Jack Hallows runs over the major talking points from Liverpool’s intensely frustrating 1-1 draw at the Emirates.
Arsenal VS Liverpool is never a game that disappoints is it?
While this time around there wasn’t quite the same tally of goals as we’ve come to expect from these sides (since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool there had been 26 goals scored in five matches between the two sides prior to tonight), it was still a fairly entertaining 90 minutes.
There was a lot to take away from both sides and I have to say, I feel like we’ve learned a couple of new things about both Emery’s Arsenal and Klopp’s Liverpool – especially in regards to this season.
Dubious refereeing decisions, poor finishing, resilient defending and a pair of well-taken goals will ultimately define the fixture when using a fairly umbrella-like statement but let’s take a few minutes to dive into the nitty-gritty.
Let’s address the big one first.
19 minutes into the match at the Emirates, Roberto Firmino was slipped through by a perfect ball from Trent Alexander-Arnold, lobbing Arsenal keeper Bernd Leno and hitting the near post.
Sadio Mané on the follow up was alert to the path of the ball and tapped home at point blank range – a moment which should’ve made it 1-0 Liverpool.
The linesman however – wrongfully – had other ideas.
Firstly, the linesman in question was almost 10 yards behind the play and had no way of knowing whether Mané was in line with, or ahead of, Roberto Firmino and as Alan Shearer and Tim Sherwood pointed out on the Optus Sport coverage I was watching, it was clear the decision was “guessed.”
When you then analyse the actual football played, Mané is in an offside position when Alexander-Arnold’s initial pass to Firmino is played in what we’ll call “phase 1.” If the Senegalese winger made a movement towards the ball during this phase, then the linesman would be right to put the flag up. The winger would be affecting play while having come from a genuinely offside position.
However, Firmino is the one who plays the ball, running from a deep position between the Arsenal defence and midfield.
As soon as the Brazilian touches the ball and puts it over Leno, we enter “phase 2” of the play. In this phase, Mané is just about BEHIND Firmino when the Brazilian takes the shot, meaning he cannot be offside.
Much to Liverpool’s bemusement, the linesman didn’t raise his flag until Mané tapped the ball into the net, meaning he was guessing that because Mané had started ahead of Firmino in phase 1, the same was still true in phase 2.
It’s this kind of poor officiating that has fans, pundits and even some coaches pining for VAR to be introduced to the Premier League because it’s fine margins like this that don’t just decide matches but also titles.
James Milner’s incredible record continues
It was James Milner’s 50th Premier League goal – his 14th for Liverpool – and his first from open play in over two years.
The Englishman has scored plenty of goals from the penalty spot for Liverpool since joining in 2015/16 – 10 in the Premier League to be exact – but he hadn’t netted from a shot in open play since his goal against former employers Manchester City back in 2016.
The 32-year-old certainly didn’t look like a player who has gone that long without however, striking the ball beautifully when he arrived on the edge of the Arsenal box to put Liverpool 1-0 ahead midway through the second half.
While it was a fairly large target for the Englishman to aim at given that Leno was still on the floor after a dodgy clearance, Milner still had a lot of work to do to get over the ball, keep it down and avoid letting the awkward bounce force him to skew it into the crowd.
The most remarkable thing about Milner’s goal though, is that in the 15 years that he’s been finding the back of the net in the Premier League, he’s still never lost a game in which he’s scored.
Given that his first ever goal for Leeds United was back in the 2002/03 season against Sunderland, this is a fantastic record to hold.
Long may it continue.
Frustration in front of goal continues
Liverpool’s attack is certainly clicking a lot better than they were at the start of the season, there is no doubt about it but unfortunately, I personally feel that their finishing let them down once again at the Emirates.
Okay, it should’ve ultimately resulted in a goal for Sadio Mané and he did well to get the ball over Leno in the first place but for me, Firmino has got to score his chance in the first half – as does Virgil van Dijk.
The Dutchman, in particular, will be annoyed at himself for not only missing the point-blank chance he had in the first period but for also not managing to score a free header from a corner in the second.
The Reds no.4 peeled away from his man and sent a bullet towards the Arsenal net but while the connection and power were perfect, the placement sent it straight at Leno.
There was also a headed attempt from Firmino off another corner that went narrowly wide, a chance for Robertson that was hit firmly but ultimately straight down Leno’s throat and a number of half chances that required far better passes – Salah’s tired giveaway when trying to find Mané late on a perfect example.
On another day, the Reds could’ve absolutely had four goals and admittedly there was an element of misfortune (Virgil’s first half effort), lack of reaction (someone should absolutely have tapped the ball home after Virgil hit the post later in the same half) and poor decision making from the officials thrown into the mix.
