27 August 2017

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Firmino 17'
Mané 40'
Salah 57'
Sturridge 77'

We make this joke a lot, usually in matches against other top-six sides. But I truly do wish Liverpool could play Arsenal every week.

Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool have now played Arsenal four times. They've scored at least three goals in all four of those matches. This, however, was the first time that Liverpool also kept a clean sheet. Because Arsenal failed to put a single shot on-target. It's the first time that Liverpool kept a clean sheet against Arsenal at Anfield since February 2006. Yes. More than 11 years ago.

It comes down to two factors. How good Liverpool can be in attack, and the choices that Arsenal – read: Arsene Wenger – made to take on the hosts.

That Arsenal attempted to play the same system and style that Hoffenheim tried at Anfield was a bad idea. Liverpool's midfield again looked a real midfield, out-numbering and over-powering Ramsey and Xhaka in the middle. And then Firmino, Mané, and Salah wreaked utter destruction, because that's what that front three does.

Liverpool should have opened the scoring at the exact same moment as against Hoffenheim as well. A tenth-minute clear-cut chance created by Can and Firmino, taken by Salah, but saved by Cech. At least we wouldn't have to wait much longer. Gomez stealing the ball in Arsenal's half, interplay between him, Salah, and Can, Gomez's cross to an unmarked Firmino run into the box, easily headed past Cech.

One goal from pressing, nearly another two minutes later – Henderson robbing possession, to Firmino, back to Henderson, missed wide from a narrow angle – then three from counter-attacking.

Do not let Liverpool score early, and then do not give Liverpool space.

Do. Not. Give. Liverpool. Space.

I mean, I really want you to. But you probably shouldn't.

It's the 40th minute. Liverpool have had chances to extend their lead but haven't yet, something which always makes as nervous. And Arsenal are in Liverpool's box. But a Gomez interception to Wijnaldum to Can to Firmino to Mané, now one-on-one with poor Rob Holding in Arsenal's box. A cut onto his right, even though every human in the world knows he's cutting onto his right, and a curler past Cech. 16 seconds from start to finish.

2-0 at halftime absolutely did not flatter the home side.

Hoffenheim at least changed to a 4-2-3-1 in the 24th minute to stem Liverpool's tide. It took Arsenal until halftime. And they were better for about ten minutes after the restart, but without reward, any really semblance of reward. Too little, too late. And then Liverpool took over again. Salah, again denied from a close-range clear-cut chance on the counter. Then Salah, finally, with the ball in the back of the net: an Arsenal corner, but Salah robbing Bellerin after the cross is cleared, then sprinting two-thirds the pitch to slot past Cech, seven seconds from start to finish.

57 minutes into the match, and all three of Liverpool's front three have scored. Just as happened at Watford on opening day, almost to the exact second.

From there, Arsenal truly beaten. From there, Liverpool buoyant, passing with purpose, denying chances, in control and always looking for that counter.

A chance to make subs, to rest players after the exertions since the start of the season. And the first substitute gets Liverpool's fourth. Arsenal's cross easily dealt with, Gomez to Firmino, who unbelievably turns away from and between two defenders and finds Can, to Salah, a couldn't-be-better-aimed cross from the left to a couldn't-be-more-open Sturridge at the back post. 15 seconds from start to finish. Sturridge's first goal at Anfield – in front of the Kop – since December.

There's not much else to be said about Liverpool's attack. They are good. Really good. Good in games where there's a lack of space, as at Watford, and really, really good in games like this. There's Sturridge, Solanke, and Origi off the bench, there's Coutinho and Lallana to return from injury. They're all gonna score a lot of goals, and even more goals when Salah starts consistently converting great chances.

It's been five games now. Mané, Firmino, and Salah have all scored three goals. Firmino's got three assists, Mané two, and Salah one. Through five games, Liverpool have had 18 clear-cut chances, an average of 3.5 per game, and Salah, Firmino, and Mané have been on the end of 14 of those. Liverpool averaged 1.9 in the league last season.

But again, I'm almost as impressed with the midfield, if only because we expect this from the attack. Getting this sort of play from Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Can wasn't anywhere near as expected, especially after the first two fixtures. We got the passing, covering, and pressing – especially pressing – from Henderson that we saw on Wednesday. Wijnaldum on the ball was something to behold, surging runs forward, breaking Arsenal ankles on three separate occasions, exactly what he's needed to do. And Emre Can was undeniable, adding passes like those to free Firmino and Salah on the break for Liverpool's second and fourth, and the interplay and low cross for that early Salah chance to his already beast-mode physicality.

And we'll give the defense its due as well. The full-backs were excellent, in both attack – Joe Gomez assist! – and defense. Lovren and Matip did as needed, which is all I'll ever ask. Karius frightened on three separate occasions and that's not great, but whatever, he got through it. But mostly, it was a team effort, with everyone quick to get back and cover, and Arsenal attackers smothered by numbers rather than individual dual wins.

A lot of focus will be what Arsenal did. What Arsenal's players did. Underperformers. Don't respect the shirt. Not passionate enough. Alexis wants out, Özil again goes missing. Sure, a lot of talent didn't do what was needed today. Zero shots on-target is pretty bad, even if none were especially good chances thanks to what Liverpool did. Midfielders, wing-backs, and attackers could and should have been quicker to close down Liverpool in the middle of the pitch, but most the worst examples of it came after Liverpool were already two up. Yes, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched off on Liverpool's first, and Bellerin screwed up on Liverpool's third.

I'm still far more inclined to blame the manager, who picked a side that played directly to Liverpool's strengths. Who started a 21-year-old center-back with 10 Premier League appearances against Sadio Mané, a left-back at center-back opposite Salah, a right wing-back at left-wing back, and a central midfielder at right-wing back. Who left Mustafi, Kolasinac, and Lacazette on the bench. Who played Aaron Ramsey in a two-man midfield against Liverpool's three.

And I'm far more inclined to credit Liverpool's players, in all three areas of the pitch.

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