September 28th – Liverpool 3 Arsenal 1

And I had thought we’d go through the season undefeated. How can we lose to such a lowly team as Liverpool? Devastating loss to a team in turmoil. If you can’t beat Liverpool at Anfield what chance is there for this club?

What did you expect? The players we have are not that different from those from last year. We started with Elneny and Xhaka in midfield. And yet, we stayed in this game for longer than I’d imagine. We kept the shape and the system in place for most of the game. Compared to prior years and the capitulation we’ve seen for so many years, this was, yet again, real progress. There are signs that we have a backbone.

This Liverpool team will murder so many teams this year. They are really quite impressive. There are very few weaknesses in that team. And yet, we could have drawn level if Cigarette would have lite up the net rather than bounce it off Allison. Of course, if Liverpool had taken all their chances they would have been well out of sight by then.

They are relentless, aggressive and talented. And we’re not. But then, 3 or 4 years ago they weren’t either. We can’t expect to be at their level. Not with some of the players we have. Arteta seems to have improved each player in the starting eleven perform better. That’s all he can do. But we need strengthening. Not in order to beat Liverpool but just in order to bolster this team. We need more competition in midfield. We need more creativity and we also need more defensive resolve. Declan Rice would be a nice fit 

Who would have predicted 2 months ago (or any time in the last three years) that Elneny would start at Anfield today. Not that he was too shabby and it’s not his fault we lost today. But it tells you something about the available talent as our disposal. Xhaka was pretty quiet today and maybe that’s because he was working so hard to defend. His forward pass that split their midfield helped create our goal. But thereafter, he was not able to contribute too much.

Maitland-Niles was just so hard-working again. He plays three positions simultaneously – a defensive wing-back, third full-back and attacking winger. Another impressive performance from him. He worked so hard to shut down Alexander-Arnold and nullify – as best anyone can – that threat. To think we might have sold him already. Give him another season to mature and develop a little more composure and he will become part of the backbone of this team.

Holding had his hands full with Mane; since leaving Southampton he has developed into a world class striker. He tormented Holding but Holding did really well against him. Holdings problem came with his poor distribution. But that’s usually because there were not sufficient options from his own players ahead of him. Elney and Xhaka rarely picked up the ball off the defense today. And that was dues to the relentless pressing we were under. There are very few teams as forceful and domineering as Liverpool – thankfully.

Willian was invisible today. A poor contribution but still superior than Pepe. For that second goal Willian should have been tracking back to mark Robertson. Though Bellerin was dragged into the middle too often for crosses, Willian should have done better. After that goal, Willian then did track back to defend another overlap. So maybe the lesson was learned.

Bellerin still suffers from position lapses; it’s a judgement issue with him. It’s not experience (or lack of) because he’s been around for long-enough. But then others – Luiz – suffer from this as well. He, in a homage to Mustafa, always attacked the play and is attracted to the ball. That’s what caused their first goal. He and Xhaka both fouled their players and got pulled out of position. Then Tierney got beaten on the inside. Today was not one of his best games for us. But then, again, the standard of the opposition will do that to you. I suspect we left Gabriel on the bench today because Arteta wanted Luiz’s distribution from the back to challenge the high-line of Liverpool. A number of his passes created some fear in their backline. Once with MN and then a few more with Willian. Unfortunately not too many for Aubameyang.

Aubameyang was very quiet today. He barely touched the ball. Most of his energy was spent chasing down their defenders and closing down their space. It’s not his fault. Only when Ceballos came on did we have some creative spark. That’s the reason why we need players in midfield with more diversity to their game. Who would have bet that it would be Xhaka to come off before Elneny? A fair decision based on performance but telling nonetheless. And, when they happened, we looked both sharper, more creative and yet more vulnerable to their counter-attack.

Pepe replacing Willian exposed both Bellerin and Holding. I’m really not sure this guy is ever going to make it in this league. As skillful as he is I doubt that he is physically tough enough (or mentally). Yes  he’s young so time is on his side but he’s been with us for a year now and I don’t see too much evolution. This game is much more physical than that in the French league. Against teams that give him space and sit back he’ll look excellent – against Crystal Palace or Newcastle. But against the better teams I doubt he’ll be able to contribute. That’s where we need Willian or an energized Nelson.

Overall, it’s hard to be too negative today. This is an impressive Liverpool team. We are clearly a work in progress. Arteta, yet again, deployed the right system, the right tactics thus allowing us to be competitive. Go back just a year and we would (if fact, were) demolished. This team is moving in the right direction. When you see the missteps (and luck) of a Chelsea and ManUnited, then there is an outside chance of the top four. But for that we need reinforcements. The defense if starting to take shape. Gabriel looks like a backbone addition to our team. We have enough center-halfs now. But, again, who would have predicted we could field such an organized and structure team without Guendouzi, Torreira and (even) Ozil? Three players who were central to the Emery (failed) era. We need to move them on so Arteta can restructure and continue the rebuild. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, he need 2+ transfer windows. He needs that balance of world-class players alongside our Hale End kids. He needs to maximize the opportunities for Aubameyang but having quality players unlock opposition defenses. Otherwise there was no point in re-signing our captain.

I remain relentlessly optimistic about this team now. Even though we lost, I have yet more belief in this manager and therefore this team. Even his after-match interview was reminiscent of the old days of Wenger. He was calm, rationale and realistic about the entire performance. He clearly understands our weaknesses and where we need to improve. We just need to give him the time and the players in order to do this.

I do wonder whether the lack of fans is helping Arteta. It removes the pressure from the players while they are having to make so many adjustments. And it allows him to instruct them from the sidelines without being drowned out by the noise. At this stage of both his career and at this stage of the team, that’s invaluable. And for the younger, less experienced players it allows them to play with less fear.

So, one more trip to Liverpool for the stupid Cup. I’ll watch it but really don’t care. Sunday versus Sheffield United is more compelling. This will be a chance to see whether we can create and dominate. Today was about defending and counter-attacking. Sunday will be completely different. It will be another opportunity to see some incremental progress. And that makes us worth watching again.


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