Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Arsenal 3-2 Liverpool: Martinelli and Saka shine in huge win

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In Sunday’s preview I wrote about the Liverpool game being one which you use as a marker for progress. After what we saw at the Emirates yesterday, we can be confident that this Arsenal team is going places. There’s still a long way to go this season, you don’t win anything in October, but we know from bitter history you can lose your way early in the season and spend a lot of time and energy playing catch-up.

As Ben White calmly said afterwards, “This year is different.”

Mikel Arteta produced a surprise in the starting line-up with Takehiro Tomiyasu at left-back, as Liverpool continued with their 4-2-4 formation, starting Jota, Diaz, Nunez and Salah together. It meant the Japanese international was directly up against Salah, a man who has caused us so many problems down the years. When he was taken off in the 69th minute, it came after the quietest performance I think I’ve ever seen from him against us. Tomi deserves huge credit for the quality of his own display, which was verging on faultless, and if there were some eyebrows raised pre-game about Arteta’s selection, post-game you have to say he got it spot on.

Arsenal, of course, got off to a blistering start. For a second it looked like a poor touch from William Saliba might put us in trouble, but he won it back we got the ball forward to Bukayo Saka on the right. He drove on, played it to Martin Odegaard whose pass inside the defender for Gabriel Martinelli was inch perfect, allowing the Brazilian to take it in his stride and fire beyond Alisson before there was even a minute on the clock. It’s now the 10th Premier League game in 12 that Liverpool have conceded the first goal which goes some way to speak to the problems they’ve got at the moment.

Liverpool claimed a penalty for a handball by Gabriel in the 15th minute. I think when the ball is hit at a player from that close it’s always harsh to give a penalty. The concept of someone’s hand being in an unnatural position in the box is another weird one to me. When you’re adjusting and stopping and starting at pace, you have to use your hands, but even though I’d have been unhappy with it because it was at such close range, you’ve definitely seen them given.

And to be fair to Liverpool, they had a good spell in that first half. They got on top in terms of possession, and there were warning signs before the equaliser. A slick move saw Saliba intercept close to goal, forcing a save from Aaron Ramsdale, but a few minutes later they reproduced it and got level. It was a fairly hopeful punt forward from Trent Alexander-Arnold, and I don’t think Gabriel dealt with it well enough. Saliba got pulled out right, the cross went between his legs and Gabriel couldn’t get back in time to prevent Nunez from making it 1-1.

By the way, I don’t know if this is his trademark celebration, or something that was aimed specifically at Arsenal fans yesterday, but this morning he looks like a right chump.

I’ll admit I was keen for the half-time whistle. Midfield was a bit of an issue, and I felt like Arteta had a few things to sort out at the break. The 5 minutes of additional time almost felt dangerous, and when Liverpool got a free kick I was looking for us to clear it and then get in and regroup. We did clear it, but then produced another good counter-attack which led to Bukayo Saka putting us ahead. Martinelli led the charge, Liverpool got it wrong at the back, and the ball came all the way across for Saka to make it 2-1. What a time to score and how lethal that break was.

Whatever the manager said at half-time, it worked. We were far better. In midfield Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka gave us more control, and we had chances. Odegaard should have done better after it opened up in front of him, and it was a costly miss as Firmino equalised a few minutes later. I love Saliba as much as the next person, but he’s still just 21 and there’s a lot still to learn. He lost track of the Brazilian who ran off the back of him, and the finish into the far corner with his left foot was very good.

While it was an illustration of how good Liverpool can be, and how quickly they can hurt you, it wasn’t reflective of the second half as a whole. The stadium went quiet when Tsimikas laid out Gabriel Jesus (and I think it was quite deliberate when you see it from this angle), but found its voice again as we pressed for more than just a point against a team who have done us such damage in the last few years. That in itself tells you plenty about the mindset at Arsenal right now.

