04 March 2017

Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal

Firmino 9'
Mané 40'
Welbeck 57'
Wijnaldum 90+1'

Liverpool's ability to perform in these matches, and complete inability to do so in the others, remains astonishing and borders on comical.

Playing Tottenham or Arsenal? All right, three points in the bag, everyone's great, everything's great. Leicester or Hull? Practice your noose knots.

Liverpool are really good at playing their way. When allowed to play their way. And they're rarely allowed to do so outside of these big six matches.

Arsenal even attempted to set up to stop Liverpool from doing so. Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott dropped to the bench, with Giroud up front, Iwobi as a central attacking midfielder, and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck – Arsenal's two most defensive wingers – on the flanks. It was more a 4-3-3 than the usual 4-2-3-1 to further congest space, and Arsenal wanted to be physical, to be more direct, to cross more to more dangerous targets.

It worked for almost nine whole minutes before being undone by a goal kick.

Mignolet punted the ball long and Koscielny charged out to win the header against Firmino. And completely missed. And now Arsenal's defensive line is broken. And now Liverpool's running at a defensive line not sure what to do when three versus three. And Lallana spreads it wide to Mané, who centers through the back line, dummied by Coutinho for a wide-open Firmino, whose first touch nearly sees the opportunity gone but whose second settles in the back of the net.

It is very hard for a leopard to change its spots.

So now Arsenal have to try to overturn a deficit with this personnel. And it's not going well. Not when Liverpool can now play its game: press in midfield, press like demons, and then break at pace. Possession's nearly equal between the sides between the 10th and 40th minutes, but Arsenal have just one shot: Xhaka from long range nowhere close. Liverpool don't have many either – Coutinho blocked and well saved from the top of the box, Mané wide from outside the box – as Arsenal defended fairly well against Liverpool's threats, but Liverpool are clearly the more threatening and clearly the more comfortable.

And I say "40th minute" because that's when Liverpool got the needed second: sustained possession in Arsenal's half before Milner's slightly fortunate to keep the ball, his pass inside deflecting off Oxlade-Chamberlain back to him, but then BAM BAM BAM. Milner down the left, inside to an open Wijnaldum because Bellerin's had to help on Milner, immediately to Firmino, immediately to a wide open Mané, and a bullet past Cech. Stretch and pull Arsenal, find space, and cut across to the other side. With low, first-time passes rather than crosses. And also have Sadio Mané there at the end.

It did not take a genius to realize that Alexis Sanchez was coming on at halftime. Even a manager as stubborn as Wenger's pulling that trigger.

His impact was immediate, with Mignolet needing to palm his dangerous cross away in the 47th, then his run drawing four Liverpool defenders a minute later, leaving acres of space for Monreal to cross to Giroud, the Frenchman's header amazingly pushed onto the bar and claimed by Mignolet.

And in the 57th, Arsenal pulled one back, unsurprisingly set up by Alexis. Liverpool's midfield and defense is caught a bit too far forward, Alexis' throughball deflects a bit fortunately for Welbeck in behind, and he skews a wide shot around a charging Mignolet and under a diving Klavan.

It is a lot harder to shut up shop against Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez than Arsenal without. Liverpool couldn't really do what they did against either City or Tottenham, when suffocating their peers with a narrow lead. The way Arsenal play, at least with Sanchez involved, coupled with Liverpool's continued proclivity for going forward, led to a more open game than we'd usually seen when protecting lead in this type of match.

Liverpool had chances on the break and set plays – most notably Matip mis-heading straight at Cech and Origi hitting the post, both from free kicks – but were clearly tiring; other than Origi, there weren't options on the bench. And Arsenal frightened, but also didn't truly threaten, with just three shots after Welbeck's goal: Mustafi's errant set play header in the 79th (which would have been given offside had it been close), and blocked shots from Perez and Sanchez, denied by Klavan and Matip respectively.

Liverpool were under pressure, but Liverpool still defended well, from Matip and Klavan to Clyne and Can and Lallana. But it also could have been very different had Can picked up what seemed a deserved second yellow in the 77th minute.

Those are the breaks. And it's not as if Liverpool haven't been on the wrong end of narrow decisions this season, from offside goals (*waves in the general direction of Manchester*) to penalties not given to players not sent off. And after that last Arsenal blocked shot in the 91st minute, Liverpool wonderfully countered at pace: Lallana driving into the center circle, a full 360 degree turn away from Mustafi before finding a just-onside Origi streaking down the right with an outside-of-the-foot pass. I'm screaming "KEEP IT IN THE CORNER." Origi's centers to Wijnaldum sprinting fastest into the box, arrowing the coffin nail into the corner. I'm an idiot. That's the game.

So, yes, that was a wonderful performance from all involved, especially Mané, Firmino, and Lallana. Liverpool got a little help from Arsenal's starting XI, but Liverpool still had to take advantage. And it's a much needed result which puts Liverpool into third, at least for now, as 4th-place City, 5th-place Arsenal, and 6th-place United all have at least one game in hand.

But there, lingering in the backs of our brains despite today's euphoria, is that doubt. For how good this was, we all still know it ain't where Liverpool's problems lie.

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