Arsenal were swept aside with ease at Anfield on Saturday evening as Arsene Wenger’s side struggled to overcome their bogey team. The two teams have had a long-standing rivalry but there was an elevated sense of competition last weekend as both clubs are in prime position to challenge for a top four finish at the end of the season.
It was Liverpool who gained the advantage though, as all three points moved them back into a Champions League qualification spot – leap-frogging Arsenal in the process. The pressure was on both sides as Wenger’s future remains under question and Liverpool’s inconsistencies threaten to undermine what had the potential to be a very successful campaign. Speculation regarding Alexis Sanchez’ off-field disputes plastered the headlines prior to the fixture and he was sidelined from the start as Liverpool dominated early possession.
Jurgen Klopp’s men were back to their free-flowing and aggressive pressing style and they capitalised early through Roberto Firmino. Further goals from Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum sealed a fairly comfortable victory for the Merseysiders but where did it all go wrong for Arsenal?
The moment Sanchez’ name appeared on the substitutes bench, it was bad news for the Gunners. Their star player is unhappy at the Emirates and being left on the sidelines has certainly not helped his situation. It would have come as a blow to his teammates that they were unable to rely on his pace, creativity and agility in attack. Mentally, the players went out on to the pitch knowing they were a man down and there was a sense of a lack of unity among the Arsenal team.
Injuries have plagued Arsenal’s campaign so far and they were short on midfield options going into the clash, with both Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla a doubt for selection. Arsenal will be without Cazorla for the remainder of the season but Ramsey was named in the squad as Wenger tinkered with his starting XI. Liverpool have exciting talent through the middle in Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho but the Gunners failed to provide an adequate barrier for the defence. Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin were not strong enough to counter-act Liverpool’s attacking threat and in possession, it was the hosts who commanded the middle of the park.
Klopp’s side have failed to breakdown a number of sides this season but they were able to exploit space left out wide by Arsenal’s defence. Both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal like to play high and too often they allowed Mane and Firmino to run through the channels and behind the defence. Lallana successful drew out Laurent Koscielny and -Shkodran Mustafi with his movement and dynamic runs too, which caused further problems.
As well as a lack of positioning and strength through the middle, Arsenal just couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s high-pressing game when on the ball. The Reds are renowned for their intense off-the-ball strategy and are arguably the best in the league at carrying out Klopp’s orders. Arsenal always look to play the ball on the ground and in small spaces but Liverpool didn’t allow them to as they squeezed down the space and cut off Arsenal’s passing options. It was only when Liverpool began to step back in the second half that the Gunners were able to breakthrough and put some pressure on Simon Mignolet.
It’s easy to see Wenger’s thinking around the starting line-up. Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi’s pace could have been used to exploit Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner’s lack of positioning at full-back, while Olivier Giroud’s presence up front could have caused problems on set-pieces. However, Arsenal did not use these strengths often enough and in total, only three balls went into the Liverpool area on set-pieces. Welbeck did have an opportunity to get in behind and use his pace in the second half and he capitalised by grabbing a goal as Arsenal looked to make a comeback. However, his chances were too late and too few as Liverpool still had a strong hold on the game and were able to finish it off with a third goal in stoppage time.
As well as an inability to play to their own strengths, Arsenal simply lacked conviction and aggression. When Liverpool pressed the ball, the visitors were usually second best to it. They made costly mistakes in dangerous areas and didn’t seem to have any fight in them to get back into the game.
It was a disappointing evening for north London fans and should Arsenal avoid another disappointing campaign, they will need to pull it out of the bag for the remainder of the season.