LIVERPOOL, England — Three thoughts from Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at Anfield in the Premier League.
1. Liverpool make top-four statement
Liverpool took a step closer to securing a top-four place and pushed Arsenal down to fifth place in the Premier League with a rousing 3-1 victory at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp’s team put a dreadful start to 2017 behind them with first half goals from Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. Danny Welbeck brought Arsenal back into the game in the second half but the home team always had the edge in an open game and Georginio Wijnaldum made the game safe in the dying minutes.
The pressure will increase on Arsene Wenger, who dropped Alexis Sanchez from the starting XI. The Chilean was introduced as substitute at half-time and gave the London club a more dangerous edge but Wenger’s gamble of leaving out his superstar backfired as Arsenal’s plan to go direct against Liverpool fizzled out.
The visiting side started well but were undone by a simple clearance after nine minutes, a long, hopeful ball that that they let bounce and fall to Philippe Coutinho at the edge of the box. The Brazilian found Mane on the right-side of the penalty area and the Senegalese skidded in a cross that Coutinho could not reach. Firmino was lurking at the back post, though and depsite a clumsy first touch, the Liverpool striker was allowed the time to rebalance himself and shoot high into the net. It was slack defending by Wenger’s men.
If Arsenal’s plan was to go direct, Liverpool were equally happy to punt the ball into the heart of the opposition’s back four. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny both won nervous headers as the home side’s forwards buzzed around looking to pounce on any loose balls.
Arsenal had spells of possession in the first half but were unable to create any real chances and were always vulnerable to Liverpool’s movement and pace. Adam Lallana shot from the edge of the box, forcing Petr Cech to parry for a corner. Mane seized upon any uncertainty in the space behind Welbeck to apply pressure on Nacho Monreal. There were few real chances in the first half but there was a sense of panic and twitchiness in the Arsenal rearguard.
Liverpool doubled their lead in the 40th minute. James Milner ranged down the left unchallenged and touched the ball inside to Wijnaldum just inside the box. The Dutchman looked up and slid a pass to Lallana. With the entire Arsenal defence transfixed on the ball, they failed to see Mane unattended at the back post. Lallana did and rolled the ball to the winger who shot across Cech to double the advantage. Arsenal were in deep trouble.
It should have been three before half-time when Coutinho took down a long ball with a delightful touch but could only hit the onrushing Cech from six yards out.
Sanchez’s introduction at half-time gave Arsenal new purpose. He immediately chipped in a cross that forced Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to flap the ball away.
A minute later the Chilean provided a cross to Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman should have done better than force a save from the goalkeeper but, with 48 minutes gone, it was Arsenal’s first real chance.
Sanchez played a big part in bringing Arsenal back into the game. In the 57th minute the winger received the ball wide on the left and approached the Liverpool box. With his teammates flooding forward, Sanchez had a number of options but chose the least likely — a delicate little ball inside Nathaniel Clyne that sat up perfectly for Welbeck. The striker made no mistake and Arsenal sniffed a point.
It was not to be, though, as Liverpool continued to press forward and looked the likelier side to score. Coutinho shot just over into the Kop with 17 minutes left and then Wenger made his final adjustment, sending on Theo Walcott and Lucas Perez for Welbeck and Giroud.
The home side were on top, though, with Divock Origi hitting the base of the post and Wijnaldum finally wrapped things up after a brilliant ball from Lallana freed Origi wide to cross to the Dutchman, who made no mistake firing in Liverpool’s third.
2. Wenger’s gamble backfires
Leaving Sanchez on the bench was a huge gamble by Wenger. The plan was to go direct against Liverpool’s central defence and use Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace against Milner, the makeshift left-back. The omission caused raised eyebrows in the Liverpool dressing room. It backfired.
There was logic behind the Frenchman’s decision. Giroud had scored five goals in his last seven games against Liverpool, including three in two matches at Anfield.
In reality Oxlade-Chamberlain was unable to get at Milner. Giroud’s battering-ram approach suited Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip, who were considerably more nervous dealing with Sanchez’s pace, guile and movement.
Arsenal started in a disciplined manner, sitting back and hoping to hit Liverpool on the break. Within ten minutes Wenger’s gameplan was beginning to creak. The only time it went to plan was when Giroud, deep in his own half, produced a lovely bit of skill to loop the ball over his marker’s head and then release a counter-attack.
The approach merely invited Liverpool forward. After the opening goal Arsenal reverted to type, lost their shape and played into Liverpool’s hands.
When Wenger’s team had possession in the opposition half the full-backs pushed forward and left the centre-backs playing a high line far from goal. That left the home side’s forwards space to run into.
The first half could be a glimpse into Arsenal future. Mesut Ozil’s illness was expected to clear up but the German was too unwell to take part. That left Wenger without the two superstars who were supposed to be the basis of the next great side at the Emirates.
Both players want substantial pay rises to sign new contracts in North London and to meet their demands the club would have to revamp their current wage structure. Without Champions League football it is unlikely that the Gunners would get anywhere near the wages Sanchez and Ozil expect. Or that Wenger will still be in charge at the Emirates.
3. Still questions for Klopp
Klopp can take pleasure in the result but victories like this and the 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur last month have been undermined by the team’s inability to beat the Premier League’s “lesser sides”.
When opponents sit deep against Liverpool they tend to run out of ideas. On the other hand, when teams like Arsenal and Spurs offer them space they run wild.
Coutinho makes the side tick when he is allowed to play but when teams deny him space and time and force him back into the midfield he becomes far less effective. Arsenal let the Brazilian operate in his comfort zone. Mane’s pace gives defenders nightmares but he becomes even more threatening when midfielders do not tuck in and support the full-back. Monreal had little help from Welbeck or Granit Xhaka.
Part of the problem for Liverpool is the gap that can appear between the back five and the front four. Klopp’s system places a lot of pressure on Emre Can and Lallana in the midfield. The German is too often impelled to sit in front of the defence and the Englishman is too eager to join the attack. Against Arsenal, this vacuum in midfield was not a problem — the London club did not make use of the space — but it was a massive one in the 3-1 defeat to Leicester City earlier in the week.
More defensive teams who soak up pressure and then spring attacks can get the room necessary to break behind Liverpool’s forwards, who at times neglect their defensive duties. Arsenal’s goal perfectly illustrated this problem, as Xhaka had the time and space to pick his ball and release Sanchez to attack the back four and run at the heart of Klopp’s defence. Anfield needs a strong, physical and mobile box-to-box midfielder before Klopp’s team can sweep aside all comers and not just the wide-open sides who come to play football against them.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.