we came to regret.

It’s also hard not to think that this system, which has worked so well – and which saw us produce some moments of good stuff last night too – is now pretty easy to work out for the opposition. Arteta has spoken more than once about having tactical versatility, and I like how committed we are to playing the way he wants out from the back, but there was a blueprint for other teams to see how to nullify us. Of course not every team can do what Liverpool do, they are outstanding, and champions for good reason, but you can see why we’re so desperate to bring in someone like Houssem Aouar and why interest in Thomas Partey remains.

If you are looking for positives, it’s that we stayed in the game until Diogo Jota’s late debut goal for Liverpool. They were well and truly on top, their 21 attempts to our 4 tell the story, and between them, our three central defenders made 25 clearances, which illustrates the pressure we were under. At times we rode our luck. You have to in games like this, and against opposition that good, but as long as the scoreline doesn’t reflect their dominance, you have a chance of nicking something. In the end though, it wasn’t to be.

I also think we can look at the goals we conceded and admit we could do better defensively, and I include the goalkeeper in that. Those are things you can work on, but I don’t think there’s any shame in being beaten by a team as good as Liverpool, and perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world for those higher up to be given a reminder of the work we still need to do. Arteta can do as much as he can on training ground, in terms of preparation and organisation, but he also needs backing in the transfer market to help us take further steps forward. There’s just no escaping that.

Afterwards, the Arsenal boss was full of praise for Liverpool, and sounded relatively pleased with his team’s efforts:

It’s a really tough place to come for anybody in the world. They set incredible standards. They’ve been together five years, we’re in a different moment of our journey. They weren’t able to do that three or four years ago or two years ago. But you can see, these are the standards, this is what we have to reach. We have a long way to improve but I’m really pleased with the way we competed, we stayed in the game for 85 or 90 minutes and this is not easy to do here.

But also made it clear how much we needed to do better when Lacazette was sent through:

We still have some problems with the ball but we had the best chance of the game and when it comes to Anfield, you’re not going to get ten chances. When you get through one against one with the keeper you have to take one to get something out of the game.

It’s worth remembering that this game was between a team which scraped into 8th on the last day of last season against one which ran away with the title, and which hasn’t lost a game at home since April 2017. Regardless of how buoyed you might have been by the FA Cup win or the Community Shield performance, it’s impossible not to look at it in that wider context. We haven’t done a great deal to strengthen our squad from the same group as last season, so perhaps if there’s some angst or frustration this morning, it should be seen as something of a positive. We did stay in the game, we did have that chance to equalise and perhaps hang on, but progress under Arteta was never going to be linear.

There were going to be bumps on the road – there will be more too, don’t worry – and last night at Anfield was like playing with oncoming traffic. Eventually, you’re going to get hit. It’s never fun to lose, but when you’re a work in progress as we very much are, you have to do everything you can to learn from games like this one, and I’m sure that will be Arteta’s mindset this morning.

Liverpool v Arsenal isn’t the game which will define our season, not by a long way, but if the goal and the ambition is reach that level, it’s still a useful measuring stick.

Ok, that’s it for this morning. James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

The podcast should be out around lunchtime (UK time), so keep your eyes peeled in all the usual places for when it drops. Until then, take it easy.

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