Arsenal 3-3 Liverpool: Match analysis

How many times can Liverpool get themselves into a commanding lead and contrive to throw it away? How many times can Liverpool come away with a draw away from home against a good side and feel as though they’ve been beaten? How many times can Liverpool be the better team for 95% of the game and somehow manage not to win?

And here we are again. If it were a one-off occurrence, you could perhaps write this one off as one of those freak games which simply happens from time to time. It’s the nature of football. Yet the reality is that Liverpool have dropped points from comfortable winning positions numerous times this season against inferior opposition, such that it must now be considered a habit- and a very damaging one at that. Entertaining for the neutral, undoubtedly, but that’s not the aim of this enterprise for Liverpool if it doesn’t return the points they need.

Watford, Burnley, Newcastle, Man United, Chelsea, Everton, West Brom and now Arsenal. 16 points dropped to draws, the vast majority of which ought to have been comfortable wins. It’s difficult not to feel as though Liverpool should be sitting on a much healthier points total than they currently have- even if the current tally of 35 is just one off the pace at this stage in 2013-14.

When Mo Salah finally makes it 2-0 early in the second-half, the game should be dead and buried. In truth, the game should be put beyond Arsenal before half-time, such were the opportunities Liverpool spurned. And yet, they still managed to score three goals at a ground where very few teams have found much joy all season. Three goals should be more than enough to secure the victory, but such is the inability of this Liverpool side to effectively close out games that two goals never feels enough- even three, as seen against Sevilla, still feels like a precarious situation.

This is a strange, confusing, brilliant-but-flawed Liverpool side whose capacity for the absurd never ceases to amaze. They have gone to the Emirates and absolutely played Arsenal off the park up until 53 minutes, only for heads to fall off in the most calamitous of five-minute spells imaginable. From 2-0 up on 52 minutes, to 3-2 down on 58. Until then, Arsenal had hardly touched the ball inside Liverpool’s penalty area and yet managed to haul themselves in front as Liverpool rolled over and capitulated.

The manner in which one goal quickly became two, then three, was reflective of the collective mental fragility of this Liverpool side. They defended impeccably for the entirety of the first-half, giving absolutely nothing away. Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan turned in excellent performances and still came away as part of a defence having conceded three goals. The lack of leadership is often levelled as a major criticism of this team and it was laid bare on this occasion as Arsenal duly profited.

The first goal is a momentary lapse in concentration by Joe Gomez- otherwise excellent- but no one is giving him a shout to let him know Alexis Sanchez is steaming in behind him to get on the end of the cross. He should be more aware, but this Liverpool defence doesn’t half fail to communicate properly in key moments.

The second is simply an appalling piece of goalkeeping by Simon Mignolet which any competent goalkeeper should be comfortably catching, or punching away at the very least. Instead, Mignolet contrives to punch the ball into the net- more a hologram than an actual goalkeeper- and Granit Xhaka’s speculative effort further swings the momentum in Arsenal’s favour.

Again, the third goal can be attributed to poor goalkeeping even if it is an excellent move engineered by Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette. Mignolet goes to ground so early and rather than making himself big and narrowing the angle down, does the precise opposite to allow Ozil an easy chip into an empty net.

None of this should come as a surprise. Goalkeeper is a position where you do not mess about if you’re a team with serious ambitions to win trophies and compete at the top end of the table and yet Mignolet still holds the number one spot in his fifth season at the club. It’s gone too far. It’s an obvious weakness which has been repeatedly neglected and continually proves costly with individual errors undermining superb attacking displays.

Of course, it’s overly simplistic to attach all the blame to the goalkeeper but this is a consistent pattern over nearly half a decade now and it needs fixing. Mignolet is 29 now and what we see now is probably the best he will ever be- which isn’t good enough for Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp surely has to recognize this and at least give Loris Karius the chance to prove himself for the remainder of the season. Karius might not be the long-term solution, but he has largely played well when given the chance this season and it’s worth seeing what his true level is before reassessing in the summer. He cannot be worse than Mignolet, regardless.

In and among all this is another demonstration of the devastating potency of this Liverpool attack. They were far, far from their best level against Arsenal and still scored three. They should have scored at least five or six. In Salah, Liverpool have the Premier League’s top scorer- now on 21 in all competitions- right up among Europe’s most prolific forwards in the major leagues. Roberto Firmino has yet another outstanding performance, notching his 14th of the season and picking up another assist with an exceptional piece of play to set Salah through on goal.

Philippe Coutinho continues his phenomenal goalscoring form with a wonderfully deft header, while Sadio Mané- last season’s main man- is still well off the boil. He’s simply too good a player not to come good and this is the first real dip in form he’s suffered at Liverpool. It’s been a stop-start season for him, but it speaks volumes of Liverpool’s forward line that they’re firing on all cylinders even while Mané isn’t performing anywhere near his capability.

As much as the attack may well be brilliant (if wasteful at times), the midfield is once again an area of concern and the failure to control the game when in the lead against Arsenal contributed significantly to the team’s ultimate downfall. Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner all have their relative strengths and weaknesses but there is no current partnership which is truly capable of controlling games against the best sides. The ease with which Arsenal were able to stroll through empty spaces in parts of the second half completely unchallenged was unfathomable.

The same could be said for the hosts themselves, with Jack Wilshere (although impressive in possession) and Xhaka offering very little protection to their own defence, but the need for Liverpool to strengthen in central midfield was ruthlessly exposed once more. The arrival of Naby Keita cannot come soon enough and it’s not difficult to see how much the RB Leipzig man will bring to Liverpool’s midfield, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that a top-quality, defensive-minded midfielder is a necessity for this team to strike the right balance and ensure greater solidity and pragmatism to effectively see these kinds of games out from winning positions.

The issues are obvious and there for all to see, but ultimately it is for the manager to identify them and address them- and how he now deals with the goalkeeper situation going forward may well be a defining factor in his time at the club. Again, Klopp waited too long to make changes when Liverpool clearly had lost their grip and both the Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain substitutions ought to have come much earlier when Arsenal had begun to seize the initiative.

It was a game which showcased the very best and worst of Liverpool under Klopp- a further demonstration of just how good they can be, but another painful reminder of their tendency to self-sabotage. Liverpool have outplayed Arsenal twice this season and find themselves just one point ahead at the half-way mark. That gap should be much larger and for that they only have themselves to blame.

Amid the immense frustration in the immediate aftermath, it feels like a huge missed opportunity- and it is. A point is never a good point when it comes from being 2-0 up. However, the target for the four fixtures over the Christmas period should be 10 points from 12 and therefore how Liverpool respond to this will define this block of games. Back it up with three wins against Swansea, Leicester and Burnley- by no means easy, but eminently achievable- and the table will paint a very encouraging picture heading into the new year.

But, it could- and should- be already so much better.

 

 

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