Liverpool stamped their authority on the title race by dishing out a brutal shellacking of a ramshackle Arsenal side.
The visitors made four changes to the side that scraped a point against Brighton but were never at the races despite taking an early lead. A smart piece of work from Alex Iwobi allowed Maitland-Niles to sweep in from close range after only 11 minutes. The lead lasted just three minutes though, as a pin ball style ricochet landed at the feet of Firmino a yard out, who knocked into the open net. Two minutes later the Brazilian turned the match on its head. The famous high Liverpool press yielded the ball to Firmino who waltzed through and calmly rolled past Leno.
Worse was to follow on the half hour mark as a raking ball by Andy Robertson found Salah, who punched the ball into the turf allowing Sadio Mane to sidefoot high into the net. And on the stroke of half time, more comical defending gifted a penalty to Salah, who gratefully smashed in to make it 4-1 at half time.
The second half came and went without much threat of a comeback, allowing Jurgen Klopp to rest players for Manchester City on Thursday, while Arsenal contemplate a transfer window and a team still resembling the haunting remnants of the Wenger era. There was still time for another ludicrous piece of defending to give Liverpool a second penalty, which Roberto Firmino stroked home to claim a hat trick as Liverpool went nine points clear at the top.
Firmino joins in the fun
In the match report for the reverse fixture I remarked how Klopp would want the Brazilian forward to combine last season’s goal threat to his work rate and teamwork. Since then Firmino has played deeper than Salah and whilst his running, pressing and interplay have helped propel his team to the Premier League summit, it has stunted his goalscoring ability. So much so that Saturday’s goals were his first league goals at Anfield this season.
Firmino was a constant menace and his performance as part of the front four brought back memories of last season’s swashbuckling style that has been slightly tempered in order to create a balanced, league-topping juggernaut. If Firmino adds goals to his performances this season, the title run in will be even easier than Liverpool are currently making it look.
Arsenal’s defensive chaos strikes again
One of the most damning pieces of evidence that Arsene Wenger had lost his touch late on was Arsenal’s propensity to visit a fellow top six team and leave after a four, five, six, eight goal drubbing. By and large Emery has quickly implemented an attitude change at Arsenal, but tonight was a reminder how much he still has to do.
Experienced defenders Mustafi and Lichsteiner have looked dreadful all season, with Sokratis holding things together. Laurent Koscielny still looks a long way from returning to his best. Tonight was the perfect storm of incompetence. The three centre backs tonight – Sokratis, Mustafi and Lichsteiner – spent most of the first half arguing with each other and their tackling for Firmino’s second was as flimsy as discarded wrapping paper.
The third goal saw Arsenal clear a set piece before all charging out blindly, allowing Robertson to find an unmarked Salah to square for Mane. And the decision making by Kolasinac, Sokratis and Lichsteiner for the two penalties was bizarre at best.
Emery will look to replace most if not all of his back six, but one look at tonight’s opposition may provide a clue as to how hard it is. If Emery can be given 250 million pounds and find an 8 million pound left back from Hull City he will be fine. If not he may have a few more nights like Saturday.
Emery needs to stamp his authority and be given the help to do so
The issues with the defence aside there are clearly still problems at Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey will leave the club in the summer and will spend the New Year deciding whether to play for Juventus or PSG. Yet despite this and having been left out of the team, playing just 203 minutes over the last 12 league games, Ramsey was deemed captain material away at table topping Liverpool. Mesut Ozil again missed out amid rumours of minor injuries and dressing room bust ups.
Will Emery be given the time, money and authority to change this squad? In an era where managers are a lot cheaper and easier to move on than players, Arsenal need to let Emery move on a lot of this squad and start again, otherwise the route back to the top four will be a long one.
Maitland-Niles a star in the making?
The young Englishman had a torrid opening day playing out of position against Manchester City. Only a broken foot stopped the pain against Mahrez and Sterling.
A few months later we saw the real Maitland-Niles. As well as stealing in for the opening goal he gave Andy Robertson a hard time, especially in the first half that saw the Scotsman booked and given a chasing for the first time all season. Maitland-Niles created a few half chances for Ramsey and Aubameyang and was the only Arsenal player to carry any threat.
With Arsenal in transition and England on the rise with youngsters, Maitland-Niles could be a valuable member of both squads if tonight is any indication.
Bang-average Liverpool in title box seat
How good have Liverpool been in 2018? Incredible. How good were they tonight? Not at their sparkling best. The defence was breached early, the midfield was only decent without taking into account the man of the match Wijnaldum.
Shaqiri couldn’t get himself involved. Mane was quiet other than his tap-in, whilst Salah was his normal effective self without the spark and wizardry we usually see. Firmino scored a good hat trick. All that lead to a performance that probably wouldn’t rank among their top ten this year. The result? A 5-1 mullering of fifth place Arsenal. Stunning. A first title in 29 years is surely on its way if they avoid defeat against Manchester City next week.