Liverpool could feel the knock of opportunity. Chelsea’s shock home defeat to West Brom earlier in the day had blown the doors off their security in fourth place and how Liverpool made capital. Jürgen Klopp’s team have enjoyed themselves in London this season and the trend continued with a fifth win in six visits to go with the draw at Fulham. Rather abruptly, they are within touching distance of a Champions League finish via the Premier League.
It was a performance of control from start to finish, with the turning point being Klopp’s introduction of Diogo Jota just after the hour. Within three minutes, the forward had thumped home a header from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross and, at that point, Arsenal looked broken.
Mikel Arteta’s team failed to contribute in an attacking sense – it was one-way traffic – and now they folded. Alexander-Arnold has had a difficult period with his exclusion from Gareth Southgate’s England squad but he was excellent here, playing a part in Jota’s second goal when he seized upon a loose clearance from Gabriel. Mohamed Salah crossed and there was a little touch by Sadio Mané before Jota rammed home.
By then, Salah had put Liverpool 2-0 up with a clever finish that nutmegged Bernd Leno after he had ridden a weak Gabriel challenge and it was difficult for Arteta to take any positives. The pursuit of Europa League qualification via the league has been hit hard.
Liverpool have the small matter of a Champions League quarter-final first-leg at Real Madrid on Tuesday but Klopp made precious few concessions towards that in terms of his starting lineup. Gini Wijnaldum was named among the substitutes but, that apart, Klopp picked his strongest available players. Wijnaldum had featured in all but 11 minutes of the Netherlands’ three matches during the international break, including the 7-0 win over Gibraltar.
Chelsea’s defeat had, perhaps, reinforced one of the lessons of this crazy season and life in general over the past year or so – do not plan too far ahead. For both teams, the importance of these 90 minutes was huge.
Liverpool were determined not to allow Arsenal to play out from the back – a tactic that can sometimes feel like an obsession for Arteta. They succeeded and they were able to pin Arsenal onto their heels throughout the first half, allowing them to push and control the tempo. On several occasions, the Arsenal goalkeeper, Bernd Leno, saw no passing options and had to go long. Liverpool recovered possession and probed again.
It was highly tactical, the fight for the smallest of spaces everything, and it was easy to marvel at the technique of the players, particularly with time on the ball at such a premium. Without the din of the fans and the focus turned inwards, Covid-era football can often resemble the highest quality training matches imaginable. This was another example.
The silence did allow for a touching tribute to the Arsenal great David Rocastle, whose family marked the 20th anniversary of his passing on Wednesday. In the seventh minute – to reflect the shirt number that Rocastle wore – his terrace chant was played over the PA system.
Liverpool bristled with intensity. They won the individual duels in the first half, with Fabinho imperious in midfield. Arteta saw Alexandre Lacazette bloodied after a coming together with Nat Phillips and Kieran Tierney limp off in first-half injury time. He had been without the injured David Luiz, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe and the ill Granit Xhaka. The search for consistency has not been helped by constant selection difficulties.
Mané flickered off the left wing. He headed at Leno at the beginning of a Liverpool purple patch on 27 minutes and almost found Mohamed Salah with a cut-back. Roberto Firmino lashed a low shot wide but the big Liverpool chance was created when Alexander-Arnold won the ball high up off Dani Ceballos in the 35th minute, swapped passes with Firmino and pulled back for James Milner. He had time and space only to drag his shot past the post.
Arsenal did not see possession for any meaningful periods in the first half and they barely crossed halfway. Alisson was a bystander in the Liverpool goal. But the pattern remained the same after the restart – Liverpool manipulating the ball, working a few switches, trying to create room up the sides; Arsenal holding their shape, digging in hard.
Alexander-Arnold cut back another low cross for Salah but the winger could not muster any power in the shot. Cue Klopp’s gamechanging substitution, with Milner dropping to left-back to replace Andy Robertson and Jota taking up an inside left attacking position, with Mané outside of him.
Jota’s header had too much on it for Leno but it was the Alexander-Arnold assist that made the goal. The moment that the cross left his boot, Liverpool sensed possibility and Alexander-Arnold could enjoy the moment. Salah and Jota would heighten Arsenal’s misery, with the former also being denied by Leno when one-on-one.