Halfway through the stage of the meticulously poised Carabao Cup semi-final, I found my shirtless Arsenal players beating their bare chests in front of a cheery distant support. What might have been premature celebrations at the final whistle was instead a justifiable outpouring of relief and pride after adversity blossomed at Anfield. from all places.
Mikel Arteta asked his team to show his personality after they were knocked out in the FA Cup third round at Nottingham Forest. minimum. He also needed to show absolute flexibility and focus, when Granit Xhaka received his fifth Arsenal red card after just 24 minutes. These qualities, combined with fighting and organization, have not been entirely synonymous with Arsenal’s performances at this stadium in recent years, but all have been on top as the exhausted visitors contained Liverpool in surprising relief.
They also had a slice of luck when Takumi Minamino scored an open goal in the 90th minute. He was totally deserved. Liverpool’s first shot on goal came only in injury time. The fault lines in their performance had sent chants of frustration audible around Anfield long before that. Jurgen Klopp’s side got 66 minutes plus five minutes of stoppage time to take advantage of Xhaka’s red card and take control of the match. The lack of creativity from picking an overly cautious midfield and the sharpness of an attack that badly missed Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane ensured they weren’t seriously threatened to do so.
Arsenal, already on the decline, lost Cedric Soares with an early hip injury but got off to a vibrant start and was committed to attacking with numbers when the opportunity arose. However, this policy had to be abandoned, when Xhaka received a direct red card to deny Diogo Jota the opportunity to score clear goals, while hitting him in the ribs for a good measure.
A necktie style transformation in an instant. At one point Arsenal were up front as Bukayo Saka broke down the right flank and crossed low towards Eddie Nketiah, who failed to connect with a full extension, as well as Alexandre Lacazette, who was also unable to apply the finishing touch. The next day, it was sculpted in the back by a long diagonal ball from Andy Robertson toward Jota. The Portugal international was teetering on Xhaka’s blind side and was poised to run when the honest, albeit desperate Arsenal midfielder tried to walk away. He made contact with the chest of the Liverpool striker and immediately waved red Michael Oliver.
When the Swiss international slipped, after arguing his lost case with Oliver for a long time, Arteta consulted with his crew in the back room about their emergency procedures. The result was Rob Holding for the unfortunate Nketia and the switch to a five-man defense. The understandable move left the visitors a fragile-looking midfield trio of Saka, Albert Sambi Lukonga and Gabriel Martinelli but the trio responded with tireless and disciplined contributions.
Klopp’s side dominated possession from the start but their most visible opener came against the 11 men from Arsenal. Aaron Ramsdale was lucky when Jordan Henderson dropped his clearance attempt and bounced the ball off the open goal. The goalkeeper stifled the captain’s second bite on the line. Ben White almost made his own goal when he directed a dangerous cross from Minamino away from Roberto Firmino lying off the far post. Robertson’s right-footed shot hits wide Lokonga.
However, the armies toiled for 10 men. To Arsenal’s credit, they haven’t simply fallen back into protective gear ahead of next week’s second leg at the Emirates. Saka was looking to attack Liverpool’s left flank whenever he got the ball while Kieran Tierney was pressing forward as a winger on the opposite flank. But their duties have mostly been, unsurprisingly, limited to shutting down Liverpool’s offensive options.
Minamino came close early in the second half with an erroneous cross pass over Ramsdale and into the far post, although chances remained high. Another 20 minutes passed before Liverpool and Minamino Ramsdale once again disturbed, a Japanese international long shot from a tight angle after firing in Robertson’s superb pass. By the 70th minute, neither team had produced a shot on goal.
The team made an acceptable excuse by erasing the blank after two minutes. Tierney found space on the left to capture Saka’s path into the Liverpool area with an attractive cross pass. The Arsenal winger, who will heighten Arteta’s fears of an apparent hamstring problem, took an embarrassing first touch before trying to lift the second on advancing Alisson. The Liverpool goalkeeper made an important ball from close range, to the apparent desperation of Saka and the Arsenal benches.
But the frustration was the preserve of Liverpool. Klopp made a three-substitution to revive his side and provided Curtis Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to provide a much-needed spark in midfield. The effect was small. Two substitutes combined to form Liverpool’s best opener when Nico Williams found Oxlade-Chamberlain. Lokonga took out his cross from Ramsdale’s hands. The wrong liquidation took down Minamino perfectly in front of an open goal. He had to score. He cut high in a cup instead and Arsenal rejoiced, with every justification, at the delay.