There has been a moment in every recent Arsenal season when it became apparent that the gap with the true Premier League contenders is still a bit wider than the Gunners had thought, or hoped – a game, or a run of them, when it became clear that they were still some way off making a real title challenge.
Last year, it came right away, when new manager Unai Emery dropped his first two matches in charge to the last two champions, Manchester City and Chelsea. The year before, a loss at Stoke City on Matchday 2 and a 4-0 walloping at the hands of Liverpool the following week brought perspective. The season prior to that, Arsenal overcame a tentative start to surge to the top of the table, only to lose two games in a row to drop out of first place and later fell out of the title race entirely.
This season, Arsenal won its first two league games for the first time since the 2009-10 season. And at Liverpool on Saturday, it aimed to make it three for the first time since 2004-05. The trouble was, Arsenal’s away record at Anfield has been woeful of late, having conceded an average of 3.66 goals per game in its last six visits.
Looked at that way, the 3-1 loss was perhaps a mark of minor progress.
But it also underscored the danger in reading too much into Arsenal’s 1-0 away win at a pitiful Newcastle United or even the more credible 2-1 victory over Burnley. These had been the only two teams going into their third match with a perfect record. Just one re-emerged. Because in the face of the European champions, who also posted one of the all-time great domestic seasons last year despite finishing behind Manchester City, Arsenal was found out.
On the evidence of this match, Arsenal’s defense is still suspect, its midfield struggles to hold its territory, and the attack lacks spark. Liverpool, as per its habit, pressed high and Arsenal absorbed. It made for a first half that was very good fun. But in the second, the Reds simply ran roughshod over the visitors, who threatened to crumple after the third goal, suggesting more could well have followed had Liverpool pressed the issue.
Arsenal gave away lots and produced little. Liverpool had ample shots before the break, but most of them were from tricky spots. The Gunners were gifted an early chance by Adrian, still standing in for injured Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson. He once again cleared a ball poorly, right into the feet of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose lofted finish, with a high degree of difficulty, fell just wide.
Adrian made amends after the half-hour mark, when he parried Nicolas Pepe. Arsenal’s record signing made his full debut but finished meekly on a breakaway.
The Spanish netminder’s opposite number, Bernd Leno, couldn’t prevent Joel Matip’s commanding header from a 41st-minute corner from going in.
If Arsenal had any ideation of turning things around in the second half, those notions were soon undone by their central defender David Luiz, ever gaffe-prone even now that he’s taken off the Chelsea jersey.
He quite blatantly pulled Mohamed Salah’s jersey in his own box. The Egyptian eagerly converted the penalty kick himself.
Just before the hour, Salah did some more Salah things. He beat Luiz to the ball on the sideline and then ran by everybody before slotting the ball past Leno to put the game fully out of reach.
It was a disheartening wake-up call for Arsenal as Liverpool strolled to the final whistle. Emery’s side finally got on the scoreboard until the 85th minute, when Lucas Torreira capitalized on some unenthusiastic defending.
The rare bright spot was Pepe, the author of what little threat his team managed to muster. Aside from his botched one-on-one, he also sent Aubameyang through with a splendid slide-rule pass, although the striker was closed down well by Matip.
And for his efforts, Pepe at the very least became the owner of a remarkable statistic, managing to become the first man to successfully dribble past the Reds’ imperious defender Virgil van Dijk – a candidate for the world player of the year award – in 50 Premier League matches.
50 - Nicolas Pepe has become the first player to successfully dribble past Virgil van Dijk in the Dutch defender's last 50 appearances in the Premier League, since Mikel Merino in March 2018 for Newcastle. Beaten. pic.twitter.com/B1oRZMciOB— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 24, 2019
It’s been a truism for some time now that the only teams capable of competing for a Premier League title are those that have played together, in largely the same setup, for a few years consecutively. Arsenal is still making wholesale changes to its team in this second year of the post-Arsene Wenger era. And it’s already apparent that the Gunners won’t partake in the title race this year either.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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