I mentioned the withdrawal of Salah, which was somewhat baffling to me even if he was finding it hard against Tomiyasu, and sometimes a substitution can embolden the other team. I think that’s what happened. We saw Jurgen Klopp take off his best player, a talismanic threat, and we put our foot on the gas. We started to cause them all kinds of problems, particularly between the right back and centre-half, and the relentlessness of it led to the penalty. I think it probably is a bit soft, the kind a home side often gets, but we’ve seen plenty of decisions like that at Anfield down the years. What goes around etc etc.

Bukayo Saka stepped up, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for what happened in the Euros to be an irrelevance, but it should be soon. The fact he was confident enough to take one that day tells you plenty about how much belief he has from the penalty spot, and since then he’s scored very good penalties against Chelsea, Man Utd, and now Liverpool. I get why it’s mentioned, but as much as I was nervous because of the context, I really did think he was going to score. Alisson did the thing of standing just a little bit to one side to tempt Saka to go to his right. That the keeper went the right way didn’t matter, it was an emphatic spot-kick and the ball had hit the back of the net before he’d even finished his dive.

3-2.

And deservedly so based on the second half performance. As a lead it’s always precarious, and as I mentioned, Liverpool showed with the Firmino goal how quickly they can hurt you, but as we played out those final 12 minutes, plus a LOT of injury time because of the earlier stoppage for Jesus, I wasn’t overly concerned. There is clearly something wrong with this Liverpool team. Whereas before they would have reacted, pressed us like mad to win the ball back and not given us a moment of peace, they were unusually passive. We had long periods of possession, something which wouldn’t have happened before. Whether it’s a team aging and running out of energy, or something else, it was not what we’ve come to expect from them.

It did feel like a long time before the referee blew the final whistle though. There had been a stoppage in injury time after the bravery of Gabriel Jesus saw him sandwiched between Alisson and van Dijk, and something happened which the FA are reportedly set to investigate. We will wait and see what they say before making any judgements on that.

97’49 is when the game ended, the noise from the stands erupted, Arteta went mental on the touchline with hugs and a powerful ‘VAMOS!’, and Arsenal went back to the top of the table. Liverpool’s recent record over us had felt like such a hoodoo at times, but mostly it was because they were a brilliant team and we were very much a work in progress. Sometimes slow progress, but here we are. And here is top of the league.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

The feeling of winning it’s so powerful and so meaningful for me because I saw a team that I feel I really identify with, the personality they show in difficult moments, how they stick to what they have to do, and at the same time they believe they have the courage and the free mind to just go for it and attack them and put them under pressure.

If the manager identifies with the team, there’s no question at all that the fans do too. I guess that’s a blindingly obvious thing to say, but it’s worth mentioning because we’ve been through periods when that really hasn’t been the case. This current iteration is the result of so much hard work, more than a little patience, and the connection between the team and the supporters is something that has been carefully cultivated. Ultimately, it’s what they do on the pitch that nourishes that and sustains it, but it goes deeper and results and performances like yesterday copper-fasten that relationship.

It would be remiss of me not to mention a couple of individuals this morning. I think the collective performance was very good, but in Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka we have two outstanding young players who were instrumental in that win yesterday. Martinelli terrorised two Liverpool full-backs from start to finish, while Saka’s two goals were, I think at least, reward for a player who hasn’t been at his absolute best this season but whose form was nowhere near as poor as some have suggested. He now has 3 goals and 4 assists in all competitions, 7 goal involvements in 11 games, and that augurs well for when he does find his best form.

For this team that was a huge win. If your ambition is to challenge for a title, you need to know you can beat the best, and Liverpool have been exactly that for a long time now. You take three points, but you also take confidence and belief, and those things are hardly in short supply at Arsenal right now. It was a marker, it showed we’re a team that should be taken seriously, and it’s now up to us to maintain the standards that we’ve worked so hard to set this season.

Not to mention, it’s fun right now, and this is something we should enjoy while it’s happening.

Right, that’s it for now. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @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.

We’ll have the pod for you around lunchtime. Until then.

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