One-goal leads and trust issues go hand-in-hand for the Gunners. For quite a while now, Arsenal have been a fluent attacking side with exciting young players and reliable, experienced goal-scorers. Sturdy defending, however, isn’t something that the Gunners are renowned for in recent times. Recent blunders by David Luiz against Manchester City – Arsenal’s first game since the restart – still loom large in the memories of fans of the club.
Mikel Arteta’s team have had a mixed season post the restart. After starting slowly and losing the two initial games, they eventually picked up the pace. However, Arsenal suffered a bitter, hurtful loss at the hands of their noisy neighbors, Tottenham Hotspurs, in the last game. The significance of the Liverpool game heightened on the back of the disappointing North London derby loss.
Jurgen Klopp hadn't lost a game to the Gunners during his time at Liverpool. To defeat the newly-crowned champions, who were looking to enter into the exclusive 100-point club, a composed and collective effort was needed. And that is exactly what Arteta’s men delivered.
Liverpool began the game strongly and in the 20th minute found themselves one-nil up with a Sadio Mane strike, his 17th of the season. In complete control of the game, the Reds then decided to click on the self-destruct button.
Emirates Stadium has often witnessed defensive slip-ups but this time they came from the unlikeliest of sources. First, Virgil van Dijk, in the 32nd minute, then Alisson Becker, like his stand-in captain, in the 44th minute, played a pass which was no less than a howler. Alexandre Lacazette and Reiss Nelson capitalised on these mistakes in the most clinical manner.
A new Arsenal
Liverpool laid siege in Arsenal’s half post the half-time break, and, to the surprise of many, Arsenal embraced the challenge. They remained resilient, robust, and error-less. Unlike previous games, there were no signs of insecurity in the way they defended. And whenever the defensive line was breached, their goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez got them out of trouble.
Once in the lead, Arsenal’s gameplan was clear as day – to defend with all their might. The statistics of the match are telling. Arsenal merely had three shots at goal to show in comparison to Liverpool’s 24. The Reds also held complete control over the ball. They had 69% of the possession.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the second-highest goal-scorer of the season, came on in the 57th minute and had only 13 touches of the ball and got no opportunity to take aim at Alisson’s goal.
Arsenal's fullbacks were hardly in the position to make an overlapping run in the attacking half of the pitch. The spaces in Arsenal's box were narrow and congested. Clearances were being made more than often. These are the tactics one associates with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, not Arteta’s Arsenal.
Yet, the Gunners stuck to their task diligently and they were able to translate their weakness into their strength. In a manner, they switched places with Liverpool. Liverpool, the self-termed ‘mentality monsters’, are known for their ability to come back from losing positions. Also, this season, they seemed to have made the 2-1 scoreline their own. On 10 different occasions, across all competitions, they have won a match by this scoreline.
Ruining Liverpool’s chance at history by reaching the 100 mark as well as Klopp’s unbeaten run against them, Arteta’s men showed the fighting spirit that their manager speaks of. Two points from the seventh-placed Spurs and brimming with confidence after defeating the champions, the Gunners would still believe that they have a shot at Europa League qualification.
Talking about his club’s objectives, Arteta said before the Leicester game, “This club has to play in Europe and this club has to play in the Champions League.
“If we don’t have the choice to do that then obviously it is better to play in Europe than not to play. We will try to the end.
“If we will be able to take it to the last day, then we would have done really well to have given ourselves a chance.”
This win would definitely help the Gunners to elongate their fight and take it to the last matchday. Moreover, for the Arsenal faithful a game won on the strong performance of their defensive unit would have tasted as sweet as a 3-0 dominating victory. However, the hope in the Arsenal camp, would be that this wasn’t a one-off performance and that the Gunners can shut down their opponents in the remaining games as well.