When a stoppage-time equaliser prevents you from taking away all three points, the resulting emotion is often one more familiar with defeat. But as Arsenal and Liverpool entertainingly duked out a six-goal thriller at Anfield yesterday evening, it still felt like a tough point gained rather than two missed for the Gunners – who maintained their position at the Premier League’s summit.
Perhaps counter-intuitively when examining the result on paper alone, last night’s 3-3 draw provided some of the most convincing evidence yet that Arsene Wenger’s side are the safest bet in this season’s title race.
After all, the Gunners found themselves 2-1 down after less than 20 minutes due to two moments of near-unstoppable quality from Roberto Firmino – the Liverpool forward’s second strike, a powerful curler from outside the box, heralding the term ‘worldie’ – yet responded brilliantly, careering up the pitch to draw level courtesy of Olivier Giroud just five minutes later.
Did the north London side take their foot off the gas after the France international made it 3-2 before the hour mark? I don’t think so. Last-minute goals are part of the territory in the Premier League and Joe Allen’s strike took a fortunate deflection to give goalkeeper Petr Cech no chance of stopping it. There was certainly an element of luck involved, considering that was just the fifth goal of the Welshman’s 110-game Liverpool career.
Furthermore, Liverpool are by no means a simple proposition under Jurgen Klopp. They’ve lost just once at Anfield since he took the helm in October and boast an impressive record against the Premier League’s top sides. They’ve beaten Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester City with the German gaffer at the helm and only seem to perform below expectations when facing long-ball teams like Crystal Palace and West Brom.
Although Giroud provided a tactically expedient direct dynamic against the Reds, Arsenal just don’t fall into that category. In fact, Klopp’s ‘gegenpressing’ philosophy is almost tailor-made to stop teams like the Gunners, who create chances through technical flair in tight midfield pockets, shedding light on why the 48-year-old claimed an impressive two wins and one draw from his six Champions League encounters with the north Londoners during his days at Borussia Dortmund.
So the fact the Gunners took a point against the Reds despite having to field a weakened side makes last night’s result all the more impressive. Indeed, it’s been largely forgotten amid their run of seven wins in nine across all competitions that Arsenal are actually without three of their most important players.
Playmaking extraordinaire Santi Cazorla, who spring-boarded practically every Arsenal attack in 2015, Francis Coquelin, who protects his back four as well as any other Premier League enforcer and provides vital balance in the engine room, and Alexis Sanchez, a match-winning talent of genuine world-class proportions, have all been sidelined through injury since late November.
We’ve seen many an Arsenal campaign curtailed by injury crisis before, but the north London outfit are surviving their current one in scintillating style. Likewise, despite Wenger’s well-documented indifference towards the January transfer window, he’s accepted its expediency this year and sourced a much-needed reinforcement in FC Basel midfielder Mohamed Elneny. He could prove to be a very important signing between now and the end of May.
But the biggest positive to take from yesterday’s game, in the context of Arsenal’s title bid, was the individual performance of Olivier Giroud.
I won’t delve into the debate of whether the Frenchman qualifies as world-class, but I will say that no side since 2009 has claimed the Premier League title without their main striker scoring in excess of 20 goals. 16 strikes during the 2013/14 season represents the Frenchman’s best Premier League haul of his Emirates career so far, but he’s almost certain to breach the barrier this term after taking his tally to twelve last night.
We all know how effective the 29-year-old is in bringing others into the game and how important he’s resultantly become to Arsenal’s build-up play. That evident once again against Liverpool; the difference this season, however, is that Giroud’s found the firepower to match everything else he offers as a lone striker.
Of course, there are still 17 games of the season remaining and Arsenal are by no means alone in the title hunt. It seems inevitable Manchester City’s form will take an upturn at some point and Leicester City are continuing to defy all logic – now separated by the Gunners on goal difference alone.
Yet Liverpool represent a real test of title-winning credentials and whilst City and Leicester failed, the Gunners scraped through with a passing grade. Although some may feel slightly underwhelmed by taking a single point after coming so close to winning at Anfield, last night’s performance and result should give Arsenal huge confidence for the remainder of the campaign.