Alisson made an individual howler to gift Arsenal…as did Virgil Van Dijk (Credit: Richard Pelham/NMC POOL)
ARSENAL 2:1 LIVERPOOL
IT can be reported that on the evening of July 15, 2020 something extraordinary happened: Virgil Van Dijk made a mistake. With it, and another careless blunder by goalkeeper Alisson, Liverpool’s hopes of making history with a record Premier League points total were tossed away.
They can now ‘only’ finish on 99 points and so the formidable mark set by Manchester City two years ago will remain which will certainly please Pep Guardiola and especially in this week of all weeks when he has gone to war with Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp will say he could not care less about such records and all that matters is a first league title in 30 years. Still beating that century was in Liverpool’s grasp and they have lost three games this season in running away with the title – which is two more defeats than the last campaign when they finished second.
It is a funny old game and this really was a funny old game as Liverpool totally, utterly and completed dominated and yet were undone, while Arsenal can take great encouragement from beating such a formidable team before they face another one at the weekend with the FA Cup semi-final against City at Wembley.
The statistics reflected Liverpool’s dominance – they had 24 attempts at goal to Arsenal’s three, 13 corners to their opponents’ two and claimed 69 per cent possession (79 per cent in the second-half) – but Mikel Arteta will be delighted with the defensive resolve shown after a lax opening 20 minutes and how they capitalised on their rare opportunities. Still, to give it some further context, it is a result that leaves them just the 40 points behind the champions. “Look at the difference between the two teams, the gap is enormous,” the Arsenal head coach conceded as he once again tellingly reminded his club that a “bigger squad” is needed. “We can’t close it in two months. Now the difference in fight and energy is equal. With that we can create something,” Arteta argued.
Liverpool are also ‘only’ 18 points ahead of City when it looked like they would win the league by a record margin – and still might – and radio phone-ins will now try and stir the debate as to whether Klopp’s side or City’s centurions were the better. The truth is both have been brilliant. “I cannot make a negative out of something so positive – becoming champions so early in the season,” Klopp remarked. “These boys have played an exceptional season and no one can take that away.”
Even so, let us deal with the here and now and, having lost the north London derby through defensive errors, Arteta must have feared the worst with the way his altered team began.
Firstly, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez drove a clearance against Roberto Firmino with the ball rebounding back and striking the outside of the post. Soon after there was more lack of attention when Lucas Torreira stuck out a hand to stop the ball before pointing to the assistant referee Dan Cook who had flagged for an earlier offside. Rightly, referee Paul Tierney gave a free-kick against Torreira.
Inevitably, from the third example of casual play, Liverpool took the lead. It summed it up as Cedric Soares was beaten in the air by Andrew Robertson, with the Liverpool full-back sprinting forward to collect a pass from Firmino who had been allowed to stroll towards the penalty area. Robertson pulled it back with no Arsenal player tracking Sadio Mane who simply side-footed into the net.
At that point there only appeared one outcome. But everything changed when Fabinho and Van Dijk nonchalantly exchanged passes on the edge of their penalty area before Reiss Nelson put the latter under pressure. Van Dijk felt he was being pulled back by the Arsenal forward as he woefully under-hit a back-pass to Alisson, with Alexandre Lacazette stealing in to round the goalkeeper and side-foot home. For all of Van Dijk’s protestations he had not been fouled and he knew it. “I take the blame. I take it as a man and move on,” he later said.
Quite astonishingly, it was Liverpool who erred again with Alisson playing a slack pass towards Robertson that Lacazette easily intercepted, with the striker quickly picking out Nelson who smartly found the corner of the net with a cross-shot for his first Premier League goal. Little wonder Klopp abandoned the technical area and slumped open-mouthed in disbelief.
“Come on boys, let’s start again,” Alisson shouted, and Liverpool did just that in a second half which, quite frankly, was attack against defence. Arsenal barely left their half as they dropped ever deeper and threw their bodies in the way with admirable determination. Martinez tipped over Mohamed Salah’s improvised scooped shot, effort after effort was blocked, Mane screwed a low drive wide and on it went.
Liverpool felt they should have had a penalty when Kieran Tierney leaned into substitute Takumi Minamino who stumbled and mis-kicked but Arsenal went closest when one of their substitutes, Joe Willock, sliced wide. In injury time it was frantic and frenetic as Martinez turned away a deflected Trent Alexander-Arnold shot as corner after corner was won, but Arsenal stood firm.