Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge is having its moment of ignition. Mikel Arteta and his players knew this was anything but a must-win showpiece and that they would find a way to triumph, climb into second place and cut Liverpool’s lead at the top to a few points. Manchester City, who play Brentford on Monday evening, remain within a reasonable distance of the top. We’re looking at a three-way shootout for the trophy.
Arsenal deserved the win after a hectic match, mainly because of the way they controlled the first half. But the way they took the lead – and it was decisive – was a surprise. Then again, it was one of those wild afternoons, the kind where managers get burned out.
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We had already seen William Saliba, one of the division’s most reliable centre-backs, get into a terrible confrontation with his goalkeeper David Raya, which led to Liverpool’s equalizer – an own goal from Gabriel Magalhães, forced by Luis Díaz. But now we played out the same scenario on the other side of the line, to break the feeling that Liverpool were building an upward trend.
It was midway through the second half and it was Virgil van Dijk who had a breakdown with his goalkeeper, Alisson, as he wanted him to deal with a high ball forward under pressure from Gabriel Martinelli and make him miss his kick completely. Martinelli rolled into the empty net and Arsenal were on their way.
Liverpool had barely missed a defeat since the 1-1 draw with Arsenal at Anfield on December 23 and were progressive on all four fronts. But their second defeat of the season was at the post and was confirmed when Arsenal substitute Leandro Trossard burst through in stoppage time to embarrass Alisson. Trossard’s low shot took a slight deflection from Van Dijk before going through Alisson’s legs.
By then Liverpool had been reduced to 10 men, with Ibrahima Konaté receiving a second yellow card in the 88th minute for a check on Kai Havertz. Jurgen Klopp had thrown everything he had at Arsenal. Now there was nothing left.
The biggest game of the season needed no build-up, even though it was all the same and there was a reminder of what it was about before kick-off: a replica of the Premier League trophy, decked out in sky blue and white ribbons, on the desk of the host transmitter at the side of the field.
The danger was greater for Arsenal, who had won just two of their previous 17 league games with Liverpool, and they had to contend with the loss of Gabriel Jesus as the striker had felt his minor knee injury at its worst. On the other hand, Klopp could only count Darwin Núñez among the substitutes, while Dominik Szoboszlai was injured again. Conor Bradley did not travel in the wake of his father’s devastating death last Saturday.
Arsenal brought the intensity from the start and the home support responded; the Emirates jumped. Arteta had clearly demanded a fast start and after seven minutes there was a moment when he collected the ball for an Arsenal throw-in with an almost maniacal sense of purpose.
There was the sight of scores of Arsenal players pumping up the crowd, including after the advertised breakthrough goal. From a Raya throw, Martinelli turned on the afterburners to slide away from Konaté before crossing to Bukayo Saka, who had timed his run. Saka’s main connection was false.
Arteta had started Havertz up front, with Martin Ødegaard in the No. 10 role, and it was the latter who provided the impetus for the opening goal. The Arsenal captain scanned space between the lines and played a beautiful first pass that freed Havertz, who was one-on-one with Alisson. He had to score and yet Alisson blocked. Unfortunately for the Liverpool goalkeeper, the rebound fell nicely for Saka, who tapped in his 11e goal of the season.
Arsenal dominated the first half. They won the physical duels – there were moments when it felt like Declan Rice was everywhere – and there were plenty of examples of them showing their personality on the ball, not least Ben White. Ødegaard had a shot blocked by Van Dijk after Liverpool were robbed while trying to clear; Gabriel and Martinelli also had half-chances.
This Liverpool team is rarely upset. They had done virtually nothing as an attacking force in the first half, but they always give the impression that they know their moment will come.
That happened just before half time. From an Arsenal point of view, the concession was a disaster, with Saliba trying to divert a ball from Ryan Gravenberch over the top back to Raya. Díaz intervened to push him over where he hit Gabriel’s hand and went inside. The rift between Saliba and Raya was total. Saliba had to gain more control over the situation.
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Liverpool were energetic at the start of the second half. If faith had never left them, now it was pumping. The Emirates became a more anxious place, with Curtis Jones curling a curler just beyond the far post. For Arsenal, Ødegaard saw a shot go wide. Klopp made a move before the hour mark, introducing Núñez up front; Harvey Elliott in right midfield; Andy Robertson at left back. Díaz fired a shot too close to Raya.
However, Arsenal went deep into the depths of their resolve. They desperately needed something and after Havertz shouted in vain for a penalty following an argument with Alexis Mac Allister, they got it with Martinelli’s goal.
The final phase was chaotic. Mac Allister shot inches wide after a corner, while Arsenal substitute Jakub Kiwior headed at Alisson when he should have scored. Klopp shifted Díaz to right-back and went bust with Diogo Jota and Núñez as twin strikers. Arsenal held out.