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Home   /   Same old Xhaka, but not same old Arsenal

10-man Arsenal held Liverpool to 0-0 at Anfield as Mikel Arteta commended his sides “brotherhood” in what was a spirited Arsenal defensive display.

The early stages of the game were poised, it seemed to be waiting for a talking point, as this fixture so frequently delivers. It came on the 24-minute mark as Granit Xhaka wiped out Diogo Jota, who was clean through on Aaron Ramsdale’s goal, with a high boot.

Despite their man advantage, Liverpool seemed to be void of any creative spark in the final third, it may have been worryingly clear to Jurgen Klopp where the level of the team is without Sadio Mane and Mohammad Salah, who are at AFCON with their respective nations.

It was in fact Arsenal who had the first big chance of the game, as Bukayo Saka went clean through in the 70th minute to register the games first shot on target. It was a big moment in the game, even after the red card Arsenal looked threatening on the counter and resolute at the back. Saka’s poor touch to allow Allison time to close the angle would’ve been agonising for Arteta and the Arsenal bench to watch, as they knew it wouldn’t have come undeserved.

The hosts’ best chance of the game came from Takumi Minamino who found himself with an open goal after Ramsdale misjudged a cross, the Japanese somehow blazed the ball over the bar with the whole goal to aim at.

It was in the final moments of the game where Liverpool only really showed their man advantage, Neco Williams who was substituted on for an out of sorts Trent Alexander Arnold hit a low shot towards goal which Ben White cleared off the line. White showed the £50 million which Arsenal paid for him was worth every penny worth on the night, his man of the match was thoroughly deserved. He and the Arsenal defence are the first team to stop Liverpool scoring at Anfield for the first time this season, even without the notable Gabriel Maghales, who missed out through suspension.

It was a puzzling performance from the home side, they seemed to struggle to find space in the wide areas as they usually do so well. The two ever present full backs didn’t manage to cause too much trouble for an Arsenal defence who so usually crumble in adversity at Anfield. Even after going down to 10 men, Gabriel Martinelli managed to keep Alexander Arnold busy defensively, effectively nullifying his attacking prowess. Roberto Firmino, who boasts an impressive goal scoring record against Arsenal was kept quiet, as was Jota, who scored in this fixture in November when Liverpool put four past Arsenal. The central areas seemed starved of any imagination for Liverpool, it was in fact Joel Matip who caused the only issues for the Arsenal defence with a few marauding runs from defence.

Despite the humbling loss they received back in November, Arsenal’s sound display shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, they’ve had plenty of experiences of playing a game with 10 men under Arteta. Since his appointment in 2019, Arsenal have received 13 red cards, 5 more than any other team in the Premier League. The most recent installment at Anfield will go down as one of the more positive experiences of the 13, but Arteta’s side have shown in the past they do have a bit of nous when down to 10. They held Chelsea to a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge in January of 2020, coming from a goal down on two occasions with 10 men after David Luiz was dismissed early in the first half.  

It was Xhaka’s fifth yellow card in an Arsenal shirt, no player in the Premier League has been sent off more times than he has in all competitions since his debut in 2016. It may be the fastest he’s received, in terms of time of the challenge to actual dismissal goes, Michael Oliver had zero hesitation before pulling out the red card.

Arsenal will go into the second leg at The Emirates on the 20th of January with optimism, especially with the likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard and Takehiro Tomiyasu all expected to return. Xhaka will serve a three-match suspension, seeing him miss the North London Derby on the 16th, as well as the second leg and Burnley in the Premier League, leaving Arsenal rather short in midfield positions. Thomas Partey is representing Ghana at the AFCON, Ainsely Maitland-Niles has recently been loaned to Roma, leaving Albert Sambi Lokonga as the only senior midfielder seemingly available for Arsenal. It leaves Arteta with a few options, one of which could see Ben White go into central midfield, where he was an ever present for Leeds in their promotion to the Premier League. Calum Chambers has also played in central midfield, most notably for Fulham where he won their player of the season whilst playing there. 18 year old Charlie Patino is of course an option as well.

It was in fact Liverpool who were originally meant to have the second leg home advantage, but for a COVID outbreak at the club which saw them being forced to postpone. It did come out closer to kick off that a lot of the supposed COVID cases were false positives, something which the EFL have chosen not to investigate further.

Liverpool will still be without Mane, Salah and Naby Keita for the second leg as they are with their respective nations at the AFCON, while it’s not expected for Divock Origi or Thiago Alcantara will return from injury for the game.

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