In a mixing studio somewhere deep in the Premier League’s plague bunker, a young sound engineer was, one suspects, given only a moment’s pause. Just what crowd effect do you play after an error by Virgil van Dijk? The Ride of the Valkyries? The gathering rainclouds of impending apocalypse? Perhaps sensibly, they went with the safe option of an Arsenal cheer, which managed to convey most of the home team’s elation but very little of the seismic shock, the existential befuddlement: like being told there’s no such thing as Belgium, or that potato waffles are actually made of fur.
For some time after conceding their unexpected equaliser, you could glimpse a similar wild psychosis in Liverpool’s players, the baffled stupor of a team who had just had the very fabric of their reality ripped from around them. Shortly before half-time, their garlanded goalkeeper Alisson made an even worse error to gift Arsenal the lead. And though they recovered their moorings, reasserting their supremacy and putting Arsenal under increasing pressure as the second half went on, it was ultimately that sort of night: one on which new, screwball visions of the future fleetingly presented themselves.
Is this how champions eventually get dethroned? By tiny degrees, by an imperceptible slip in standards? Certainly Liverpool’s challengers would like to think so, that their uncharacteristic carelessness here was a portent of something larger, that in some important sense the starting gun on the 2020-21 campaign has already been fired. In truth, their lapses were largely a result of the inevitable drop in intensity that all title-winners undergo – remember West Brom 5-5 Manchester United? – and that even against a team with real, tangible goals to play for, an exhausted, soft-pedalling Liverpool side were still utterly dominant.
Meanwhile, for Arsenal this was the sort of victory that revealed very little of Mikel Arteta’s overarching vision. Unless, of course, that vision entails 31% possession, managing three shots and allowing 24, and defender Kieran Tierney completing just 42% of his passes. Waiting on errors from the world’s best defender and one of the world’s best goalkeepers is not the sort of sustainable strategy that tends to sway ambitious sporting directors these days.
And yet for all this there were at least signs of something: twitches of resilience, shoots of promise, the tactical deftness that saw Arteta switch to a withdrawn 5-2-1-2 in the second half with two wingers and no recognisable centre-forward.
Arteta realised that the second half would feel radically different to the first, that Liverpool would invariably seek to build from the flanks, and that there was no point in installing a mannequin up front who would see virtually none of the ball. Further back, too, there were cautious signs of progress, of Arsenal players willing to put their bodies on the line, willing to maintain positional discipline in the face of the expected Liverpool onslaught. Well, mostly. There was a point in the second half when David Luiz ventured forward for an Arsenal corner, only for the goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez to order him back: “David! No! Where the fuck are you going?”
And yet to single David Luiz out would be to downplay the extent to which Arsenal are still collectively capable of orchestrating their own downfall. Liverpool’s goal in the 20th minute was the perfect example of this: an unlikely accumulation of errors and infelicities that turned a perfectly innocuous situation into a certain Liverpool goal.
First Martínez was forced to kick long because neither David Luiz nor Tierney showed for the ball. Then Cédric Soares challenged for a header he could not possibly win, injuring himself in the process and putting him out of action while Andy Robertson bombed on. Then Lucas Torreira inexplicably tried to tackle fresh air. Then David Luiz abandoned his position to track the run of Robertson. By now Rob Holding, blindsided by Robertson’s run, was effectively useless. By now Granit Xhaka had spotted the danger, but too late. That is how you turn a promising possession into a Sadio Mané tap-in seven yards out.
And for all the plaudits Arsenal will receive, that is the sort of thing that still seems to happen far too often. According to Jürgen Klopp, Arsenal are “proper challengers” again. They may even just scrape into Europe again this season. But forging them into a winning machine will require nothing less than a culture shift, and with only eight weeks until the start of next season, there are still few signs of it.
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