When news broke out yesterday that Alisson might not be available for this game, I became nervous. We certainly could handle the missing Thiago; after all, he hasn’t really had a chance to own his spot in the team yet. But Alisson is a different matter, and with all love and respect to Adrian, this would have made things a tad more difficult. I wrote to my Gunners fan friend, with whom I had set up a watch party for the game, and fessed up, and he seemed hopeful. Seeing Alisson suited up and read to go eased my mind.
Looks like I didn’t need to worry.
Arsenal scored with its only shot in the first half, and even that was, with apologies to Lemony Snicket, the result of a series of unfortunate events. The careless turnover started it. Then for Robbo to have made that error on a pretty terrible pass inside was unusual. And for Lacazette to fluff his shot in exactly the right way to get the ball past Alisson who, judging by the former’s body position, otherwise would have likely parried it, was to add insult to injury. But there it was, and Arsenal were ahead… for a couple of minutes.
There is something about this Liverpool team and the way it can go up one more gear that defines it in moments like this, and must be in the minds of its opponents, because the Reds seem to be able to turn the tide more often than not. Mane’s tap-in after a typically explosive rushing Salah tested Leno was only appropriate. Coming as it did so quickly after their own goal must have felt at least somewhat demoralizing for the Gunners. It took only a few minutes for that feeling to become acute, as the two Liverpool full backs combined for one more. That pass by Trent, who had a lively game and was only denied his own goal by the crossbar earlier in the match, was a real peach, and Robbo made up for his earlier mistake by scoring as a typical center forward would.
The Grinder was definitely on.
It didn’t really stop in the second half, and had the Reds not been wasteful, they could have knocked a few more balls past poor Leno. But as the oldest cliché in football states, if you don’t score, they do, and Lacazette came extremely close to doubling his and his team’s tally. Were it not for the onrushing Alisson who somehow managed to grow six more limbs and double in size, he would have.
Our keeper is definitely a keeper.
Then it came time for Klopp to make some changes, and let one Diogo Jota come on for the last ten minutes. And just like Thiago against Chelsea, he was immediately impressive. In Jota’s case, it meant pressing the ball, finding the right positions, and generally making a huge nuisance out of himself. He could have easily scored three in ten minutes; he missed one by only a little, and had another pretty much taken from him in a fantastic defensive move, albeit in the wrong box, by a frustrated, goal-hungry Salah. That very same Salah made a similarly brilliant intervention a bit earlier on the right side of the pitch, cementing his unusual role as a box-to-box striker.
In the end, Jota still got one, and it was gorgeous, with Jota’s shape as he struck the ball seemingly lifted straight out of EA’s FIFA green room. There was nothing Leno could do but watch wistfully as it sailed into the net. If this is the kind of impact Jota can consistently bring to the team, then it is clear that Klopp has made another brilliant, moneyball acquisition.
Before choosing a man of the match, it’s important to note what, or rather who, appears a bit shaky. I can only hope that this is temporary, but Virgil Van Dijk is simply not playing up to his usual, alien-level standard. He is the primary reason Liverpool looks a little more exposed in the back right now. If he does get his mojo back, then fans can begin to really dream about a possible repeat. If he doesn’t… well, Leeds have already shown what an alert, prepared team can do in the season’s opener.
Right. Sadio Mane certainly looked hungry and able, and made his presence known throughout the game, and is playing on a new, truly world class level these days. He’s an easy choice. But one other front three member had an enormous game. Bobby Firmino has basically created a new kind of attacking role that is all his own, where his greatest contributions are measured in how downright annoying he is to the opposition way up front. A holding forward, if you will. He really doesn’t seem to care whether he scores or not, although he certainly can, and it’s not the focus of his game. He is so essential to this Liverpool and yet all too often he seems to melt into the background. The Gunners today had to deal with his relentless pesky nature, and simply couldn’t. He doesn’t get highlighted a lot for what he does in games like this, but he at least gets the thumbs up from me.
And so the only remaining question is… what is this team going to do when Matip, Hendo, and Thiago are back?