Arsenal regrouped at half time and improved. However, Mo Salah scored his now customary goal and it appeared Liverpool were on their way to three important points in the race for a place in the top four.
But then chaos ensued. The Gunners pulled a goal back via Alexis Sánchez and instantly grabbed an equaliser through Granit Xhaka. Less than 120 seconds later, Arsenal had gone in front as Mesut Özil finished off an intricate passing move.
Could the hosts shut up shop, sit back and soak up pressure? Not a chance, although perhaps they should’ve. Liverpool fought back and a tactical tweak from Jürgen Klopp paid off as Roberto Firmino found room on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area to fire home.
Both sides had chances to win the game in the closing stages, neither could take them. A pulsating game ended level, which was fair.
It was one of the matches of the Premier League season so far, and there are the six things we learned from the contest.
A Christmas Cracker To Start the Festive Period
There is nothing quite like the Christmas period in the Premier League.
The games come thick and fast with the entertainment on offer unique. And if the clash at the Emirates is a sign of things to come, then the next week should be very special.
There was no desire from either side, perhaps wrongly, to sit back and settle for their lot. When they led 2-0, Liverpool continued to pile forward. After turning the contest around, Arsenal did the same and subsequently conceded an equaliser.
Was it because neither side are defensively solid? Perhaps. But this kind of blood and thunder game is what the Premier League has built its reputation on. So it was fitting that such a match kicked off the most exciting time of the year.
Maitland-Niles Struggles Against Salah
There was a lot of discussion in the build-up to the game about Arsenal’s left-back position.
Sead Kolašinac occupied the the role in the mid-week Carabao Cup win over West Ham United and impressed. However, when it comes to Premier League duty the position has belonged to Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a natural attacking midfielder, in recent weeks.
The Arsenal Academy graduate has performed well in the role but many questioned as to whether Wenger would put him up against the Premier League’s top scorer, Salah.
The Frenchman chose to do so, trusting the 20-year-old against the raw pace of the Egyptian. Wenger may have felt the right-footed Maitland-Niles could track Salah far easier than Kolašinac when the Liverpool winger drifted in-field.
Certainly in the opening exchanges, the Arsenal No.30 was able to shackle Salah. When the Liverpool winger cut inside onto this left foot, Maitland-Niles was able to make a challenge and intercept the ball.
But Liverpool have an attack capable of punishing any mistake, and Maitland-Niles made a big one in the 25th minute. He ball-watched and a long pass behind the Arsenal defence allowed Salah to isolate Laurent Koscileny and his pass was headed home by Coutinho.
From that moment on, Maitland-Niles looked vulnerable. He was caught out of position when crosses from Andrew Robertson came into the penalty area and he struggled to deal with the movement of Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’.
The game will be a learning experience for the youngster who, to his credit, improved in the latter stages of the second period as the visitors pushed forward.
Neither side have a goalkeeper that inspires confidence
Ok, so this isn’t exactly something we learned in this game alone, but yet again the fact both Liverpool and Arsenal haven’t invested in a top quality goalkeeper in the last 18 months proved costly.
Simon Mignolet is, and is likely to always be, an inconsistent goalkeeper. He will have patches of good form and spells of bad. And he will make mistakes, as proven by his poor attempt to keep out Xhaka’s powerful drive.
Petr Čech, though, was once the Premier League’s best goalkeeper. During his time at Chelsea, he made game-winning saves on a regular basis and was part of a defence that, in the 2004/05 season, conceded just 15 goals in an entire Premier League campaign.
But that was a long time ago and the Czech has struggled since moving from Stamford Bridge to the Emirates in 2015. He no long inspires confidence and has become increasing error-prone.
And while he could do little to stop Liverpool’s first two goals, Arsenal fans will be rightly disappointed he didn’t do more to keep out Firmino’s third.
Gunners’ midfield fragility again exposed
Forget the comeback, for a moment. Arsenal were two goals down in this game because of mistakes that have been repeated time and time again.
The former is far more influential with the ball than without it while the latter is just woefully out of form. And while they may have looked capable in the early minutes, it quickly became clear that Arsenal were not set-up to halt the Reds.
Far too often the ball was given away and in those transitions, Wilshere and Xhaka were caught too far upfield. Liverpool were able to launch counter after counter, with many of the attacks coming straight through the middle of the pitch.
Even Coutinho’s goal was a product of Arsenal’s poor midfield. Once Salah had been put in behind Koscielny, there was a foot race between the Liverpool No.10 and the Gunners’ midfield duo. The Brazilian eased home to put the visitors in front with Xhaka and Wilshere.
Arsenal’s weak midfield is not a new problem. For years the Gunners’ centre has been too soft and Wenger hasn’t improved or strengthened it.
Yes, in the second half Wilshere impressed, but it’s because he was constantly going forward. And yes, Xhaka scored, but he still allowed Liverpool attackers to run off him despite Arsenal holding a lead.
The Gunners should’ve shut up shop after going in front, however, they don’t have the players, or system, hat make that possible. Wenger must take the majority of the blame but the players must take more responsibility, too.
Klopp Tactical Tweaks Pay Off
This season Klopp hasn’t been afraid to make surprise decisions. There have been several shock team selections and a number of tactical tweaks. So it didn’t take long for Red supporters to pick up on Coutinho playing in a new role.
In the opening 20 minutes it appeared as though the Brazilian was stationed on the right of a midfield three, but when Liverpool didn’t have the ball it became clear the Reds boss had set his side up in a 4-4-1-1 system with Coutinho playing behind Firmino.
It’s the first occasion Klopp has paired the two together but it certainly paid off in the first half. Coutinho was able to find pace, receive the ball, build countless attacks and ultimately put the visitors in command.
But in the second period, after Liverpool’s spectacular five-minute collapse, Klopp changed things again. He moved Salah into the the middle, put Sadio Mane out wide on the right and dropped Firmino deeper.
The changes paid off, with Firmino scoring to tie the game at 3-3. Salah was then a constant problem for Arsenal’s defence as he ran in behind time and time again and pressed the central defenders.
Mane clearly struggling for confidence
Last season Mane was Liverpool’s biggest threat. His blistering pace coupled with his excellent touch made him the ultimate counter-attacking weapon.
He started this campaign well, too, but since he red card he was given, harshly, against Manchester City in September, Mane has struggled to produce the devastating form he’s capable of.
And at the Emirates, the Senegal international produced one of his poorest displays since he moved to Anfield. Mane’s pace means he’ll always be a threat, but it’s his decision-making with the ball that has suffered in recent weeks.
He appears hesitant and is no longer playing instinctively, instead doubting the initial thought that comes into his mind.
Too often against Arsenal, Mane found himself in dangerous areas but waited too long to play a pass or turned down the wrong avenue and found himself crowded out.
Given the run of fixtures coming up, Mane will have every chance to rediscover his best form.
And, in truth, he remains effective, especailly against weaker opposition.