Even with all the caveats in the world, even with all the understanding of where we are and where they are, it’s still hard to take a 4-0 defeat. If this game was a yardstick, it remains a very long one from our perspective.
To be fair, I thought the first half wasn’t bad. We competed, and although Aaron Ramsdale was busy, making some excellent saves, you have to expect that at Anfield against a Liverpool team as good as this. Our set-up was pretty much as expected, but I felt we lacked a body in midfield. It was admirable that we tried, and succeeded a couple of times, to play our way through, but with a central midfield area that was nowhere near Liverpool’s, we couldn’t really progress the ball in any meaningful way.
One of the things that’s so difficult when you play them is just how quickly and effortlessly they control possession. When they win it back, it doesn’t take them five or six passes to sort it out and get organised, it’s almost instant. There’s a lot about this Liverpool team that is high quality, but that aspect of their game doesn’t get spoken about much, and it requires huge concentration and discipline to cope with it.
I know there will be a lot of focus on the managers’ spat as a moment which tipped things in their favour, but it was happening before that. They were finding passes between the lines which they weren’t previously, and the pressure was building anyway. As for that incident, I have no issue whatsoever with Mikel Arteta going to bat for his player. He obviously felt Mane led with his elbow, and I’m sure he had last season’s incident with Kieran Tierney in his mind when it happened. If Jurgen Klopp took exception, it’s just the natural order of things. It was his reaction to Arteta which got the crowd going, and again this what would happen at any ground in the same circumstances. I know you don’t have one thing without the other, but a manager taking exception to what he feels is an unfair/dangerous challenge is no big deal in my book. In fact, I want to see it.
Their goal before half-time was annoying. A set-piece, coming from a clumsy free kick conceded in our half. I don’t know why there was so much analysis of this on Sky, it was a good delivery, Gabriel let Mane have too much space, and it was a good header. For all their quality, to concede that kind of goal was a big frustration.
Still, it was just 1-0, and while we weren’t especially threatening, you’re never out of a game at that point. The second half was a bit of a disaster though. More than once we were sloppy in possession which gave Liverpool attacking momentum. Then Nuno Tavares made a big mistake, Jota left Ben White on the ground (stay on your feet!), rounded Ramsdale and it was 2-0. At that point, I think it’s game over. It’s just how you deal with the rest of the game, and we were definitely found wanting.
“We started to give the ball away in the first 25 metres of our build-up against the best team in the world in short counters. That’s where we lost the game. The rest is just a consequence of frustration, having to chase the game and leaving open spaces, lose all the compactness that we had in the first half. When you have to defend open spaces with them, you know that they are going to punish you.”
Perhaps the manager could have done more from the sideline. Ainsley Maitland-Niles came on for Albert Sambi Lokonga, and even though we were 2-0 down, I would have liked to see Kieran Tierney come on for Nuno Tavares whose mistake was clearly having an impact on him. The third and fourth goals are Liverpool at their best, exposing a team which has lost its shape and discipline, desperately trying to get something from a game. Martin Odegaard replaced Alexandre Lacazette, and I wonder if our substitutions were informed in some way by Thomas Partey’s fitness. He looked way off the pace all night, some distance from the dominant midfield presence we really need him to be in games like this.
It was disheartening to concede those goals. A loss is a loss, but 4-0 is much worse than 2-0. We can all understand Liverpool are an accomplished, fully mature team, capable of doing this to almost anyone on their day. We can all understand this is an Arsenal team that is a work in progress, with a long way to go to get anywhere near that level, but defeats like this still hurt. I can understand it, I can rationalise it, but I still don’t like it.
Ultimately, this was a night when our inexperience was evident. For a couple of players, Sambi and Tavares, it felt like a game too far at this stage of their development. The intensity of the opposition and the Premier League is something that even experienced players have to get used to. I’m not being Captain Hindsight here – because I said it before the game – but unless there was a fitness issue Kieran Tierney should have started. I think Tavares did well the last few weeks, but in a game like this you pick your best players, and Tierney is better, with more miles on the clock to cope with the kind of fixture this is.
The video sessions at London Colney this week will be instructive. At the back, Gabriel and White can look at their defending for a couple of the goals and know they can do better; at right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu found the game increasingly tough as it went on; while our two Hale End stars barely saw any of the ball. The glass half full outlook is that this is the kind of game that these young players can take plenty from as they continue to grow and develop. Sometimes the lessons you learn are harsh ones, and that was certainly the case yesterday.
You can’t put it all down to inexperience though, because we didn’t get anywhere near enough from our senior players either. I know Partey had injury issues, but he was basically anonymous bar one shot in the second half. At the business end, it feels like it’s increasingly easy for teams to defend against Lacazette and Aubameyang, who had a couple of scant moments, but that was it. That aspect is a worry, and shots/chance creation remains my biggest reservation about the way we play under Arteta. Maybe this isn’t the game to focus too much on that though.
So, after a ten game unbeaten run, we’ve lost. Now we have to see how this team responds. It was always going to happen, and unfortunately it’s happened in quite a damaging way, but with a week on the training ground to work with his players, it’s about how Arteta elicits a response from his side. Taking nothing for granted whatsoever, a home game against Newcastle is a good chance to get going again, before we have two very difficult away games at Man Utd (who might have a new manager), and then Everton.
The next few weeks are going to tell us plenty about this group of players, and this team. Let’s hope we can put this behind us quickly, and start picking up points again, because there’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. Our position in the table is still pretty promising, and that’s what we’ve got to maintain. The last couple of months have been positive, and while this is a setback, it doesn’t undo all of that – as long as we can pick ourselves up and go again.
Right, let’s leave it there for this morning. James and I will be here with an Arsecast Extra tomorrow as always. Join us for that, and enjoy your Sunday.