Arsenal failed to follow the law of what Mikel Arteta described as the “jungle” of Anfield as his side ceded significant control in the Premier League title race in a thrilling draw at Liverpool.
The Gunners boss’ attempts to familiarise his players with Anfield’s hostile environment included making his players train with the strains of the Liverpool anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as a backing track to training sessions last season.
That all went awry when Arteta got involved in a touchline spat with opposite number Jurgen Klopp with the scoreline goalless, Liverpool and Anfield then exploding in fury and Arsenal crashing to a 4-0 loss.
So the rules were clear when they arrived at Anfield hoping to restore an eight-point lead at the top of the table.
Do not make Liverpool angry. Do not make Anfield angry.
It was all sweet and serene for Arteta’s side as they led 2-0 with half-time approaching, goals from Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus a fair reflection of an outstanding display up to that point. Liverpool were downtrodden and the only noise at Anfield came from joyous Arsenal fans and the sound of frustration from the Kop.
And then Granit Xhaka foolishly forgot all the lessons, got involved in a totally needless flashpoint with Trent Alexander-Arnold, enraging Liverpool’s players and – just as significantly – Anfield, as it suddenly became the sort of frenzied bearpit this stadium and this crowd feeds off.
Do not poke the bear in the bearpit. Except Xhaka did, with inevitable results.
Mohamed Salah’s goal three minutes before half-time set up a second-half siege and what looked like three points for Arsenal became one after Roberto Firmino’s late equaliser, and could easily have been none after a frantic finale.
Salah missed the chance to equalise when he failed to hit the target with a penalty for the second time in succession after Rob Holding fouled Diogo Jota.
Suddenly it was Arsenal hanging on, needing to show the resolve they have demonstrated so often this season, to withstand the pressure as volume levels rose.
The visitors’ keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who had kept his team level with a save from Darwin Nunez when he was clean through, was a heroic figure in the closing moments as he produced a magnificent fingertip save from Salah then miraculously kept out Ibrahima Konate’s bundled effort from virtually on the goalline in the dying seconds. Salah even missed a great chance at the far post as Liverpool pushed for victory.
It ended 2-2 and now Manchester City have it in their own hands to win the title; six points behind the leaders with a game in hand and a home match against them to come.
Arsenal have endured such unrelenting misery in recent years at Liverpool, where they have not won since 2012, that they may have accepted a point before kick-off even with their outstanding form, but there was pain etched on faces as Firmino rose to head home.
So was this one point gained or two lost?
The answer can only come at the end of the season but there must be a level of disappointment for Arsenal at having a 2-0 lead, and complete command, only to end with just a point.
And there is no doubt Xhaka’s intervention changed the atmosphere and led to an overall loss of the away side’s discipline for a few crucial minutes before half-time. It could have all been so different had they gone in with the full advantage rather than a reduced one.
If Liverpool needed any further firing up, it came from the most unlikely source as referee’s assistant Constantine Hatzidakis appeared to elbow Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson as the teams went off at half-time. It was a remarkable incident and is already under review from the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOL).
Once the dust settles on this incident-packed encounter, there was still so much to admire about Arsenal’s performance as they cruised around Anfield as smooth as silk for the first 40 minutes, previous nightmares here seemingly banished from the memory.
Martinelli took full toll on Alexander-Arnold’s defensive frailties while Virgil van Dijk again looked nothing like the imperious central defender who had such a hold on attackers in his pomp.
There is no doubt, however, that this felt like Arsenal allowing a psychologically huge win to get away from them, such was their vast superiority in the first half, while Arteta’s late introduction of defender Jakub Kiwior into this Anfield hothouse in place of captain Martin Odegaard raised a few eyebrows.
Arteta’s side have shown an ability to regroup from any perceived setbacks this season, showing a character and resilience many have doubted in the past and ultimately this was a game they could have lost, which would have been a devastating blow.
Ramsdale took the acclaim from Arsenal’s fans, relieved at surviving with a point, after the final whistle.
The Gunners still have that game at Manchester City as well as a testing trip to Newcastle United to come – and now they must hope the manner in which they squandered a position of such authority at Anfield does not come back to haunt them.
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