Arsenal succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday, downed by two Mohamed Salah goals early in the second half. It isn’t easy to make the case for Arsenal’s progress but Unai Emery is right to pick the positives, writes Adam Bate…
At least it was not 5-1 this time. In that sense, Arsenal’s trip to Liverpool on Saturday evening was an improvement despite Unai Emery seeing his side go down 3-1 to the Premier League leaders. The Reds were irresistible in the end and there was a time during the second half when a thrashing looked possible. And yet, there were positives for Arsenal.
They surprised Liverpool with their shape, had the better chances in the first half and finished the game strongly too. The problem was the period in which they couldn’t cope. This is a team that did not win a single game away to a top-half team last season and that wait goes on. So is this progress for Emery’s Arsenal or are the answers still eluding him?
Gary Neville is a long-time admirer of Emery and sees some good signs, but he could not sugar coat it. “Arsenal were courageous but they were nowhere near good enough,” he told Sky Sports. “The step up in gear was too much for Arsenal. It was breath-taking. Liverpool were absolutely at a higher level than Arsenal can get to at this moment in time.”
The courage to which Neville refers was Emery’s decision to go with a narrow diamond in midfield that Jurgen Klopp confessed came as a surprise to him. “To be honest, I didn’t expect the system they played,” he said afterwards in the press conference. “I’m not sure they played it pre-season. It meant we had a lot of space on the wings.”
Encouraging Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, two of the most devastating full-backs in the Premier League, to attack his team was a bold tactic. Couple it with an insistence on passing out from the back against arguably the best pressing team in Europe and some would call it madness. But it was his plan and it might just have worked too.
For much of the first half, Liverpool flung in crosses only to find a packed Arsenal defence able to repel them. Meanwhile, Klopp’s two full-backs were so far up the pitch that Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found themselves two against two up front. “We did defend deep but it was not without the possibility to score,” said Emery.
“In the first half, maybe the best chance was for us.”
He was right. On his full debut for Arsenal, Pepe could have been the hero. He curled a fine effort just wide of the far post with the game goalless and had he struck his one-on-one chance soon after the with anything like the same conviction it would have given Arsenal the lead. As David Luiz pointed out afterwards, it would have been a different game then.
Instead, it was Liverpool who broke the deadlock and when the home side doubled their advantage the error came from the Brazilian defender himself – pulling Salah’s shirt to concede a penalty. That was the key goal, according to Emery. When the same player was caught out by Salah again just before the hour mark, a heavy beating looked likely.
New signings but same old Arsenal? Well, not quite.
It will be a source of frustration that the mistakes came from the very centre-back signed to tighten up this defence. Certainly, this performance will temper some of the optimism that greeted his arrival. But the thought that Arsenal can cling to even in defeat is that they did not capitulate even in such trying circumstances up against a marauding Liverpool.
Klopp said his players were greedy for goals as they swarmed at Arsenal in that second half, but Emery’s team found some resolve. Lucas Torreira’s goal with five minutes to go was a consolation strike in the truest sense of the word. It better reflected their contribution to the contest. It meant they could leave with some hope. A feeling they are the right track.
When Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney return to fitness, Arsenal will have some impetus of their own in those important full-back positions. Rob Holding could help too. Dani Ceballos will be better for this experience and the same can be said of the young midfield duo of Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock after their evening in the Anfield hot-house.
“Our reaction was good because we kept doing our work,” said Emery. “The impact of the substitutes was good. Some players like Willock also took a good step today. I can be positive about that. We finished 3-1 but also pushing and that is the spirit that I want.”
Will that spirit be enough to sustain any sense of optimism at Arsenal? The truth is that the new reality for this club is not one that supporters will welcome. Liverpool and Manchester City are well ahead of them, that much is obvious. There is gulf to that top two and Arsenal’s Europa League commitments could even complicate their bid for a top-four finish.
They are saddled with contracts that they cannot easily extricate themselves from – Mesut Ozil was once again not included in the squad at Anfield – and it will take another transfer window or three for Emery to restructure. What he needs is to be able to keep the club’s supporters, and indeed his own players, on his side throughout that challenging .
Not easy after chastening experiences like this one. With that in mind, it is no wonder that Emery joked earlier in the week that he was not relishing this fixture. Defeatist? Perhaps. But it would be unfair to say that his team played that way. A 3-1 loss is never acceptable for Arsenal. But this time they showed just enough to believe progress is possible.
Whether that belief can survive next weekend’s showdown with Tottenham is another matter.