There are some days when soccer makes sense. When actions lead to reactions and results. When successes and failures can be easily explained. Friday was not one of those days in North London.
Arsenal and Liverpool have played to 3-3 draws before. Two seasons ago, they battled to a memorable one that featured some of the most quality a Premier League game has ever seen. Friday’s wasn’t that. Not quite. Instead, it swapped out quality for drama. Its many imperfections made it downright silly.
A frantic Arsenal comeback out of nowhere took the Gunners from 2-0 down and woeful to 3-2 up and joyous in a span of five minutes. The brilliant third goal prompted celebrations as incredulous as they were rapturous. Mesut Ozil, who scored it, looked as stunned as anybody:
But Liverpool had the final say, and it was enabled by some shambolic Arsenal defending befitting of the night at the Emirates. Some teams park buses. Arsenal left a bus-sized gap in the center of defense, and invited Liverpool to drive right through it toward 3-3:
Arsenal had no business being in the game at halftime. And then when Mohamed Salah eased past a sleepy Gunners defense and put Liverpool 2-0 up, Arsenal wasn’t in the game.
Four minutes later, it was level.
Two minutes after that, it was ahead.
Arsenal was truly pathetic for 52 minutes. It was sloppy, poorly structured and lethargic. The first half was almost a carbon copy of the inept 4-0 loss at Anfield earlier in the season.
It was unclear whether Jack Wilshere or Granit Xhaka was the holding midfielder in Arsene Wenger’s reborn 4-3-3, because in reality neither was. Liverpool seemingly had infinite space in midfield, and even at the top of the attacking third. Wilshere’s unforced errors led to turnovers and counters. Xhaka was simply invisible.
Arsenal’s vulnerability finally proved costly in the 26th minute. Wilshere and Xhaka spent an extraordinary amount of time throughout the half chasing back from behind the play. On one occasion, they couldn’t catch up to Philippe Coutinho:
Firmino and others came close to doubling the lead in the first half. The Brazilian had sent a header just wide at the back post before his countryman’s opener. After it, he dipped inside and fizzed a shot over the Arsenal crossbar. Dejan Lovren flubbed a volley. Salah was denied by Petr Cech, and Sadio Mane attempted a wild scissor-kick at the rebound when a simple side-foot finish would have done just fine.
The Reds themselves were pretty sloppy in the final third, and failed to punish Arsenal for its lackadaisical play on both sides of the ball. But they still had chances. The first-half shot map told a pretty accurate story:
— xMetrics (@x_metrics) December 22, 2017
Nothing changed at halftime. Arsenal needlessly got caught with numbers forward, and Liverpool broke. Salah’s shot deflected past Petr Cech.
But just as the “Arsenal in crisis!” storm began to pick up, suddenly it was 2-1. Joe Gomez fell asleep at the back post, and Alexis Sanchez ghosted in for a free header:
And then it was 2-2, thanks to, uh, Simon Mignolet:
Xhaka’s shot was expertly struck and knuckling. But Mignolet’s decision to stab at it with one hand, rather than get two palms or arms behind it, was inexcusable and costly.
And then two minutes later, unbelievably, it was 3-2. The mistake-prone Liverpool keeper didn’t exactly shower himself in glory on the third, either. But it was difficult to point fingers of blame when an entire stadium and millions of viewers were hypnotized by Ozil’s give-and-go with Alexandre Lacazette.
Arsenal couldn’t hold the lead, and didn’t deserve to. On the balance of the 90 minutes, the hosts were shocking. After recovering from the August disaster at Anfield, they have regressed into less than stellar form. Friday was the culmination of the regression. Or at least it could have been. Despite conceding the final of the match’s six goals, Arsenal should feel fortunate to escape with a point.
But neither team will be particularly happy with it. Liverpool might have taken a draw had it been offered pre-match, but its inability to close out games has become a worrying pattern. As James Milner told Sky Sports after the match, “we’ve got to become more boring” with the lead.
James Milner with the quote of the night… pic.twitter.com/UQ1YTs0lcq
— Manish Bhasin (@_manishbhasin) December 22, 2017
But no neutral is complaining. Every single one of them is pleased with the 90 minutes. And perhaps still out of breath from the six-minute stretch that featured four goals, the comeback of the season, and one of several capricious swings from two teams that might as well have a joint patent on them.
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