Liverpool and Arsenal’s breathless stalemate leaves one true winner in title race

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal: Mohamed Salah cancelled out Gabriel Magalhaes’s opener, but Man City, newly-crowned as Club World Cup champions, will welcome this result in the title race

Richard Jolly
At Anfield
Sunday 24 December 2023 00:14 GMT
Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp 'not overly happy' with Anfield atmosphere after 5-1 win over West Ham

Anfield, Mikel Arteta had said, is like a washing machine. The broader problem for Arsenal and Liverpool alike now is the winning machine. The victor seemed not Pep Guardiola’s greatest rival nor his former assistant but Guardiola himself. Jurgen Klopp and Arteta are taking different ways to try and depose the Manchester City manager as champion but, as their sides battered each other to a standstill, the eventual beneficiaries may prove the side who had triumphed in Saudi Arabia a day earlier. No one is accelerating away from the Club World Cup winners in the title race.

A high-speed spin of a game suggested the top two now may take, in some order, the podium places in May. In an evening overflowing with entertainment, Liverpool and Arsenal looked evenly matched in contrasting, compelling ways. Arsenal had the set-piece prowess and the flying start, Liverpool the exquisite equaliser and so nearly the winner to reinforce their reputation as comeback kings.

Their experience of competing with City for titles has taught them how narrow the margins can be. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s match included an extraordinary assist but the abiding image may be of Liverpool streaking clear, Mohamed Salah leading a break of five attackers against two, heavily-outnumbered defenders, releasing the vice-captain and seeing him slam his shot against the bar.

It was a moment to deprive Liverpool of what used to be a habitual result – a home win against Arsenal – and what could have been a seismic one. Instead, they are yet to beat their big-six rivals this season. While they remain unbeaten on home turf, four points have slipped from their grasp over successive weekends.

Yet even as Arsenal procured just a second point in their last eight trips to Anfield, they lost a lead here, just as they had in April. Previous Arsenal teams have capitulated on Merseyside. This one competed. There is more stature to Arteta’s side, more substance. And yet it was not the statement result they needed. They are top at Christmas but still have triumphed at Anfield since Arteta was their midfielder, not their manager.

The Spaniard came with a blueprint and got early evidence it was paying off. But Liverpool’s powers of recovery have propelled their own title challenge. They are the team everyone struggles to kill off. None have more experience of successfully chasing games than Klopp’s relentless runners. This was a 19th point procured from a losing position and one that could have become three. Liverpool ended the stronger.

Arteta’s preference for control was apparent at the start, Arsenal defending deeper, their ability to counterattack enhanced by their early goal. Yet the second half was more end-to-end, Klopp-style wildness. It was proof, perhaps, that it is hard to control this Liverpool team, not least because there is always the chance that Alexander-Arnold, with his sumptuous passing and licence to create, can unlock a defence from anywhere.

There was a breathless feel, the sense every attack could lead to a lightning transition to the other end. Throughout, it was played at pace and with ambition. Six days earlier Virgil van Dijk had accused Manchester United of not trying to win the game. No such accusation could be levelled at Arsenal.

They were ahead at Anfield after eight minutes last season, twice as fast now. Liverpool had already shown a frailty in the air when Gabriel Jesus won a header from a corner. Then Martin Odegaard whipped in a free kick and, as Arsenal pierced Liverpool’s high line, Gabriel Magalhaes headed past Alisson.

Gabriel Magalhaes scores the opener for the Gunners
Gabriel Magalhaes scores the opener for the Gunners (Getty)
Martin Odegaard of Arsenal runs with the ball whilst under pressure from Curtis Jones of Liverpool
Martin Odegaard of Arsenal runs with the ball whilst under pressure from Curtis Jones of Liverpool (Getty)

Klopp had trialled his use of Alexander-Arnold in a hybrid role in Arsenal’s April visit. In the rematch, he got a further reward. Coming infield, more quarterback than full-back, he played an extraordinary, 70-yard pass for Salah to collect, jink infield and rifle a shot past David Raya. A wonderful goal was also avoidable: Oleksandr Zinchenko allowed Salah to skip past him too easily. Tigerish and terrific, Salah was a constant threat.

Arsenal had their own menace. Gabriel Jesus was a resourceful lone frontrunner at times, but got eager assistance on the break. When he supplied a defence-splitting pass, Gabriel Martinelli shot wastefully into the advertising hoardings after Bukayo Saka escaped behind the Liverpool back four.

Each side was reprieved when referee Chris Kavanagh waved away appeals for a penalty: a stumbling Odegaard handled Salah’s flick in the box, while Kai Havertz felt Alexander-Arnold nudged him out of the way.

Mohamed Salah of Liverpool is pulled back by Oleksandr Zinchenko of Arsenal
Mohamed Salah of Liverpool is pulled back by Oleksandr Zinchenko of Arsenal (Getty)
Salah after scoring the equaliser for Liverpool
Salah after scoring the equaliser for Liverpool (AP)

Huge exertions seemed to come at a cost. Liverpool are ever shorter of players. Their manager has complained about the schedule but compounded their injury problems, with Kostas Tsimikas hurting himself in a collision that upended Klopp. Luis Diaz hobbled off in the second half too.

Tsimikas’s replacement, Joe Gomez, curled just wide; he is getting closer in the lengthy quest for a first career goal. Yet the full-back who perhaps should have scored was Alexander-Arnold. He struck the woodwork and there was no separating Liverpool and Arsenal. It may yet position City to speed past them both.

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