Attacking football comes at a high price for Arsenal and Liverpool

It was a case of Happy Christmas, love from the Premier League. 

Attacking football comes at a high price for Arsenal and Liverpool

A game between two teams who can’t defend and who won’t win the title this season; a game which felt less like football at times and more like a cross between basketball, five-a-side, and pinball; but a game which nevertheless provided the kind of adrenalin-filled, high octane, thrill-a-minute night even Santa Claus cannot deliver.

The post-match talk will be about poor defending — and, boy, was some of it poor — and of points dropped in the race to stay even within touching distance of the top two in a league which is running away from both Arsenal and Liverpool.

But the commitment of Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp to playing attacking football was a welcome antidote to the Jose Mourinho philosophy of settling for 0-0 in games against top-four rivals — and far more in keeping with the way leaders Manchester City are setting a new benchmark for how football should be played.

Of course the problem was that this game was Manchester City 2016 vintage rather than 2018 — all the flair but also the feckless, almost comedic, defending which used to make the noisy neighbours a battering ram for the critics rather than the gods they are these days.

Liverpool’s Emre Can (left) and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka battle for the ball . Pic: John Walton/PA Wire

Liverpool’s Emre Can (left) and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka battle for the ball . Pic: John Walton/PA Wire

Right from the start — given memories of last year’s 4-3 — there was an expectation of a goal feast and it certainly delivered, laying bear all the hope and agony both teams carry with them thanks to the combination of flair and flaw which runs through their veins.

Both sides fielded attacking line-ups with Wenger also choosing to go for the pace of young full-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back, trusting him in a battle against Mohamed Salah even though both Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal were available top play the same role.

That showed a high level of trust in a player who had started only two Premier League games before this. He just about justified it, coming through a tough night against Salah to eventually find his feet in difficult circumstances.

Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring his side’s second goal. Pic: John Walton/PA Wire

Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring his side’s second goal. Pic: John Walton/PA Wire

Wenger also showed trust in Jack Wilshere, the midfielder who hopes to earn himself a new contract in the next two weeks. Wilshere started his third match in a row — it’s a long time since he’s done that for Arsenal — in fact this was the first time since November 2014 that he had started for the North Londoners against a top-six side.

A significant night for the England international whichever way you look at it — and although he didn’t excel, he did finish the game and was one of the men who drove Arsenal on after they went 2-0 down and came back to lead 3-2 at one point.

How on earth they got anything from the game is perhaps the biggest mystery of all, however, because Liverpool simply battered Wenger’s side for the first 50 minutes and if it had not been for Petr Cech it could have easily been 5-0 before the home team even woke up and realised they were good enough to mount a challenge.

The pace and movement of Liverpool’s Fab Four was mesmerising at times and although they went ahead through Phillipe Coutinho’s rare headed goal there were many other opportunities wasted as the visitors sliced through Arsenal’s calamitous defence time and time again.

Whether it was Laurent Koscielny falling over, Nacho Monreal losing his man, or the home full-backs being caught out of possession, the Arsenal circus of defending presented Liverpool with chance after chance — ably assisted by carelessness in possession by almost every man in red and white.

When Liverpool went 2-0 up, the traditional goal from Salah, you assumed the match was heading for a landslide; but then the defending circus left town — and turned up in the other half. As Arsenal poured forward after Alexis Sanchez’s headed goal from a Hector Bellerin cross, the Liverpool back line crumbled physically and mentally. Fab Four up front, Drab Four at the back.

Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez reacts during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium. Pic: John Walton/PA Wire

Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez reacts during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium. Pic: John Walton/PA Wire

Suddenly Arsenal were 3-2 up and the atmosphere inside the Emirates was so frantic that it was almost impossible to concentrate; but unfortunately it was Petr Cech, Arsenal’s man of the match until that point, who lost most focus. As Liverpool drove forward in search of an equaliser he let a Firmino effort slip between this palms and into the net. Cue pandemonium in the away end and an even more frantic finale.

The kind of match to leave fans with no fingernails and managers with no hair — and the kind of match which highlights why Arsenal and Liverpool are the wild cards and also-rans of the Premier League. But what a way to kick off the festive season. Winter break? No, thanks.

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