What a disappointing return to Arsenal football action that was.
In simple terms we didn’t turn up against Liverpool last night and the 0-3 scoreline was flattering to us.
Last season we would have put that down to ‘Pool being an exceptionally good team, but this time round they were playing us with some significant injury absences and coming off a run of six defeats in eight games.
I wouldn’t say they were there for the taking, but there were certainly enough questions about their state of mind that we had the opportunity to unsettle them.
Instead we laid out a red carpet for the visitors and did not challenge them in any area of the pitch. We got the result we deserved and many are now questioning Mikel Arteta.
Let’s start with team selection. Quite a few of our regular starters were ruled out before the game: Smith Rowe and Saka were still recovering from strains; Xhaka was sick and Luiz was injured in training and may well be out for the rest of the season. All four of those players might have made a difference yesterday.
Chambers was given another game at RB as reward for his good showing against West Ham and Holding was recalled for the first time since getting out jumped by Raheem Sterling against Manchester City.
Ceballos took Xhaka’s place in central mid, with Pepe and Aubameyang on the wings and Lacazette as central striker, despite the fact that the Laca-Auba combo seldom works these days.
In the first half our passing was sloppy and inaccurate, we lost almost all of the 50/50s and we seemed to have no obvious plan (at least not that these eyes could identify).
The only upside as we went into the half time break still on level terms was that Liverpool, despite having most of the possession and dominating the game, had not really threatened our goal apart from with a couple of long range shots.
We also lost Kieran Tierney to injury just before the break – hopefully it’s not serious, since we have very little cover at left back.
However, the portents were ominous and it did not take long after the game resumed for ‘Pool to turn their dominance into goals.
Substitute Jota got the opener, finding space between two taller defenders (Chambers and Holding) to head home from close range after a good cross from Alexander-Arnold. I’m not a defence coach and maybe it was just really good play by the two Liverpool players, but Holding seemed completely oblivious to Jota’s presence and Chambers was unable to get close enough to the attacker to put him off. There appeared to be a breakdown in communication between the two Englishmen.
A few minutes later Mo Salah rode an ineffective challenge from Gabriel and slotted home through Leno’s legs. Jota got a third in the 82nd minute of what had now become a training match for Liverpool.
As we trooped off at full time the only sensible response was “thank God it wasn’t five or six”, which it easily could have been.
Arteta was brutally honest about the performance: “First of all, I apologise to our supporters for the display and the show that we saw today that I am very, very disappointed about. When you don’t do the basics right against a team like Liverpool, you don’t have any chance even to compete in the game, which is exactly what happened.
“It’s unacceptable. At that level it’s unacceptable. To not be at 100% is unacceptable to our people and for a lot of work that we put in so what happened today is nowhere near what we want to do.”
Given that the whole team seemed off the boil, perhaps having different players available would have made no difference; maybe it was just a post-Interlull hangover. But surely Smith Rowe and Saka would have brought more threat to the champions than the ineffective Pepe and the invisible Aubameyang?
And the regular detractors of Xhaka and Luiz may want to ponder how important their roles are to the way we play: Ceballos struggled greatly and the team as a whole was less polished at bringing the ball out from the back than it has been all season.
So what does this mean about Mikel Arteta?
Not a lot. We know this team has deep-rooted problems and he was without some of his best assets yesterday. The lack of fight was alarming, but it happens. I suspect he is working through a process of establishing who can contribute to doing better next season and who can’t, and that outing will have helped make up his mind about certain players.
Our league campaign was already done and dusted and the focus now switches to what we can do in the Europa League, where a potential lifeline awaits.
However, one thing I would have liked Arteta to consider when faced with the sudden bout of injuries and illness before yesterday’s game was how he responded to a similar challenge earlier this season. Facing Chelsea and with several senior players ruled out through Covid, El Patron gambled on youth and it paid off handsomely.
Yesterday, instead of falling back on the likes of Ceballos, Pepe and Aubameyang, what might have happened if he had given some young players a chance? Perhaps starting Martinelli, Nketiah, Nelson and Azeez would have produced the same result – but would it have produced the same lacklustre performance?
Leno – 5
He made a few good stops when the game was already lost, but – as Rasp pointed out in comments – you could see his defenders doing their best not to catch his eye in case he gave them one of his suicide passes. At least he kicked long more often than usual, but with no ‘out ball’ it simply meant giving possession to Liverpool every time. The German is having a poor second half of the season.
Our defence had way too much to do in this game. Calum did some good defending at times but was seldom able to get forward the way he had against West Ham.
I love his defending (although he got done by Salah for Liverpool’s second) but his passing is atrocious. He works when Luiz is playing because he simply gives the ball to his fellow Brazilian, but he lost possession constantly last night.
Defended quite well in the first half. Did not seem to be sufficiently aware of the danger for Liverpool’s opener. Hard to judge overall given how poor the team’s play was generally.
Didn’t have much chance to shine before going off injured.
Had good moments, particularly in the first half, but with the players around him underperforming he was on his own in trying to get some control in midfield.
I feel sorry for Dani. He played a big part in our FA Cup win last summer but now seems to be going backwards. He takes too long on the ball and you always think he’s about to lose possession in a dangerous area as he has done too many times this season. There’s really not a place for him moving forward.
Barely got a look in and seemed incapable of linking up with either the midfielders, his RB or Lacazette. He also lost every physical challenge he went in for. A £7.2 million performance, not £72 million.
Might as well not have played. He should not be an automatic starter when others are fit and ought to lose the armband, although at this stage of the season I wouldn’t blame Arteta for waiting until the summer break before picking a real captain.
Never got into the game. Perhaps was our best option for getting some control to break up the waves of Liverpool possession and pressure, but was unable to do so.
Worked hard but the ball never reached him in an attacking context.
No howlers, but couldn’t do anything to swing the game our way.
Was better than Ceballos, though that’s not saying much.
Within a minute of starting he had already threatened Liverpool’s goal more than Aubameyang had in the previous hour and a quarter. The game shape was against us by then so there wasn’t much he could do, but it was good to see him get a run.