I will admit there were times yesterday when I feared the worst. Our recent record against Liverpool hasn’t been great, and when I saw their team selection – as strong as it gets bar Salah and Mane – I feared the worst. When I saw that we were going into this game without a Covid hit Martin Odegaard, as well as Emile Smith Rowe, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and all the other absences, I feared the worst. When Granit Xhaka went full Granit Xhaka and got himself sent off, I feared the worst. Worse than the worst, if that’s possible. Mega-worst. Hyper-worst. Maroon5-worst.
However, the Arsenal players who remained on the pitch deserve huge credit for a genuinely superb defensive effort. I think it’s fair to say this wasn’t Liverpool at their absolute best, but in no small part that’s down to how well we stayed organised, producing the kind of backs-to-the-wall performance I wasn’t really sure we were capable of.
I heard Paul Merson talk on Sky afterwards about how it was relatively simple for Arsenal, that all we had to do was sit in and defend, and while it was certainly clear what way we had to play, actually pulling that off is another thing entirely. It is difficult. It requires a massive physical effort and relentless concentration. That this Liverpool team, at home, in front of their fans, boosted by their lack of Covid cases which they probably never had in the first place, ended up with just a single shot on target tells you just how well we did.
I think their perspective will be different, and they’ll look at this as a game in which they performed poorly, but they knocked on the door time and time again and couldn’t find a way through. Arsenal’s defenders mopped it up. Calum Chambers, an early sub for Cedric, looked like he was running through treacle at first, but ended up making 8 clearances. Ben White, 3 tackles, 3 blocked shots, 3 interceptions, 7 clearances. Rob Holding 5 clearances, Gabriel 5 clearances, Kieran Tierney 5 clearances.
But this wasn’t just the defence, this was a collective effort. A team that defended from the front. Alexandre Lacazette 3 clearances. Gabriel Martinelli with as many tackles as Ben White. Bukayo Saka doing his defensive duty and still managing to provide some threat, perhaps he should have scored that one in the second half after a brilliant Tierney pass, but if his touch was a bit off because of all the running he had to put in up and down the pitch, you could understand it.
Liverpool threw on fresh legs in the second half, a triple sub, while we had nobody really to call on from the bench. Nuno Tavares came on late when Saka just couldn’t give any more, and there was a moment when the Mugsmashers should surely have scored, the ball falling for Minamino with the goal at his mercy but he sliced it over the bar. Ben White laughed. Oh, how he laughed. On a night when you’re always going to need a little bit of luck, we got it, but we deserved it given the way we played and the effort we put in.
As for the red card, it’s a red card, especially when you consider the player involved. Granit Xhaka is an existential problem for Arsenal. As it stands, given our paucity of midfield options, we need him and he is important, but at the same time he’s a liability. Whether it’s right or not, he is refereed on his own merits. The ‘If That Was Granit Xhaka’ index is a bit of a joke, but it’s also not. Maybe another player gets the benefit of the doubt over that challenge, although I think booting an opponent chest high as he’s running through on goal is likely to be a sending off pretty much every time. It was clumsy even by Xhaka’s standards – and the fact he actually apologised afterwards for the first time I can ever remember, tells you plenty.
Yet how long can Arsenal persist with a player who is never, ever going to be given the benefit of any doubt by officials? Perhaps it’s not fair, but it is what it is. You know it, I know it, Xhaka knows it, Arteta knows it, everyone knows it. It’s his reality, but it’s also our reality. At 29 this particular leopard is not going to change his spots, the acts of on-pitch stupidity, the moments of clumsiness, are not going to go away and the team suffers the consequences. Last night it was having to play an energy-sapping hour at Anfield with 10 men. Today it will be tired legs, fatigue and muscle strains because of that, and this weekend it will be a North London derby without a senior player as he starts a two match ban leaving us with just one recognised central midfielder.
As for the incident, I have some sympathy with the contention he was left a bit exposed, and that’s true, but this is the way we play. We push high, and part of the job Xhaka is instructed do is provide cover. Fair play, he saw the danger, he chased back, but he lacks the pace and the athleticism to defend that situation, and his decision making in the moment isn’t good enough – hence the chest high challenge which brought about the red. It was a moment which highlighted exactly why a priority this summer has to be a central midfielder. It’s not just the red card, it’s what he’s missing from his game in general too. The two are obviously interlinked, but that was a perfect example of our need to upgrade in that key position.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to finish this morning on that negative note, because what we should focus on is how well everyone else did in his absence. Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:
I’m extremely proud of what the boys did today in an extremely difficult stadium against a great opponent, and playing 70 minutes with 10 men. It was about fight, spirit, commitment and as well the quality that they showed to play a game that is not in our strength and not in what we trained, but it was necessary to win.
It wasn’t a win, obviously, but you can understand why it felt like it. He repeatedly used the words ‘spirit’ and ‘fight’, throwing in a ‘brotherhood’ in along the way, talking about his team ‘going to war’ and at the end you could see how much it meant to the players to keep Liverpool at bay, and have it all still to play for in the second leg. From fearing the worst, we could celebrate perhaps the best we could hope for in the circumstances, but able to take plenty from individual performances as well as an almost flawless collective one after we went down to 10 men.
What kind of shape we’re in for Sunday remains to be seen. The manager said we’d picked up a couple of injuries, on top of existing absences, Covid cases and all the rest, we might be down to the very bare bones for the derby, but let’s see what happens over the next couple of days.
For now, we can give the lads who stayed on the pitch the plaudits they deserve, to go along with the travelling fans who were brilliant throughout, and see how everyone is tomorrow.
Right, let’s leave it there. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra later on, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
Pod should be out by lunchtime. Until then, take it easy.