Arsenal show fight
In the opening exchanges of this match most Arsenal fans must have been feeling as though they’d seen this film before.
As Liverpool swarmed early doors and peppered Aaron Ramsdale ‘s goal with chances, traumatic memories of the 4-0 defeat earlier this season or the 5-1 battering under Unai Emery came flooding back.
Then as Granit Xhaka was sent off it perhaps seemed an even more familiar story for Gooners around the globe who would have been racing each other to hide behind their sofas rather than watch what seemed destined to come.
But strangely enough – and this is something we can definitely only say in hindsight – the red card, may have actually helped Mikel Arteta ‘s side.
The Spaniard, who has been criticised for making in game changes too slowly in the past, reacted quickly to switch his side to a back five that made the game plan at Anfield as simple as it could possibly be.
Sure, the idea of having Albert Sambi Lokonga as a long central presence with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka was, as Arteta admitted after the game, more improvised than carefully curated, but with a clear objective in mind Arsenal were able to focus on simply keeping out the opposition.
Suddenly the game turned, and from being on the ropes the Gunners managed to keep Liverpool at arms length.
Although Reds fans may be able to point to the golden opportunity missed by Takumi Minamino in the dying seconds of the match, it’s difficult to remember Ramsdale having to make a save after Xhaka’s dismissal.
That’s down to the collective fight and energy of the side that Arteta was keen to praise after the match.
“When you come to a stadium like this I said to them, you have to pick players that you are happy to come to war,” the Spaniard said in his post match press conference.
“You are going to have to fight, you’re going to have difficult moments, you’re going to suffer. It’s about how you approach those moments. If you rebuild yourself, if you are willing to help your team then good things happen.
“At the end you get rewarded and I think that’s what happened today.”
As the full time whistle blew the exhaustion of the Arsenal players was clear to see. Martinelli collapsed immediately to the floor while Alexandre Lacazette could barely trudge off the pitch through tiredness, but unlike with the hammer blow against Manchester City, this sacrifice was not in vein.
From seemingly being dead and buried in this semi final the Gunners managed to resusitate themselves to a point where they will quietly fancy there chances of progressing in next week’s second leg at the Emirates.
Great night for White
For Arsenal to get anything from this game given the circumstances of having gone down to ten men they were going to need to have a flawless collective performance. That was pretty much exactly what they got.
Aaron Ramsdale recovered from some jittery early moments to grow into the game, while Gabriel did the same and Rob Holding excelled in the kind of backs to the wall game that he is built for. Calum Chambers was superb, playing his first minutes since October, while Kieran Tierney provided defensive steel that he’s not normally known for as well as some carefully timed attacking thrust.
However, if there had to be a standout player on the night then it was probably Ben White.
The England international set the tone early with a goalsaving challenged that poked the ball away from Roberto Firmino at full stretch and never really looked back.
The criticism of White is that for all the pretty passing and dribbling ability that he has, when it comes to old school rough and ready art of defending then he is sometimes found lacking.
Those still subscribing to that point of view would surely have had some humble pie for their dinner on Thursday night.
To put it simply, White has all the ability and nouse to be a midfielder but instead operates at centre back. Why? Because he just loves defending.
The 24-year-old was clenching his fist at every tackle, fist pumping at every block and even – as the picture below amusingly illustrates – screaming for joy at opposition misses.
In fact on the night, his much-famed ability on the ball wasn’t always at it’s best.
There was instance in the first half where a loose touch controlling the ball out of the sky threatened to allow Liverpool in, and an instance not long after where he drew the frustration of Alexandre Lacazette for hoofing long instead of trying to play out.
But these are the kind of performances that see you earn your spot in the folklore of travelling supporters. Few who were there at Anfield will forget the moment where Ben White truly announced himself as a dominant Arsenal centre back.
Surely that England call up can’t be far away now.
Saka’s the senior
It’s becoming more and more difficult to come up with original superlatives for Bukayo Saka, such is the consistency of his brilliance in an Arsenal shirt this season.
