Photo by Wonker Wonker – via Wikimedia Commons)
As Arsenal battled to a 1-1 draw against Liverpool on Sunday, pundits and fans alike were quick to denounce any notion of a “false dawn” at Unai Emery’s Arsenal.
In this young season, Arsenal have already embarked on an 11-match winning run, and are currently 14 games unbeaten. It is perplexing that many onlookers refused to credit Emery’s team until they had avoided defeat by Liverpool.
Perhaps the critics were justified. Several of Arsenal’s games during their winning run could have been beyond Arsenal’s reach by half-time. It was a common sight for Arsenal fans to witness a shaky defensive performance for 45 minutes, followed by an attacking masterclass.
Theoretically, Liverpool could have been Arsenal’s kryptonite. With their whirlwind attack of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah, the game truly could have been out of reach by half-time.
When Arsenal have attacked this season, their midfielders have tended to squeeze into the middle of the pitch, creating space out wide for their full-backs to surge into. It is effective when Arsenal keeps the ball, but it leaves them susceptible to counter-attacks.
The prospect of facing Salah and Mane, two of the league’s most dangerous counter-attacking players, appeared ominous.
They had done it before against Arsenal – notably, during their 4-0 demolition of Arsenal last season. The most traumatizing moment of that game came when Salah dispossessed Hector Bellerin directly off a clearing header from an Arsenal corner. He then proceeded to run 70 yards with the ball before slotting home.
It set Salah up for a season of record-breaking feats. It set Arsenal up for another season of disappointment.
Playing Liverpool has repeatedly been an uncomfortable, if not sickening experience for the Gunners. To revisit the last time they had beaten them, you would have to go back to April 2015.
In 2016, they slashed Arsenal’s preseason optimism by putting four past them at the Emirates on the opening day of the season.
In February 2014, when Arsenal faced Liverpool, they had been top of the table for months. Title hopes were quietly transforming into title expectations. Liverpool scored four in the first 20 minutes, eventually winning 5-1. It was the trigger for the spring capitulation that became synonymous with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal sides.
By drawing to Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal did not fail the Liverpool test. But then again, it cannot be lauded as a great success.
After all, they could have easily lost.
Mane, for example, had a goal wrongly disallowed. Salah was menacing throughout. Virgil Van Dijk missed an easy chance and later hit the post. These shaky defensive moments continue to exist in Arsenal’s game.
Still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. This was a marked improvement from Arsenal’s opening day defeat to Manchester City.
Furthermore, Arsenal entered the match with a weakened back four. Full-backs Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac came into the game with questionable fitness. Although it is too soon to say whether Laurent Koscielny will return to fitness with the consistency that has made him the team’s primary leader – many would argue that he and Sokratis will be Arsenal’s first choice central defensive pairing, rather than Saturday’s starters Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi.
Holding’s performance was a particularly encouraging aspect of the game. Many credit Virgil Van Dijk’s arrival for Liverpool’s improvement in 2018. To make a similar step, Arsenal will need a dominant centre-back pairing. If Holding were to fulfill his great potential, it would be a massive step in the right defensive direction for Arsenal.
An even greater positive was another stellar performance from new arrival Lucas Torreira. A pitbull in midfield, he symbolizes a correction that Emery has instantly made. For years under Wenger, fans cried out for a defensive midfielder. In Torreira, they look to have landed a central defensive gem.
Arsenal must take these positives forward into what will be a challenging schedule in November and early December. Their next two opponents in the Premier League, Wolves and Bournemouth, have the form to cause them problems. After that, they face Tottenham and Manchester United in the same week. Then, we shall witness their biggest test yet.