One performance, one result, of course, doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly fine. Liverpool have been here often enough before this season, particularly in London, not to believe that the storm has now passed. Nobody should be drawing sweeping conclusions, good or bad, from games against an Arsenal side that remains wildly inconsistent. But there was perhaps enough in Saturday’s 3-0 win at the Emirates for Liverpool to begin to recover some faith in themselves and their methods.
But first the caveats. When Liverpool won 7-0 at Crystal Palace a week before Christmas, the feeling was that they had found their rhythm at last, that they’d worked through the scratchiness of the early part of the season. It turned out the scratchiness had been the good bit. They didn’t win any of their next five, but then won impressively at Tottenham and West Ham, where Mohammed Salah scored one of the season’s great goals. Blip over? It had barely begun: they lost six of their next seven in the league. So however dominant they were against Arsenal, it’s probably worth reserving judgement for a while.
The fixture list shows a worrying absence of further league games in London, where they have dropped just two points in six games this season, although there could be a Champions League semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge. (Memo to John W Henry: if you do decide to push ahead with this super league idea, maybe consider moving the franchise to the capital? Daniel Levy may have a stadium to offer you.)
But what happened on Saturday showed the quality that remains in this Liverpool side. The press looked sharp again to the point that Arsenal could barely get out of their half before the break, and it led directly to the third goal. Again it must be acknowledged that Arsenal are a side who regularly get themselves into trouble playing out from the back and that their structure might not have been so vulnerable had they not been without five key players, but still, the remorselessness of Liverpool, in the first half particularly, was a reminder of how, at their best, they can smother opponents.
Jürgen Klopp was delighted with that aspect of his side’s play, noting “our counter-pressing was at the highest level … in general the defending of the whole team looked exactly how it should look.” That should concern Real Madrid, Liverpool’s opponents in the Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday, given how rattled they were by Manchester City’s press last season.
International week may have come at just the right time to refresh, reset and recharge. The three Brazilians, Nat Phillips, James Milner, Thiago Alcântara and, perhaps most crucially, Trent Alexander-Arnold – that is, seven of Saturday’s starting line-up – remained in Liverpool. Perhaps even for those who were playing for their countries, the change of environment helped to break the cycle of negativity, but for so many of the squad to have a break before the final quarter of the season can only be beneficial.
Alexander-Arnold’s form had been improving anyway after a difficult spell before Christmas, but this was probably his brightest performance of the season. His cross for the opening goal was magnificent, and he played a critical role in the third goal as well. Which can be spun one of two ways: either it highlights Gareth Southgate’s folly in leaving him out of the last England squad, or it vindicates the decision absolutely, drawing the best from the player. At this stage perhaps the best response is that the luxury England have with their glut of talented right-backs is that Southgate can afford to give a player feeling his way back some time off.
The other huge positive for Klopp was the performance of Diogo Jota, who continued the goalscoring form he had demonstrated for Portugal with two further goals after coming off the bench, taking his tally to six from his last four games. Every time he plays he offers a glimpse of what might have been this season.
The concentration of injuries at centre-back understandably, and rightly, draws most of the attention, but Liverpool have also been undermined by the absences for long spells of Thiago and Jota, who have still started only one league game together. They were supposed to be Liverpool’s solution to the danger of entropy that haunts all sides who have been together for a protracted period, but particularly those who have completed a long-standing quest such as the league title.
Thiago changes the dynamic of the midfield, offering Liverpool the option to retain possession rather than playing always with the same ferocious tempo; Jota is an intelligent forward who can refresh the front three. Not only have both been injured themselves, but their integration has been hampered by injuries to others. Thiago especially, rather than being gradually introduced into a smoothly functioning machine, has been asked to hold together a mechanism in danger of falling apart. He may or may not be a success for Liverpool, but this is not the time to judge.
It was only Arsenal, and a sub-strength Arsenal at that. Nobody should think the crisis is over. But what Saturday showed was that there is still life in this season for Liverpool, and hope for the future beyond that. The two potential targets that remain this season at least now are conceivable: chase down Chelsea and/or Leicester to finish in the top four, and then aim for glory in Istanbul.