I know there’s the temptation to get revisionist. I know we’re hyping a point. But f*ck it. Yesterday was exactly what we’ve been waiting for over the past 10 years. Unai Emery’s Arsenal side went toe-to-toe with a big team and played like they belonged in their category. The result was 1-1, but as I said before the game, anything more than zero points against the Champions League finalists was going to be something to cheer about.
Nothing about that performance felt like the usual. For starters, we didn’t go a goal down inside the first 20 minutes. In fact, we didn’t really have a bad first half. We weathered a powerful 10-15 minutes of Liverpool pressure and countered with some of our own.
The second half saw us drop a goal in unfortunate circumstances, Mane slipped in behind Bellerin, he fizzed a ball into the box, Leno pushed the ball into danger, Milner finished and celebrated with irritating relish.
Arsenal didn’t pack up and go home. We put Liverpool on the back foot. We chased them down, pressed in packs and tried to counter. Emery also played his part making a the best sub of the game when he brought on Iwobi for the dismal Mikhi. The Nigerian’s clever runs and direct play opened the game up for us. He started the move for our equaliser (that was actually quite a combo of passes), threading a beautiful ball into Lacazette. The French striker saw Allisson coming, turned back on himself, and instead of squaring the ball into the box, he rifled off an inswinging curler past everyone into the far side of the net. An unbelievable strike considering how much he had to do! I love his celebration as well, the man has so much sauce. I genuinely love him.
Arsenal even had a chance to win it, Bellerin fluffing his lines at the end when presented a free strike from 20 yards out.
A point of piece felt fair on the face of it, but given the context of how good Liverpool are, it felt immense.
So what did we learn?
I think the key takeaway is the Emery resurgence is real. The team has adapted to the new ideas and there’s a real belief about the squad. The players know they’re in a fight every single game, the complacency has gone, and the tactical ideas the players are learning are starting to become part of their muscle memory.
There were some great performances out there. I think the easiest one to spot was from Torreira. Who knew signing a proper defensive midfielder might solve the issue of a weak midfield? The Uruguayan is rightly a fan favourite. He crunches into challenges, he’s a great passer, and he’s always looking to move the ball forward. He played like a gladiator yesterday, he went full steam into every challenge and he made things really difficult for Liverpool. He’s a dream technician and still so young.
Granit Xhaka, a player who has had a rough ride from most Arsenal fans put in a performance. He found space all over the pitch, and he opened up our options moving forward. He also maintained discipline defensively making sure there was stability at the back. I think Liverpool missed a trick no pressing us harder yesterday, but when you give the Swiss the space he desires, he will make your afternoon miserable. A great game and hopefully a watershed moment for him after a tough couple of seasons.
Bernd Leno is a tough one. He boasts some very strong attributes as a keeper. He has great reflexes. He made two very impressive saves yesterday. The first was when VVD somehow found himself in on goal from a long ball, our keeper spread himself to deny the goal. The second was late on when he tipped a powerful VVD header over the bar. He’s also brilliant with his feet, fast with his distribution and great at making space for the defence. What you can’t ignore are some of the decisions he makes with balls into the box. Early on, he made a huge flap that resulted in Liverpool hitting the post. He didn’t even try to punch the ball, it was just a flap. Also, for their goal, he palmed the ball into danger because he mistimed the catch. My hope is he has a touch of the De Gea’s, noting that the great Spanish keeper was also terrible in the box to begin with. He’ll have to work on that sharpish, otherwise, he’ll become a target for that sort of ball just like Fabianski was back in the day. Great keepers die in the Premier League if they can’t deal with crosses. You can get away with that on the continent, but just ask Bravo about it.
I also though Ozil was largely anonymous again. He ended up looking like a striker for large chunks of the game, instead of sitting a bit deeper in midfield controlling the game. Maybe he was supposed to lead the press, maybe it was tactical, whatever it was, it didn’t seem very effective. Talking of strikers, it was very tough out there for Auba. He’s not a traditional wide player and he’s very easily dealt with against good teams, he looked upset to get benched for Ramsey, but he really didn’t impact that game that much.
Lacazette is also an odd striker to assess. Steve Bould said he’s good enough to play as a 10, and you can see that with his intelligence around the box. He’s also very good as the first line of the press, he’s an ankle biter and he has a lot of success turning possession. His real secret is the hard work. He was being eaten alive by VVD and Gomez for large chunks of yesterday, but he will work and work to eek out a chance. When he finds that space, he can absolutely bury you. What a goal, a just reward for such a punishing game yesterday.
For me, one of the most telling parts of the Emery rein came in the bar, listening to everyone shout for the introduction of Iwobi. The wide man has really taken to the new coach and his performances have come on so much. He opened up Liverpool, he worried them, he can dribble past players, he can find a key pass and sometimes he can shoot. He was exactly what we needed to unlock Liverpool and it was a pleasure to watch.
The day went to Emery for me. He’s made such a big impact in such a short time. There’s still a long way to go this season, but that game felt like the moment you could say that this is now and Emery team. The fans believe, the players believe and the results that have been put on the table tell you the story you’d absolutely want to be reading at this point of the post-Wenger era.
I hope you all had as much fun as me watching the game, we’ve got our Arsenal back, right?!