Liverpool finally stepped up their game a notch while Arsenal has now lost two in a row. The Daily Mail: “If you leave out your best player and top scorer, the one whose contract runs out in 16 months and who has the biggest clubs in Europe wooing him, then generally you have to be right; even if you do have 20 years of credit on which to fall back.
Arsene Wenger’s decision to start without Alexis Sanchez looked bizarre even before kick-off. Ten minutes into this game it looked utterly incomprehensible.
Arsenal were as lame and lax as they can be at their worst and they have recently tested the low-water mark of those kind of performances. Without Mesut Ozil as well, as a potential vision of a future Arsenal it was decidedly disconcerting.
And once Sanchez did come on at half-time and Arsenal improved immeasurably, Wenger’s selection just looked ever-more perplexing. Not only will it have angered Sanchez, who looked like a schoolboy in detention on the bench, but it damaged the team and the fight for the top four, perhaps decisively.
For Liverpool’s win took them back into the Champions League positions and above Arsenal. Wenger has been in worse positions and recovered and has a game in hand.
But still, you fear for the reception this team might receive if they repeat this first-half performance against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. That might be enough to convince Wenger his time is up.
Impatience is turning into hostility among some Arsenal fans. And even though the team were much improved in the second half and at times looked like grabbing an unlikely point, ultimately they were well beaten.
Wenger knew what was coming. ‘I have no special regrets,’ he said. ‘The only regret is to have lost the game. The thinking was that we had to go more direct. We wanted to play two players who are strong in the air because we decided to go more direct.
‘After that, to bring Alexis on in the second half. Everybody will come to the same conclusion but I’m strong enough and lucid enough to analyse the impact. I don’t deny he is a great player. A decision like that is not easy to make but you always have to stand up.’
Wenger essentially argued that it was a poor collective performance which undid them in the first half and a good collective performance which lifted them in the second. But that ignores the catalyst effect Sanchez has on all around him: Danny Welbeck came alive; Alex Iwobi seemed a yard quicker; Olivier Giroud a yard taller.
For Jurgen Klopp, different challenges are to be confronted. Liverpool, lambs at Leciester, were yet again lions against major opposition at Anfield, which is no way to earn credentials as a proper team, though habit appears to be deeply ingrained into their psyche.
‘I don’t like the fact that inconsistency is part of the deal in development,’ said Klopp. ‘But usually you lose against the big teams. Obviously we have chosen another way. But it’s still part of the deal. We had a really hard week. Directly after the Leicester game I found a few words and I was not asking for friendship.
‘The next day we analysed, which was nothing to enjoy, for me or the boys. But there was a point in the week where we had to finish the Leicester game. And only if you are really silly do you let the bad things have more influence than the good things.’
They clearly heeded that part of the lesson. Arsenal were bad but Liverpool were also excellent. Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané stood out but there were plenty more contributing. That said, Arsenal folded at the slightest sign of pressure. The opening goal typified them.
They put together a neat passing sequence in which Liverpool couldn’t get close to the ball. You might have convinced yourself they had the upper hand, though it ended with Granit Xhaka over-hitting a pass for Nacho Monreal.
And then, from the resulting goal kick, Laurent Koscielny failed to win a header and Lallana flicked on to Sadio Mané. His cross should have been cleared but Hector Bellerin comically let it through his legs, so that Roberto Firmino had time and space to score. He took a touch which almost killed the chance but did eventually decisively put Liverpool in the lead.
The trouble with Arsenal is, even after nine minutes, you never feel there is any coming back from such a setback. There was brief moment when Oxlade-Chamberlain shimmied inside and hung a cross in with which Olivier Giroud almost connected. But that wasn’t representative.
Petr Cech saved them when Philipe Coutinho hit a great striker for the edge of the box on 29 minutes but they weren’t going to hold out: that much was clear. The ease with which James Milner drifted forwards unchallenged on 39 minutes, found Emre Can who swept the ball onto Roberto Firmino was embarrassing.
The Brazilian found Mané on the edge of the box and he provided the perfect finale to the move with a clinical finish. Even then, it needed Cech again to bock Coutinho on the stroke of half time to prevent further humiliation.
Then came Sanchez and having one of the world’s best players on the pitch somehow lifted Arsenal. On 49 minutes Monreal sent in a cross which Giroud headed goalwards and Simon Mignolet got a touch onto the cross bar. But it was at least a sign off fresh hope for Arsenal.
For once, it wasn’t unfounded. Sanchez’s aggressive intent found an outlet on 57 minutes when he played in Danny Welbeck. The angle was tight and Mignolet was fast approaching but with a deft chip, Welbeck lifted the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Arsenal were by no means looking secure. When Coutinho crossed on the hour, it took a fine interception from Shokdran Mustafi to prevent Firmino tapping in. But they were at least better. And they should have been playing against ten on 78 minutes, when Can managed to hack down Theo Walcott and somehow avoid a second yellow card.
Still, this brittle Arsenal side never truly convince. When Adam Lallana swept a ball to Divock Origi in injury time and the Belgian sprinted away down the left to provide a perfect cross for Georginio Wijnaldum to add the third, it made the scoreline as decisive as much of the performance had been.