Gary Neville pulled no punches on Sky Sports commentary during Liverpool’s convincing 3-0 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday night, labelling the performance put on by the Gunners one reminiscent of the “old Arsenal” and blasting “a real lack of hunger” from the home side.
“A lack of pace, a lack of a plan,” the Manchester United legend added as Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah put Arsenal to the sword.. “But I have to say, when you are carrying too many who don’t want to do the work without the ball, to the extent that four or five didn’t, then [Mikel] Arteta’s game-plan is gone.
“Arteta knows where he needs to go. And he has got confirmation of it tonight.”
It was a dreadful evening for Arsenal and their manager Arteta admitted post-match: “We completely deserved to lose the game. Liverpool were better in every department. Unacceptable from our side, the way we played today.
“It’s my fault. The team have to perform in a different way. The standard has to be much higher for this football club. It’s my job to get them to perform at that level.
“There were too many simple things not done right. The basics weren’t there today.”
And the Arsenal manager will have learned plenty from a sterile 90 minutes. He refused to use his long list of absentees as an excuse although Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, David Luiz and Granit Xhaka were all missing for the north Londoners.
It got even worse for the Spanish coach when Scottish left-back Kieran Tierney was forced off with yet another fitness problem shortly before half-time.
As well as underlining how far Arsenal still are behind the teams chasing Champions League qualification, the performance and result showed how vital Smith Rowe, Saka and Tierney will be to the Gunners in the long term.
And in the short term, it also served to prove that Luiz and Xhaka’s influence is incredibly difficult to replace, for all their critics.
This was as meek an Arsenal performance as there has been all season and it was a surprise that they kept the dominant visitors out for an hour. After the first went in, the home team fell apart.
One shot from Cedric Soares in the second half, well caught, was all Liverpool’s goalkeeper Alisson had to do all match and even before Tierney went off, they offered very little in attack.
Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all barely featured, despite Jurgen Klopp’s pre-match claim to Sky Sports: “We have to be ready to defend them.”
Without the youthful effervescence of Smith Rowe and Saka and the energy and impetus they inject into the Arsenal attack, added to the thrust from out wide that full-back Tierney provides, Arsenal were utterly toothless.
And they were rudderless defensively too without the security offered to them on the ball by Xhaka and Luiz, and the leadership qualities they bring that cannot be defined by statistics.
“We gave every ball away, we could not put three passes together,” was Arteta’s apt full-time assessment. Xhaka and Luiz are far from perfect and their Emirates careers dictate that they are two of the most error-prone individuals in the Gunners’ squad.
But contrary to what some may say, they do offer plenty of quality and offer a greater steeliness than shown against Liverpool when they were missing. Xhaka and Thomas Partey is a significantly superior partnership to Partey and Dani Ceballos, who was dire against the Reds.
Defensively, Gabriel Magalhaes and Rob Holding struggled and both failed to offer the influence in possession that Luiz can, also failing to supply the presence off of the ball that the Brazilian – when at his best – gives.
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Worryingly for Arsenal, Arteta admitted in his post-match press conference that he does not know if Smith Rowe, Saka, Luiz or Xhaka will be back for Thursday, when they take on Slavia Prague in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final clash.
But beyond that, and heading into next season, it is clear Arsenal must sign Luiz up to another one-year contract extension and find a better way to cope when he and Xhaka are missing.
Smith Rowe and Saka’s impact on the side, given they are only 20 and 19 respectively, was also hammered home by their absence against Liverpool.
And clearly they will be integral to Arteta’s plans for the campaigns to come as Arsenal look to lift themselves back into the Champions League after a long absence.
It will be a mighty task to even get near the top four in 12 months’ time but with the right recruitment, and by utilising the on-pitch quality and leadership that the quintet of Smith Rowe, Saka, Tierney, Luiz and Xhaka bring, Arsenal can ensure there are fewer nights like this. They have to.