Perhaps what is easy to forget though, given how regularly he shines, is the fact that he is still just 20-years-of-age.
Thursday night’s performance was full of such maturity that you sturggle to believe that is even true!
Holding on to the ball in attacking areas and progressing the team up the pitch was going to be crucial if Arsenal were to stand any chance of escaping Anfield with anything respectable.
Saka was willing to oblige, scrapping for each and every yard up the pitch with excellent close control and smart play to win corners, free kicks and throw in that provided much welcome repreive to Gunners backline from the Liverpool onslaught.
The England international could even have scored as he seized Kieran Tierney’s low cross into the box but struggled to fully control the strike before Alisson could smother him, much to the dispare of Alexandre Lacazette who almost collapsed to his knees before rallying himself to track back again.
Saka is the only player to have been involved in every single one of Arsenal’s Premier League games this season, but the fact that he is keeping these performance levels is simply outstanding.
Eventually though it felt as if the amount of miles he’s put on the clock recently caught up with him as he collapsed twice late in the game and had to be replaced by Nuno Tavares. Luckily though it seemed that Mikel Arteta was not too concerned about the injury late on.
“He felt something in the last minute, he was really fatigued and I don’t know,” the Spaniard said. “He’s a young boy and he recovers really quickly, but he’s played a lot of minutes in the last month. So, let’s see how he develops.”
As the Gunners prepare for a crucial game against Tottenham on Sunday with what is likely to be a depleted squad, having Saka at his best is going to be essential. After the consistency he’s shown this season though, there is little doubting that he’ll be able to deliver.
Preparations for Spurs take another set back
It feels like groundhog day writing a talking point a Granit Xhaka dismissal at Arsenal.
The Swiss international got himself sent off with a ludicrous last man tackle in a big game yet again for the Gunners and promptly apologised for the misdemeanour after the game. We’ve certainly been here before.
We could reignite the debate over whether Mikel Arteta needs to move on from the 28-year-old and find a player who is less of a liability in crucial moments to build his midfield around but the old saying of repeating the same things and expecting different results being the definition of insanity comes to mind.
He won’t, and when Xhaka is available again – at time of writing we’re not sure whether that will be in two or four games time, depending on whether Michael Oliver adjudged his red card to be for denying a goalscoring opportunity or endangering the safety of his opponent with the attrociousness of his tackle (the extra game is as this is his second red card of the season) – he will almost be immediately welcomed straight back into the starting XI.
Instead it’s probably best to focus on what the short term implications are of his unavailability for Sunday’s game against Spurs.
The North London Derby is essentially a six pointer in the top four race and if Arsenal win it their Champions League destiny is in their own hands.
Xhaka’s return from COVID had been hailed as a boost in the build up to this game, but without him the Gunners are back down to having just one fit senior central midfielder in Albert Sambi Lokonga.
football.london understands that they are trying to bring Arthur Melo in on loan from Juventus in time to play on Sunday, but they’ll have to be quick if they are to meet the Friday midday deadline to do that.
Miguel Azeez meanwhile has been recalled from his loan spell at Portsmouth so that is at least another body to boost the number beyond Lokonga and Charlie Patino, although neither Hale Ender mentioned there has actually played a mintue of Premier League footaball yet.
Meanwhile uncertainty over the fitness of Emile Smith Rowe, Cedric and Takehiro Tomiyasu, combined with Martin Odegaard having tested positive for COVID-19 and Thomas Partey, Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mohamed Elneny being away at AFCON mean that there is now a distinct possibility that the North London Derby might not go ahead at all.
Mikel Arteta has always been insistent that he wants his team to play matches as originally scheduled, but was willing to concede on Thursday night that that could be impossible come Sunday.
“I don’t know, it’s a possibility in every game from our side, the opponent’s side because the amount of issues that every team is having,” the Spaniard said. “We’re trying to prepare for the game as usual, it is what it is.”
With the situation as volatile as it is right now, Nostradamus himself would struggle to place a bet on whether the game will go ahead. But with the amount of players they are short right now, Arsenal could quietly be thinking that having it called off might not be the worst possible outcome.