That was tough.
While Arsenal being beaten is not as rare as it used to be, being beaten like they were today at Anfield against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is rare. After starting strong, Unai Emery’s men were overcome by the league leaders, as the Reds showed exactly how they have become the 4th team to go unbeaten into a new year during a Premier League campaign.
A Roberto Firmino hat-trick was Arsenal’s undoing, along with first half goals from Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Ainsley Maitland-Niles put Arsenal in front early on, but Klopp’s team were always in command in a game that showed Liverpool to be genuine title contenders, and showed that Arsenal still have a great deal of work to do.
The last game of 2019 started with optimism – a win would allow Arsenal to leapfrog Chelsea into the Champions League positions, if only for a day.
Arsenal’s defence - undoubtedly the weak point on the day - unexpectedly included Shkrodan Mustafi, but was missing Nacho Monreal, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin through injury.
Liverpool had a daunting forward line that included Firmino, Mane, and Xherdan Shaqiri behind Salah.
We will start, as Arsenal did, with the one positive of the day – Arsenal’s goal. Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren gave the ball away carelessly in midfield, and Arsenal pounced: Alex Iwobi made a sprint with the ball into space before driving it, inch-perfectly to an oncoming Ainsley Maitland-Niles at the back post, who had an easy finish as he was unmarked.
The goal was amazingly only the 8th Liverpool have conceded all season (if you doubled this number they would still have conceded the least amount of goals in the league, which is a testament to their new-look defence). To find the smallest of silver linings, Maitland-Niles goal – his first senior league goal for the club - stops Liverpool from recording the lowest amount of goals conceded after 20 matches in the Premier League.
In an almost immediate retort to Arsenal going one-nil up, Liverpool were back in the game, and then ahead. Firmino scored his first on 14 minutes – some confusion in the box and a favourable ricochet meant the opportunity arose for the Brazilian to poke the ball into the net with a no-look finish.
Seconds later, he had scored a far more impressive goal. Weaving his way through 3 Arsenal players, Firmino did everything himself, arriving in the box and slotting the ball past Bernd Leno, who couldn’t do much. Firmino has appeared to be quieter this season, making his presence known in terms of assists rather than goals, with Salah playing in a more advanced position, but today at Anfield he was as good as he’s ever been in a Liverpool shirt.
Before the half hour mark, Arsenal were growing into the game. Reds stopper Allison made a wonderful save when Lucas Torreira found Mustafi’s head, tipping the ball onto the bar. It was adjudged to be offside, but the Brazilian goalkeeper didn’t know that.
And then, the game was over as a contest. A long, lopped diagonal ball finds its way into the path of Salah on 32 minutes, and the Egyptian makes no mistake in getting the ball into the perfect place for Mane to tap the ball into the away net from just a few yards out.
After the goal, tempers perhaps flared a little and Granit Xhaka went in hard on Andy Robertson. The Swiss midfielder was given a yellow, although the crowd wanted more.
As if things weren’t bad enough, and in complete contrast to the strong opening, Liverpool continued to push on, and just before the stroke of half time, Liverpool had a penalty. A route one move between Alisson and Salah was interrupted by Sokratis nipping at the heels of the attacking player, and a spot kick was given.
Salah, with a long run up, put an unstoppable effort on Arsenal’s goal, and it was 4-1 and half-time.
The game was over at the half whistle, but the second half was yet to come – it really was just a mission to stop it from being farcical at this stage because there was no chance Arsenal were getting back into this.
After a rip roaring start from the home team that seen them have several fine chances either stopped or squandered, they finally got their breakthrough – another penalty.
This time the culprit was Kolasinac, who pushed over Lovren in the penalty area. There was only one man to take the kick – and Firmino put it away with ease, bagging the match ball as a souvenir in the process.
There was still 25 minutes left to play at this point, but 5 goals against a side that has conceded only 8 over the course of 20 matches seemed like a bit of an ask.
Lacazette came on in the second half (for Aubameyang, who had a very uninvolved game, with most of his touches coming from tip-off) and perhaps should have had a penalty just as the game entered its dying embers, but aside from that, it looked more likely the Reds would extend their lead. Full time, Liverpool 5, Arsenal 1.
This was perhaps a pivotal moment in Liverpool’s season, a real outclassing of an opponent that would be perceived to be at least on par with them. They now sit 9 points ahead of Tottenham – who lost today against Wolves – and amazingly 10 points ahead of Manchester City, who play at St Marys against Southampton tomorrow.
Arsenal on the other hand look fearfully close to arriving back into the purgatorial position they sat in last season. If Chelsea win tomorrow then they will be 5 points off 4th place, and currently sit 6 points ahead of Manchester United in 6th.
While this result is clearly the worst of the season, it comes on the back of some other poor results. Losses to Southampton in the league and Spurs in the cup, as well as last weekend’s draw at Brighton show an Arsenal side that have lost some of the potency that seen them go on a 22 match unbeaten run. It will be imperative for Emery to regain this clinical edge, starting on New Year’s Day back at the Emirates against Fulham.