Arsenal striker denies Liverpool at Emirates
These are the big games that Unai Emery will one day be expected to win as a matter of course, but in the meantime it was an occasion that showed the new Arsenal are much better than the later Wengerian versions, robust, attacking and willing to fight to the end.
The Arsenal manager let his side off the leash from the start and although they went behind, Alexandre Lacazette’s equaliser was the least they deserved – you could tell as much by the way the Emirates was on its feet and roaring them on to get the winner. They very nearly did so, against one of the league’s unbeaten teams who for long periods found themselves under pressure and denied the ball.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were unfortunate that Sadio Mane’s first-half goal was wrongly ruled offside by linesman Simon Long, one of those details of the evening that made a big difference. By the end, a draw felt right in what was for the most part, a high-quality game with two teams permitted by their managers to attack in the best traditions. Liverpool are unbeaten in 11 Premier League games and return to the top of the table by a point before Chelsea and Manchester City play.
For Klopp there was much character in evidence from his side, although not quite the quality required to steal the three points. In injury time, Mohamed Salah needed to summon one good pass to put Mane in on goal but could not get it past Rob Holding. It was James Milner who scored Liverpool’s goal after 61 minutes, a rapid turnaround of possession and then the away team capitalising on the indecisiveness of goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
The mood is different now at Arsenal – the home fans could see what their team set out to do and then, when they fell behind, how hard they worked to rescue a point. No team has gained more points – eight – from losing positions in the league this season. Their manager made decisive substitutions – Alex Iwobi in particular – and, after those opening defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, they were holding their own against the best in the league.
Emery did not hide his disappointment that his side had not managed to win their first game under him against big opposition. “We have the intensity and now we need more quality,” he said. “This was a good test for us. We need more work tactically. The spirit was what we want and the atmosphere [in the Emirates] was big.”
It was the first time that he had started his big four attackers together: Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the attacking trident behind Lacazette. They always gave up chances, but that was the pay-off for such an aggressive approach and a defence that is undoubtedly the weaker part of the ensemble. By the end, Liverpool had enjoyed just 38 per cent possession, less than they commandeered against Manchester City, and there will not be many opponents who do that to them.
This was football at high tempo and all of it, even the errors, made for an engrossing spectacle.
Arsenal fought Liverpool at their own game, squeezing up the pitch and putting on pressure at all times. Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira were excellent at shielding the back four who looked much less certain at times.
In his early dealings with Salah, Sead Kolasinac was aggressive but also vulnerable when the Liverpool striker could turn and run at goal, requiring a superb recovery tackle from Xhaka on one occasion.
Mane’s disallowed goal came after Roberto Firmino had hit a post and replays showed that while the former was offside when Salah’s cross was played in, he was inactive. The rebound off the post meant he was not in an offside position when he put it in. Throughout the Arsenal pressure there were Liverpool chances and Virgil van Dijk’s header hit a post when Leno came for a long free-kick and failed to get there.
There were no recriminations over the disallowed goal from Klopp, who felt it was just one of those things. “Do I feel aggrieved? I don’t know,” he said. “That’s how it is, a football situation. “It was a brilliant attack. That is what you do on the training ground, you keep one player between the centre-halves slightly offside and the other player takes the ball. It is a pity it didn’t count but we made a few more mistakes than the ref.”
Van Dijk was the heart of this splendidly mean Liverpool defence, and Klopp felt his centre-back might have scored three at the other end. For the Liverpool goal, Mane got in behind Hector Bellerin and crossed, Leno pushed the ball weakly away and Holding thrust out a leg at it. But no one in the home side could get a decisive touch and Milner arrived in the penalty area to drill the ball past Leno. From there Emery made his substitutions in quick succession, eventually front-loading his team with the final change of Danny Welbeck for Kolasinac. It was Iwobi who made the difference. His ball down the channel was the one Lacazette ran on to for the goal and even then it was a fine finish. The Frenchman had to go away from goal to get free of Alisson and then turn sharply to shoot into the far corner.
Klopp said his team had changed formation in the second half, matching up with Arsenal’s strength in central midfield. He joked that once again Arsenal had brought on so many strikers he was “waiting for Van Persie and Bergkamp”. “First half, the one time we don’t close the half-space they play the ball and score. Not nice. But a point at Arsenal will always be absolutely a good result.”
Good save: Alexandre Lacazette rescues a point for Arsenal after they had gone behind to a goal by James Milner (below)