Sunday, April 21, 2024

Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool: A gap remains, but it’s closing

Match reportPlayer ratingsArteta reaction

Every defeat is hard to stomach, but there are certain games when you can step back, look at the bigger picture, and not feel quite as downhearted as others. Losing to Liverpool … again … is no fun, but the regrets this morning are about how we managed a couple of situations rather than bemoaning the monstrous gulf which has existed between the two sides but which now appears to be closing.

The difference was ‘in the boxes‘ according to Mikel Arteta and he’s not wrong. Early in the second half, after there had been a warning from the visitors when Sadio Mane put the ball in the net but from an offside position, Thiago played a back-pass which Alexandre Lacazette intercepted. He fed Martin Odegaard who took a touch but saw his effort saved by Alisson.

Three minutes later, Liverpool were ahead. If not quite a tale of two goalkeepers, it’s hard not to look at both of their contributions at these key moments. I know some will see it as an Odegaard mistake, but I think it’s genuinely outstanding work from Alisson. He didn’t panic when Lacazette tried to go around him, he stayed up and stayed big, and closed down the Norwegian with real intent as he aimed his shot towards the Liverpool net. For me, it was great goalkeeping more than a bad miss.

Unfortunately for Aaron Ramsdale, there’s no other way to look at Diogo Jota’s goal and say the same thing. The shot was decent, but he shouldn’t have been beaten at his near post like that. I doubt anyone knows better than Ramsdale himself, and for me Jota runs off the back of Cedric too easily after Mane’s run pulls Ben White inside. Thiago’s pass is fantastic, but it shows you that a split-second lapse can be very costly at this level, and especially against a team like this.

Before the opener, Jurgen Klopp was already lining up changes, with Mo Salah and Robert Firmino waiting on the sideline to come on. It was an obvious demonstration of their depth and quality, but even so, Arsenal will look back on the second goal with some serious regrets too. We had chances to get the ball clear, and didn’t, inviting pressure back on ourselves. As Cedric pushed forward to try and break, Saka’s clearance rebounded into the space where the right back should have been, and Firmino’s smart movement left Gabriel looking as ponderous as he was in the early part of that passage of play, and the substitute poked the ball home at the near post.

Conceding two goals in eight minutes took the wind out of our sails to some extent, and there was an air of inevitability about the outcome of the game. Given what had happened in the past against Liverpool, I suspect there were worries about conceding more, but to the team’s credit – and also the fans inside the Emirates – there was something more about us last night. Not quite defiance, although Gabriel Martinelli’s repeated efforts to make something happen displayed the kind of intent it is easy to get behind, but a determination not to make it easy for Liverpool.

That had certainly been the story of the first 45 minutes in which we were competitive without necessarily threatening too much. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was solid and promising. That spell early in the second half when the visitors turned the screw a bit showed exactly why they’re fighting for the title, making it nine wins in a row now, and reminded us that we’re still a work in progress.

However, I still think the progress is clear. Two defeats from our last eleven games and they were against Liverpool and City – not paddlings either, far from it. The goals we conceded were as much about us as about them, which is always hard to take, but at the same time it’s easier to see how you can improve. If we’d been pulled apart, torn to shreds by Liverpool’s devastating attacking play, we’d have more to worry about. Which isn’t to make excuses, but if you have to concede goals, I’d rather deal with the kind we let in last night because it doesn’t take as much to fix.

Martinelli shot just wide late on, his performance deserved a goal, and it was a great example of why we can look to the future with such optimism. The way he skinned Trent a couple of times; the skill he showed in that move when he drove towards their box and nutmegged Henderson; it’s so exciting to watch, and what’s most encouraging is I believe there’s genuine room for improvement. Not simply from the player himself who will probably hone that final ball and decision making in the seasons ahead, but from the team itself when we make additions.

It was easy to look at last night’s display and wonder how much more we might threaten with a striker who has presence and sharper movement in their penalty area. It’s not to be critical of Alexandre Lacazette, and obviously what we have we hold between now and the end of the campaign, but it’s such an important part of the project, hammered home when you face the kind of top quality opposition we did last night.

Afterwards, the manager acknowledged the difference between the two sides when it came to making the most of their chances:

I don’t think the result properly reflects the performance of the team, but from box to box I think in many moments we were the better team and we did everything we planned. The way the boys performed showed their courage to play the way that we wanted to play and the intensity and the understanding of the game, they really raised the level today, but unfortunately these games are won in the boxes and that was the critical difference today to not get anything out of this game unfortunately.

But he was keen to stress what he saw as the positives from the performance, and to get them focused on Saturday when we have to put this behind us to get a result at Aston Villa:

They were down … they’re hurting and we didn’t want to stop the good run we’re in, but we said it is not going to be like this until the end of the season and now it’s about how we’re going to react.

And that is very much it. No loss is acceptable, and Arteta would be the first to say that, but dealing with defeat and ensuring you don’t lose all the momentum you’ve built up is so important now. I think that’s why he spoke about his team going ‘toe to toe’ with Liverpool bar those moments which proved so costly, and it’s not just manager talk either. We still have some way to go, but I’ve watched all the recent games against them – painful memories as they might be to dredge up this morning – and last night was different. Better. Liverpool knew they were in a game, it wasn’t a stroll in the park.

The way the home fans responded at the final whistle said a lot too. There were empty seats, as will happen for evening games (and especially ones that kick off at 8.15 for no good reason – especially when we play early on Saturday), but that sense that something is happening was evident from the reaction at the end. The connection between the team and the players is real, and the difference in the performance which highlights the direction of travel, was certainly appreciated.

The mantra of the last couple of months has been ‘one game at a time’, in my opinion as much to insulate us from the impact of a defeat as and when it came. Arteta didn’t let the players get carried away with the victories, similarly he won’t allow them to be too despondent after defeat.

One game at time.

This one is gone, focus on Villa next.

That’s it for now, but because of the schedule we’re going to do a post-match podcast this morning. I’ll be chatting to Andrew Allen about last night, and this will take the place of Friday’s Arsecast. Tomorrow we’ll preview the Villa game on Patreon.

Podcast should be out mid-morning. Until then, take it easy.

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