Klopp, however, will be hoping that against significantly weaker defences in Belgrade and Fulham over the next week, that his forwards can fill their boots and hike their confidence high going into the festive period.
Liverpool started the match having reverted to their customary 4-3-3 after making use of 4-2-3-1 in recent fixtures but half time saw Klopp scupper these plans and roll out the latter in an effort to help out Fabinho.
We all know what Klopp’s 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1 out of possession) that these days almost resembles a diamond looks like but if you needed a reminder, here it is:
As you can see, there is a clear 4-3-3 shape but the system can equally be divided into a 4-1-2-1-2 OR a 2-3-2-3.
Klopp however seemed to realise that Fabinho was struggling playing in the ‘6’ position on his own against Arsenal’s midfield runners, with Xhaka and Torreira’s passing ability allowing Ozil, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan to bypass the Reds’ own midfield with ease – especially early in the game.
This created overloads in the wide areas and contributed to probably the toughest 45 minutes of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s Liverpool career so far.
After the break, the Reds lined up in a system that is familiar to Liverpool fans but has only been used sparingly since Klopp’s first season at the club.
The 4-2-3-1 that almost becomes a lopsided 4-3-2-1 when out of possession.
The formation paired Wijnaldum with Fabinho in the midfield, giving the Brazilian less ground to cover and reducing the risk of Arsenal’s deep runners being able to bypass the Reds no.3 with ease.
It also meant that Firmino and Salah were able to operate much closer to each other in central areas of the pitch, allowing Liverpool to get more men in and around the box while also forcing Arsenal’s defenders to make split second decisions under pressure as to who they were going to pick up.
The role of James Milner in this system is perhaps the most interesting though, as the 32-year old is forced to operate as half central midfielder, half winger – the same role he played back in 2016 to great effect.
When the Reds were in possession of the ball, Milner would push out wide with the aim of dragging Arsenal’s defenders away from the pairing of Salah and Firmino and stretching Arsenal’s back four, before slotting in next to Wijnaldum and Fabinho when Arsenal won the ball back.
This meant that out of possession the veteran could help solidify the right hand side with Trent Alexander-Arnold, before pushing wider to offer him a pass when the Reds had some time of their own on the ball.
Of course, things do end up slightly lopsided as while Salah will favour the right channel to run into, allowing him to cut onto his left foot, there isn’t always an option available on that side of the field – especially when past the hour mark Milner looked jaded and spent.
It’s good however, to see Klopp adapting his system to fit the personnel he has at his disposal and personally, I’m starting to lean towards favouring that 4-2-3-1 system – especially when Fabinho is on the pitch.
Questions still to ask
They’re back at the top of the league table – for now – but there are still a few questions to ask of Liverpool in my honest opinion.
The first remains a constant from Klopp’s first season at the club – why so late with the substitutions?
At 1-0 Liverpool had two options, go for the jugular, or sit and defend what they had.
In reality, they opted for neither, with Klopp refusing to introduce another attacker, or indeed, another defender until it was practically too late.
Shaqiri was introduced with just 10 minutes to go and while he’s been superb as a substitute of late, not many players can influence a game in just 10 minutes and the Swiss has generally performed best when given at least 30 minutes on the field to get settled into the rhythm of a game.
There were no signs of Daniel Sturridge or even an Adam Lallana who despite looking past his best, could’ve potentially provided extra penetration from midfield in a shorter cameo role.
To bring Matip on 50 seconds from the end for Salah was a bizarre move and sometimes I do have to question just how happy Klopp is with the state of his squad if he is refusing to take a throw of the dice in big matches such as this. Especially when his opposite number did exactly that, throwing on Ramsey, Iwobi and Welbeck in search of a result.
The second I want to ask for now, is when is Naby Keïta going to be back fit?
This Liverpool side is crying out for some creativity and dynamism from a deeper position and while the form of Milner and Wijnaldum has been impressive this season, neither really offer it in the same vein that a Shaqiri or a Keïta do.
I can understand Klopp’s thought process behind not playing Shaqiri in this match, the Swiss international isn’t the best defensively and against a side with an attack of this quality, his presence raises the chance of being caught out on the counter-attack, however, it really meant that they missed Naby Keïta.
The Guinean hasn’t had the best start to life at Liverpool but one thing is abundantly clear about his game: he’s incredibly positive on the ball.
Against Arsenal Liverpool’s midfield was just lacking that little bit of bite, of spark and the presence of a player who would be willing to drive at the opposition, snap at their heels if he lost the ball and attempt killer through balls would’ve made the task that faced Xhaka in particular far harder.
For now though, we’re still unbeaten, we’re still top of the league and we’re still looking good.
Onwards and upwards.