Arsenal, away, on a Saturday evening. Usually spells huge trouble. The Emirates has not been a happy hunting ground for Liverpool since Arsenal took up residence in Ashburton Grove some 12 years ago now. From 12 Premier League meetings there Liverpool have taken 17 points, which isn’t a bad haul on the face of it. However, when you factor in that only six of those points came from victories it becomes clear that we were probably much more comfortable travelling to Highbury than the Emirates. In fact, the was a period where we hadn’t beaten Arsenal on their own patch for 12 years (1999-2011).
So we rolled into North London on Saturday night looking to go top of the pile against a rejuvenated and confident Arsenal team. They were unbeaten in their last eight games and had won their previous seven before conceding a late penalty against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park last time out. Unai Emery has finally taught them how to defend. He has also found a way to play Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang in the same side, as well as keep Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil happy with at least one of them playing out of position. All of this while being the desperate breath of fresh air that The Gunners needed after at least five stale years at the back end of Arsene Wenger’s reign at the helm.
To those who thought this might have been an easy game, you were wrong. You were dead wrong. I could have told you that before kick-off. Not only do we never do well at Arsenal, not only are Arsenal reborn under Unai Emery, Liverpool just have not been very good lately. We’ve looked laboured, we’ve looked leggy, we’ve looked slightly imbalanced. Sure, we’re good at the back and we’ve have become flat-track bullies against the “lesser” sides. But the sides in and around us last season were terrified of us. This season we were outplayed in large parts against Manchester City and Chelsea, and Arsenal were about to do the same.
One thing you can say about this and every Liverpool vs Arsenal game is that it was great to watch. For the footballing student, it was a fascinating tactical battle of who would blink first. For the passionate, blinkered fan it was an end-to-end match in which either team could score at any minute. There was literally something for everyone, no matter what level your fandom is. If you were looking for who would blink first, then it would be Arsenal.
James Milner’s finish was not just technically superb, managing to keep a bouncing and spinning ball down whilst running onto it. James Milner’s finish was also calm and composed, managing to make something so difficult look so easy. The celebration from both the away end and the away side spoke volumes – it screamed of relief. We had been on the ropes coming out after half-time and Arsenal looked most likely to score. The fact we had the first goal, in a game which looked like it would take just the one to win it, was so precious.
Yet, despite Arsenal’s dominance after the break, you couldn’t argue that Liverpool had deserved the lead. We had had the more clear-cut chances and even had a goal wrongly ruled offside when Sadio Mane tapped into an empty net in the first half. It was that type of crazy game – Arsenal had had most of the ball and the chances, but Liverpool were rightly in the lead. You couldn’t analyse this game statistically (although you could here), you couldn’t reason with anything that was taking place on the pitch, as a fan of either side or as a neutral. The right thing to do here really was to just sit back and watch the exhibition on show. There are some games that – pardon the cliche – are adverts for the Premier League. This game should take up all ninety minutes on the promotional video.
That point now takes Liverpool to 18 from a possible 36 from Premier League visits to the Emirates. Again, when you consider how strong Arsenal have been at home, especially against ourselves, since moving there then that is not a bad tally. However, you could also look at it this way – from 13 league games we have won two, drawn seven and lost four. Is that good enough at the home of a rival?
For a team aiming to be the best in the country, personally, I would say not. Alexandre Lacazette‘s goal was coming and I’m not bitter enough to deny that a draw was probably the right result, but we were ahead and have one of the best defences in the league this season. We should have had this game sewn up. The three points should have been in the bag and City should have been chasing us on Sunday.
Ah well, another game to put it right on Sunday against Fulham. Hang on, what do you mean there was a Champions League game this week? I have no clue what you’re on about…